Race and Gender in A Raisin in the Sun

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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.

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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 later the African Prince rose up out of the seas and swept the maiden back across the middle passage over which her ancestors had come.'' Beneatha's last lines in the play occur when she is telling Mama of this proposal, though she seems to misunderstand Asagai's implications. "To go to Africa, Mama—be a doctor in Africa," she says. She apparently doesn't realize that Asagai's understanding of her as an African princess is inconsistent with her vision of herself as an African doctor; he wishes her to be a subservient wife to him according to male-dominated social mores.

A major distinction, however, between Asagai's interpretation of gender roles and Mama's turning the leadership of the family over to Walter is the place of dignity in each decision. Asagai's statement that "for a woman it should be enough" to have a husband will have the effect of limiting Beneatha's dignity, of precluding her from completely realizing her dreams. Mama's manipulation of circumstances so that Walter can "come into his manhood" has the effect of increasing his dignity and providing a venue for him to realize his dreams.

For to the extent that the play reveals the effects of racism, it considers racism specifically within the context of a particular family's dreams. Mama makes her decisions, in other words, based on her love for her family rather than primarily on an ideological opposition to segregation. "I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family," she says to Walter when he objects to her choice. "Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses." And it is eventually the family members' ability to live by their own decisions rather than to simply react to the decisions of others which affords them their greatest dignity. When Walter appears entirely to give up, Beneatha says of him,"That is not a man. That is nothing but a toothless rat," recalling the rat Travis had chased in the alley with his friends. "There is nothing left to love" in him, she tells her mother. But Mama disagrees: "There is always something left to love."

The audience will recall that Mama cares for all living things, even those that do not seem to thrive. Characters in 20th-Century Literature described Mama as a "commanding presence who seems to radiate moral strength and dignity." According to Hugh Short in an article published in the Critical Survey of Drama, "the theme of heroism found in an unlikely place is perhaps best conveyed through the symbol of Lena's plant. Throughout the play, Lena has tended a small, sickly plant that clings tenaciously to life despite the lack of sunlight in the apartment. Its environment is harsh, unfavorable, yet it clings to life anyway—somewhat like Walter, whose life should long ago have extinguished any trace of heroism in him."

Walter finally realizes that "There is always something left to love," even in himself, when he remembers his own father's pride. He declines Lindner's offer because "my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don't want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors." Walter realizes that just as his dreams cannot be realized for him by others, neither can they be destroyed for him by others. He rises into renewed dignity not simply because he has access to some money but because he has a renewed sense of himself. According to Qun Wang in Reference Guide to American Literature, "even though Lena represents the family's link to the past and tradition, she is very supportive of her children's choices for the future." Throughout the play, Mama has been trying to lead Walter into the realization of his own dignity, and it is finally through her forgiveness and trust that he achieves it.

Earlier, Mama had assumed certain things about her children's pride because of the example she and her husband had set. Although she had recognized that ''Something eating you [Walter] up like a crazy man," it is only when Walter passively agrees with Ruth's decision regarding the abortion, however, that Mama, in her shock, begins to realize how desperate he feels. He is not like his father after all: "I'm waiting to hear how you be your father's son. Be the man he was ... I'm waiting to hear you talk like him and say we a people who give children life, not who destroys them." When Walter fails to respond, Mama is indignant: "you are a disgrace to your father's memory." She considers him a disgrace not only because he won't argue against Ruth's proposed abortion, but because his motive seems to be financial; he has become obsessed with money rather than remembering the values she and his father sought to teach him. Here, Mama begins to realize that she must actively intervene if Walter is to find the inner resources to honor his father's memory. In relinquishing her role as matriarch, she therefore actively participates in the renewal of Walter's hope.

It is in this sense that the characters are heroic. In choosing life, they defy their struggle. In defying their struggle, they refuse the possibility of defeat.

Source: L. M. Domina, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Domina is a poet and author who also teaches at Hofstra University.

