Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raison in the Sun is about an African American family struggling to exist in a society that discriminates against them solely on the basis of the color of their skin.
Hansberry’s main protagonist, Walter Younger, aspires to a better life, hoping to use insurance money from his late father to open a liquor store, a dream at odds with that of his mother, Lena, who hopes to use the money to move the family out of the tenement slums to which they have seemingly been condemned and into a nicer—and, invariably, whiter—neighborhood. Walter’s sister, Beneatha, is a college student with aspirations of a profession in which she can take pride and build a better life for her family. The Younger family reside, together with Walter and Ruth, Walter’s wife, and their son, in a cramped apartment. The emotional, social, and financial burdens associated with being Black in a white-dominated society weights heavily upon this family. Walter’s job as a chauffeur is highly symbolic of the white-dominated culture in which Black people are subservient to white people. His dream of opening his own business will allow him the independence and self-respect to which he aspires.
Hansberry’s play is fraught with the notion of relentless, seemingly endless subservience to a white-dominated society. An important exchange occurs between the highly educated Beneatha and a Nigerian who hopes to marry her regarding Black aspirations and the concept of Black nationalism, an exchange that reflects Beneatha’s hopelessness. It is Walter who refuses to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the family cannot improve its lot in life despite the prevalence of racism that seems determined to blunt the family’s dreams. This is where Walter’s exchange with Karl Lindner comes into play. Linder is the white representative of an apparently impromptu home-owners’ association that has been formed principally for the purpose of keeping Black people out of their community. Linder has come to the Younger home to bribe the African American family to reconsider its plans to move into Lindner’s neighborhood. Lindner’s business proposition is a direct affront to the Younger family and represents the final straw in Walter’s willingness to abide the societal constraints under which he and his family have been living. The following exchange reflects Walter’s pent-up frustrations and the meek, ineffectual Lindner can only listen:
WALTER (A beat; staring at him) And my father—(With sudden intensity) My father almost beat a man to death once because this man called him a bad name or something, you know what I mean?
LINDNER (Looking up, frozen) No, no, I’m afraid I don’t—
WALTER (A beat. The tension hangs; then WALTER steps back from it) Yeah. Well—what I mean is that we come from people who had a lot of pride. I mean—we are very proud people. And that’s my sister over there and she’s going to be a doctor—and we are very proud—
LINDNER Well—I am sure that is very nice, but—
WALTER What I am telling you is that we called you over here to tell you that we are very proud and that this— (Signaling to TRAVIS) Travis, come here. (TRAVIS crosses and WALTER draws him before him facing the man) This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation our family in this country. And we have all thought about your offer—
LINDNER Well, good … good—
WALTER And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. (MAMA has her eyes closed and is rocking back and forth as though she were in church, with her head nodding the Amen yes) We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. (He looks the man absolutely in the eyes) We don’t want your money. (He turns and walks away)
As A Raison in the Sun ends, Beneatha announces that her future may lie in Africa, practicing medicine and married to her Nigerian suitor. The domestic tensions that have permeated the atmosphere throughout the play, and throughout the characters’ assembled lives, have given way to good-natured and optimistic arguments that represent a rejection of Beneatha’s earlier cynicism. Self-respect and dignity will henceforth define the Younger family’s individual and collective temperaments.