How is the theme of assimilation treated in "A Raisin in the Sun"?
One aspect of this play is the way in which Hansberry explores the various responses and attitudes amongst the black community to their situation at the time and in particular their identity. The most important character in this regard is Beneatha, who is the author's main focus when it comes to assimilation. It is she who, through the two men in her life (who both represent opposite extremes in the assimilation debate), explores the various options open to blacks at the time. Asagai is the character who obviously represents rejecting assimilation and returning to embrace original African identity, whereas George to all intents and purposes does all he can to live a white man's life in a white man's world.
One useful way of exploring the theme of assimilation is to focus on the symble of Beneatha's hair. Whilst she is courting George, she wears it in the "white" fashion, straightening it so it looks like a "normal" hairstyle. Asagai encourages her to wear it naturally, as he says that it is wrong to "mutilate" her hair. When Beneatha wears her hair like this to go out on a date with George, he is appalled and ashamed, and refuses to take her like that. Note the following quote which refers to his feelings about her African heritage:
Let's face it baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts!
Asagai and George therefore represent opposite extremes of the assimilation debate, and it is clear that Beneatha chooses to reject assimilation through the decline in her relationship with George. Assimilation is therefore a theme that is presented primarily through characters and the choices that they make in this particular context.
Hansberry examines the theme of assimilation primarily through the characters of Beneatha and Joseph Asagai. Beneatha is a forward-thinking young woman, who struggles to find her identity as a black woman in America. Joseph Asagai is an African student, who is completely against assimilation and influences Beneatha to connect with her African heritage. When Asagai first arrives at the Younger's apartment, he gives Beneatha a gift of traditional Nigerian robes and criticizes her for the way she "mutilates" her hair. Beneatha takes offense to Asagai's criticism and boldly denies that she is an "assimilationist." She is attracted to Asagai's enchanting description of African culture and listens as he encourages her to move back to Africa with him.
Later on, Beneatha dresses in the traditional Nigerian robes and wears her hair naturally, which disturbs George Murchison, who embodies assimilation and the Western civilization view of success. Walter Jr. also criticizes Beneatha for her traditional African attire and believes that she is acting ridiculous for attempting to get in touch with her African heritage. Both George and Walter Jr. are more attracted to American culture and are perfectly fine with dismissing their African heritage. In contrast, Joseph Asagai is portrayed in a more favorable light and is depicted as an intelligent, pure individual with good intentions, who is not swayed by the Western civilization view of success. Through Beneatha's struggle to connect with her heritage while simultaneously attain success in America, Hansberry explores the theme of assimilation.