What role does race play in A Raisin in the Sun?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Race plays a crucial role in the play whose title, A Raisin in the Sun, alludes to the "a dream deferred" mentioned in Langston Hughes's poem entitled "Harlem."

Symbolic of Lena's deferred dream of owning a home is the lonely plant that sits in the kitchen window, the sole source of natural light in the apartment. Whenever she can, Mama sets the plant outside the window so it can receive more light. Keeping it alive means a great deal to Mama because she and her husband wanted a house with a garden in which they could plant whatever they wished. However, they never had enough money to buy a home. Now, the plant reminds her of her youthful wishes and their poverty. She hopes to have this dream of a home realized after the life insurance check for her deceased husband arrives.

Walter's dreams have also been deferred because of his race. He must work, as many African Americans do in the time period, in a service job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man. Walter's wife, Ruth, takes care of the Younger home, but she also works as a domestic, doing housework for white people. Beneatha hopes to break the pattern of subservience by becoming a physician, but her dream places a financial burden upon the family.

This economic factor of race lies beneath the conflicts of the characters in the early part of the play, as the Youngers are trapped in the lower class. Later in the drama, the social problems connected with race are manifested as the Younger family purchases a new home away from the inner city. Soon after this purchase, Mr. Karl Lindner, a representative for the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, contacts the Youngers to suggest that it would be better if they do not move into Clybourne Park. He even offers to buy back the house in order to prevent their moving into this neighborhood. This time no dream is "deferred" to only dry up like "a raisin in the sun" because Walter speaks as the man of the family and refuses the offer from Mr. Lindner.

The Youngers depart the worn apartment, but not before Lena Younger looks around at her dilapidated furnishings and the home that she has known for so many years. She stifles a cry and departs but soon hurries back to grab her lonely plant that will now have plenty of sunshine.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Race plays an important role in Hansberry's play. Coupled with class issues, race functions as a delineating cultural force and an important element in the construction of the Youngers' identity (as individuals and as a family). Race determines the Younger family's social status to a large degree, which leads rather directly to the class and poverty issues in the play.

Two specific issues related to race stand out most clearly from the play: Beneatha's indentity conflict and the Younger's purchase of a house in a "white" neighborhood. 

For Beneatha, race is part of a whole matrix of issues that trouble her regarding identity. Africa, pan-Africanism, class, gender and profession also each fit into Beneatha's struggle to create an identity that will provide her with a dignified and positive self-image. Race, for Beneatha, is larger than these other issues and is inclusive of them.

When Mama buys a house in a neighborhood where people of color do not currently live, a man comes to visit the Youngers to ask them not to move in.

The most significant scene which openly portrays racism, however, is the visit with Karl Lindner. Although he does not identify himself as racist, and although his tactics are less violent than some, he wants to live in an all-white neighborhood...

Race and racism are central to this request and are also central in motivating the subsequent discussion and decisions of the Younger family. The arbirtrary attitudes on race and the limits that those biases create are entwined with the interpersonal conflicts that the family faces and, ultimately, overcomes.