What sort of statement does Hansberry make about race? does she make more than one? if so do they conflict?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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  • Prevalent views of race in mid-century America are a hindrance to the personal maturity and, more specifically, to the attainment of dignity. This problem can be overcome on an individual level. 
  • Race as an issue of economic, professional and social discrimination stands as an object that a single family cannot conquer. As a political question, race is shown to be an entrenched and complex category of problems that cannot be overcome individually.

To simplify the themes of Hansberry's play down to a single concept, we might say that A Raisin in the Sun is centrally concerned with dignity. Secondarily, the play takes up issues of economy, social strife and practical hurdles to upward mobility. Each and all of these ideas are connected to race. The question then becomes what statement on race is made in Hansberry's considerations of the struggle for dignity in a mid-century African American family? And is that statement on race continued, complicated or challenged in the secondary concerns of the play? 

The various characters in the play offer different modes of identity (and identification) and these ways of seeing oneself are directly related to the notion of dignity. 

Consider the character of Walter. He feels that he is not allowed access to true dignity because of his job. He is a chauffeur and so works to serve other people. (He also resents the fact that his wife has to serve others by doing their cleaning.)

They are limited to their poorly maintained apartment in part because they have low-paying jobs but also because absentee landlords often do not maintain their property (eNotes).

This state of affairs is brought about by limitations generated by race issues, although the manifestation of the race issues is the central issue for Walter. Professional identity is his problem, but it is one that is substantially informed by racial identity. 

Beneatha is conscious of the expectations placed on her because of her racial identity as well. She combats those expectations constantly. Her desire to be a doctor and her embrace of Pan-Africanism each are a means of challenging the lack of dignity she feels she is provided within an American context that subordinates African Americans to menial positions of little or no status. 

She demands status and seeks it out and will not be satisfied without it. Walter's desire to own a business of his own demonstrates a very similar desire to attain dignity through status. 

The characters of Ruth and Mama take a different approach to dignity, however. Mama explicitly claims that outward markers of status are unnecessary for the achievement of dignity. She implies that dignity cannot be given or taken or conferred. Dignity, rather, is a natural result of taking pride in one's being and in one's family. The source or locus of dignity for Mama is the family identity, which can embrace racial identity without alteration, without reference to Africa, and without a fundamental shift in social realities. 

Where race is a problem (in the attainment of dignity) for Beneatha and for Walter, it is not for their mother. The resulting statement on race becomes one of affirmation, especially after Beneatha and Walter adopt their mother's specific pride. 

Swindled of his money and unable to change his professional position, Walter nonetheless attains the dignity he sought by standing behind his family and refusing Lindner's offer of a buy-out. Beneatha does not become a doctor or choose to go to Africa before she, like Walter, finds pride and meaning in her current identity (as opposed to any future identity). 

This achievement is given voice during the scene when Lindner is rejected.

Walter: Well, what I mean is that we come from people who had a lot of pride. I mean - we are very proud people. 

For Walter, this statement is tantamount to a revelation. He comes to understand and to own his own pride almost as he speaks these words. Beneatha rallies behind him as well. 

The outward limitations on profession, mobility and expectations that are the results of racial bias are not undone by the achievement of dignity in the Younger family. The fact remains that the neighborhood the family is set to move into will be prejudiced against them. This fact cannot be more clear. 

Also, the frustrating lack of status and limitations on income are only overcome, temporarily, through a life insurance pay-out. The social reality faced by the Younger family remains fully intact. Walter will still have to drive people around. Ruth will have to do other people's cleaning. Beneatha will still have to struggle against gender and race expectations in order to achieve a status acceptable to her. 

Race, as an outward, social issue, represents a problem that the family cannot solve on its own. 

Thus race, as a personal issue, can be dealt with effectively. Race, as an impersonal social issue, remains a source of conflict.

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