Lorraine Hansberry's celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun is set in the South Side of Chicago during the 1950s, which was a time when African Americans suffered from racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction. Hansberry's play illustrates the struggles many black families experienced in America during the 1950s and explores the deferred dreams of black citizens, who were unable to attain their goals and aspirations due to significant racial bias and prejudiced obstacles. The title of her play also alludes to Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem," which explores how African Americans cope with their deferred dreams in a prejudiced society.
Racial discrimination and oppression play a significant role in the lives of Lena, Walter Jr., and Beneatha. The main characters live in poverty and struggle to attain their seemingly rational goals due to racial prejudice. For example, Walter Jr. is forced to work as a lowly chauffeur because he is a black man, who is economically disadvantaged. He lacks opportunity because he is black and desperately desires to live up to his potential. Lena also suffers from racial discrimination when Karl Lindner arrives as a representative of the Clybourne Park neighborhood in hopes of buying her home. Lindner represents the racist white community, which seeks to prevent African Americans from buying homes in their neighborhood.
In addition to the prejudice social and economic obstacles preventing the members of the Younger family from attaining their dreams, Hansberry also explores identity issues regarding the different ways characters perceive their African heritage. Beneatha and Joseph Asagai embrace their traditional African heritage while characters like George Murchison and Walter embrace American culture. Overall, Hansberry's classic play explores the various ways racial discrimination affects the main characters and examines the identity issues that many African Americans experience in the United States.
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.
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.