Thoughts on A Raisin in the Sun

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On the day that the New York Drama Critics' Award was announced, a student stopped me as I walked across the campus—where I pass as an expert on the theater—and asked a sensible question. Had A Raisin in the Sun won because it was the best play of the year, or because its author, Lorraine Hansberry, is a Negro? Even if the play is a good one (and, with reservations, I think it is), even if it were indisputably the best of the year, the climate of award-giving would make impossible its consideration on merit alone. Whenever an award goes to a playwright who is not a veteran of Broadway or to a play which is in some way unusual, the special case is almost certainly as important a factor in the voting as the play itself. The only contender this year that might have been chosen on its own merits (of which I think it has very few) was Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. Had J. B. got the award—and the smart money assumed it would and assumed, correctly, that it would also get the Pulitzer— special consideration would have derived from the image of Archibald MacLeish as the poet invading Broadway, and from the critical piety that longs for verse on the commercial stage. Had A Touch of the Poet got the award, respect for O'Neill as America's greatest playwright and the suspicion (unfounded) that this is very likely the last full-length play to be unearthed from the O'Neill papers and put on stage would have received ballots along with the play itself. It is, then, only sensible to assume that Lorraine Hansberry's being a Negro, and the first Negro woman to have a play on Broadway, had its influence on the voting critics.

Even if the balloting had been purely aesthetic, the award to Lorraine Hansberry would have been greeted as the achievement of a Negro—hailed in some places as an honor to American Negroes, dismissed in others as a well-meaning gesture from the Critics' Circle. Such reactions are inevitable at this time. Any prominent Negro—Marion Anderson or Jackie Robinson or Ralph Bunche—becomes a special hero to the Negro community an example of what a Negro can be and do in the United States; such figures are heroes, also, to white Americans who feel a sense of guilt about what the average American Negro cannot be and do. Lists are still compiled, I suppose, of prominent American Jews or famous Americans of Italian or German or Irish origin, but they are no longer urgently needed, by in-group or out, as are the lists of the successful American Negroes. So long as the Negro remains an incompletely integrated part of American society (equal but separate, in the non-legal meaning of the phrase), the achievements of singer, baseball player, or diplomat may be admired as such, but his race will not be ignored—by Negro or white.

The Negro artist and intellectual is particularly marked by this situation. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, for example, admirable writers both, are Negro writers in a way that Saul Bellow and Herbert Gold are not Jewish writers. A critic may note, as Richard Chase did recently in Commentary, that in Henderson the Rain King for the first time Saul Bellow does not use Jewish characters, but this is not the kind of operation that followed Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, by which it was possible to view the book as a Negro novel without Negro characters.

The playwright who is a Negro is faced with a special problem. Broadway has a tradition of Negro shows, inevitably folksy or exotic, almost always musical, of which the only virtue is that Negro performers get a chance to appear as something more than filler. The obvious reaction to such shows is the protest play, the Negro agit-prop, which can be as false to American Negro life as the musicals. A playwright with serious intentions, like Miss Hansberry, has to avoid both pitfalls, has to try to write not a Negro play, but a play in which the characters are Negroes. In an interview (New York Times, March 8,1959), Miss Hansberry is reported as having said to her husband before she began Raisin, "I'm going to write a social drama about Negroes that will be good art." However good the art, unfortunately, the play will remain, in one sense, a Negro play. The Times interview made quite clear that Miss Hansberry was aware that she was writing as much for the American Negro as for the American theatre. Similarly, an article on Sidney Poitier, the play's star, in the New York Times Magazine (January 25, 1959), made the point that Poitier avoided roles that might "diminish the Negro's stature as a human being." Whatever his ambitions as an artist, the Negro playwright, like the Negro actor, is still forced into a propaganda role. The publicity for A Raisin in the Sun, the news stones about it, the excitement it stirred up among Negroes (never until Raisin had I seen a Philadelphia theatre in which at least half the audience was Negro) all emphasize that it is a play written by a Negro woman about Negroes, a fact which could hardly have been forgotten when the Critics' Award was passed out.

