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A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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What is the connection between Langston Hughes's "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" and the central theme of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun?

Both Langston Hughes's "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" and Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun explore the effects on Black people of being excluded from the American Dream. The works directly connect in that Hansberry took her title from Hughes's poem.

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The connection between Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" and the play (Lorraine Hansberry derived the title of her play A Raisin in the Sun from the poem) is that both revolve around the difficulty, in many cases the near impossibility, for African Americans to achieve what is...

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euphemistically called the “American Dream.”

This difficulty becomes apparent when members of the Younger family strive to realize their dreams but face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and constraints are central themes of the play. Mama's dream is to own a home. This dream has been unobtainable because she has never been able to save enough money to make a down payment. The lack of funds is also the stumbling block for other Youngers. For instance, Beneatha would like to become a doctor but does not have the money to pay for medical school. Walter would like to be a small business owner but does not have the funds to purchase or launch a business. Walter’s frustration about his slim chances of ever realizing his dream affects his relationship with each of his family members, creating tension between Walter and his wife.

Another central theme of both the play and the poem is that the other community, whose members seemingly obtain their dreams with greater ease, appears to be so close in physical proximity and yet is so far away in reality. In the poem, Harlem, where people are downtrodden and live in an impoverished oppression that makes them lose hope of ever realizing their dreams, is but steps away from the rarefied ivory tower world of Columbia University, where the poet matriculates. He resides in both worlds and sees first-hand the obstacles of transcending from one to the other. Similarly, for the Youngers, who live in urban Chicago, despite the physical proximity of the suburban oasis where the home of Mama’s dream is located, there are nearly impenetrable obstacles for them to get there in reality. Nevertheless, they ultimately overcome these obstacles and hold on to the dream to escape the impoverished community where dreams almost never come true.

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Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun takes it name from Langston Hughes's poem “Harlem.” The two works also revolve around the same theme.

In “Harlem,” Hughes asks a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” He then provides various possible answers that are also in the form of questions. Perhaps the dream dries up, he suggests, or festers or stinks or becomes sweeter or sags. Perhaps, he concludes, it explodes. Readers are left with the impression that any or all of these are conceivable based on the situation in which the dream is deferred.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry builds her story around dreams deferred. Mama has long had a dream of buying a house in a better neighborhood, a house where she and her daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson can have a good, peaceful life together. Her dream becomes, perhaps, sweeter over time, but at times it must feel like a heavy load. Finally, when Mama's dream is about to come true (thanks to the insurance money she receives after her husband's death), it hits another snag. The white neighbors in their potential new neighborhood do not want a black family in their midst. Mama, however, holds onto her dream, and by the end of the play, the family is getting ready to move.

Walter also has a dream. He wants to own his own liquor store. His dream, however, festers and starts to stink, for his frustration boils over into a drinking problem. It finally dries up like the raisin in the sun when he loses the money Mama gives him (and the money she earmarks for his sister) to a dishonest “partner.”

Beneatha, too, has a dream. She is in medical school, studying to be a doctor. But throughout the play, she is questioning her dream, wondering if it is really right for her. She is sagging beneath its load, trying to figure out what she wants from life.

A Raisin in the Sun, then, provides a narrative illustration of the deferred dreams Langston Hughes presents in his poem “Harlem.”

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Hansberry borrows the image of a raisin dried in the sun from Hughes's poem "Harlem" as the title of her play to highlight a central theme both works share. Both Hughes's poem and Hansberry's play focus on the pent-up need for Black Americans in the mid-twentieth century to participate in the American Dream. Both writers realizes that, for Black people, having the dreams of equality and prosperity deferred has had a warping and destructive effect on the Black soul.

Hughes's poem offers a series of images to express the corroding effects of being held down and thwarted on Black people. He compares it to a dried a raisin, to rotting meat, and to something that has gone bad and is overly sweet. In each case, waiting too long to have something spoils it.

Hansberry's play examines what happens to a Black family when the father dies and they get the sudden windfall of $10,000, a huge amount of money (worth about $100,000 at the time) for a Black family that is used to doing without such wealth. Some of the corrosive effect of dreams deferred can be seen through Walter, a adult male with a wife and son. Walter so terribly wants to participate in the American Dream of success and be looked up and respected that he allows himself to be cheated of his money and Beneatha's in a business deal. On the other hand, Mrs. Young knows how important it is that the family have the psychological boost and hope that will come from having a nice house in a white suburb and sees that dream through, ultimately with Walter's support.

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Both Langston Hughes’ "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" and Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun"  focus on the effect of racism on African-Americans. In both cases, the focus of the authors is not merely to document incidents of racism and show its practical effects, although many details of the economic effects of racism surface in both works, but also to analyse the psychological effect of racism on its victims. The specific theme is dreams and ambitions, and the way that living in a racist society prevents subalterns from having the opportunities to pursue their dreams freely and succeed at them.

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