A Raisin in the Sun Essays and Criticism
by Lorraine Hansberry

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Race and Gender in A Raisin in the Sun

(Drama for Students)

In many ways, A Raisin in the Sun seems to forecast events that would transpire during the decade following its initial production and beyond. The play raises issues of racial interaction and justice, as well as gender roles, class, and the nature of the American dream. It situates these questions, however, within the context of individual choice and individual heroism. Each of the characters in this play attempts to achieve a meaningful life within a struggle against cultural impediments, and an analysis of the characters' responses to racism will reveal the nature of their heroic qualities.

When the play opens, the Younger family has no clear leader. Its power structure is complicated, especially in terms of American norms. Because the American nuclear family was unabashedly patriarchal in the 1950's, Walter would seem to be the head of the household. Yet although he might (or might not) make the most money, he is not the family's breadwinner in the traditional sense, since Ruth and occasionally Mama also work. At this point in history, most married women—especially most white married women—did not work outside the home. Although these norms varied by race, white norms were so culturally dominant that they were aspired to even by members of other races. Despite his positions as husband and father, Walter continues to live because of economic necessity in his mother's house. And even Travis knows that he can make extra money by delivering groceries, an activity his mother forbids because of his age. Regardless of the details, though, Walter obviously cannot support this family alone.

It is Mama who has the money, though only because of an imminent insurance payment due her because of her husband's death. Although the other characters agree that this check is rightfully Mama's, they also each speculate about how it should be used. They also, though, claim an implicit right to it, since as Walter says, "He was my father, too." Yet this check will ironically be the catalyst for a shift in the family's leadership responsibilities, from Mama to Walter. As Mama says, Walter will "come into his manhood" when he begins to make decisions for the family at the end of the play. This phrase is telling, however; Walter cannot achieve adulthood without achieving "manhood" with its gendered implications. Walter cannot be a man, in other words, unless he is making decisions for women. His success at the end of the play, therefore, depends on a sexism that is simply more explicit when it is presented by Joseph Asagai.

Asagai is a Nigerian man studying in the United States. Although he discusses ideas with Beneatha, whom he begins to date, he also argues that "between a man and a woman there need be only one kind of feeling.... For a woman that should be enough." Implicitly, for a man that feeling exists but need not be enough. Even if Beneatha can escape the subjugation of American racism through a return to Africa, in other words, that return itself implies a subjugation to male authority.

Yet Beneatha is herself ambivalent regarding her own dreams. Speaking with Asagai, she describes a childhood incident in which a friend, Rufus, was seriously hurt: "I remember standing there looking at his bloody open face thinking that was the end of Rufus. But the ambulance came and they took him to the hospital and they fixed the broken bones and they sewed it all up." Beneatha is so amazed at this ability—and at the hope it offers—that she aspires to perform medical wonders herself. "I always thought it was the one concrete thing in the world that a human being could do," she says. "Fix up the sick, you know—and make them whole again. That was truly being God." Asagai critiques this last statement: "You wanted to be God?" But Beneatha clarifies her point: "No—I wanted to cure." Asagai on the other hand claims to live the dreams of the future. Relying on the most romantic of cliches, Asagai urges Beneatha to return to Africa with him: "three hundred years...

(The entire section is 4,860 words.)