Having suggested that objectivity is impossible with respect to A Raisin in the Sun, I should like to make a few objective remarks about it. The play, first of all, is old-fashioned. Practically no serious playwright, in or out of America, works in such a determinedly naturalistic form as Miss Hansberry in her first play. The semi-documentary movies that cropped up at the end of World War II, and then television, particularly in the Chayefsky school of drama, took over naturalism so completely that it is doubtful whether the form will ever again be comfortable in the theater. It is now possible to accept on stage the wildest fantasy or the simplest suggestion; but the set that pretends to be a real room with real doors and real furniture has become more difficult to accept than a stylized tree. Ralph Alswang's set for Raisin, as murky and crowded and gadgety as the slum apartment it represents, is ingenious in its detail; but the realistic set, like the real eggs the young wife cracks for an imaginary breakfast, reaches for a verisimilitude that has become impossible. Raisin is the kind of play which demands the naturalism that Miss Hansberry has used, but in choosing to write such a play, she entered Broadway's great sack race with only a paper bag as equipment. Her distinction is that she has won the race this year, which proves, I suppose, that narrow naturalism is still a possible—if anachronistic—form.

If the set suggests 1910 and Eugene Walter, the play itself—in its concentration on the family in society—recalls the 30's and Clifford Odets. It tells the story of the Younger family and their escape from a too-small apartment on Chicago's South Side to a house in which they have space and air and, unfortunately but not insurmountably, the enmity of their white neighbors. The conflict within the play is between the dreams of the son, Walter Lee, who wants to make a killing in the big world, and the hopes of his mother and his wife, who want to save their small world by transplanting it to an environment in which it might conceivably flourish. The mechanical means by which this conflict is illuminated—the insurance money, its loss, the representative of the white neighborhood association—are completely artificial, plot devices at their most devised. Take the loss of the money, for example. From the first moment that Walter Lee mentions his plans for a profitable liquor store, his connections, the need for spreading money around in Springfield, the audience knows that the money will be stolen; supposedly, in good naturalistic tradition, the audience should sit, collective fingers crossed, hoping that he might be spared, that the dream might not be deferred and shrivel, like A Raisin in the Sun, as the Langston Hughes poem has it. I found myself, fingers crossed, hoping that the inevitable would not come, not for the sake of Walter Lee Younger, but for the sake of the play, of which the solid center was already too hedged with contrivances. No one's crossed fingers did any good.

Of the four chief characters in the play, Walter Lee is the most complicated and the most impressive He is often unlikable, occasionally cruel. His sense of being trapped by his situation—class, race, job, prospects, education—transfers to his family, who become to him not fellow prisoners but complacent jailers. Their ways of coping with their condition are his defeats, for to him the open-sesame that will release him (change his status? change his color?) is money. The play is concerned primarily with his recognition that, as a man, he must begin from, not discard, himself, that dignity is a quality of men, not bank accounts. Walter Lee's penchant for taking center stage has forced his wife to become an observer in his life, but at the same time she is an accusation. For most of the play she wears a mask of wryness or the real cover of fatigue, but Miss Hansberry gives her two scenes in which the near-hysteria that lies beneath the surface is allowed to break through. The mother is a more conventional figure—the force, compounded of old virtues and the strength of suffering, that holds the family together. She is a sentimentalized mother figure, reminiscent of Bessie Burgess in Awake and Sing, but without Bessie's destructive power. The daughter, who wants to be a doctor, is out of place in this working-class family. Not that her ambition does not belong with the Youngers, but her surface characteristics—the flitting from one expensive fad to another—could not have been possible, on economic grounds alone, in such a household. Although Miss Hansberry, the daughter of a wealthy real estate man, may have enjoyed poking fun at a youthful version of herself, as reported in the Times interview, the result of putting the child of a rich man into a working-class home is incongruous.

Despite an incredible number of imperfections, Raisin is a good play. Its basic strength lies in the character and the problem of Walter Lee, which transcends his being a Negro. If the play were only the Negro-white conflict that crops up when the family's proposed move is about to take place, it would be an editorial, momentarily effective, and nothing more. Walter Lee's difficulty, however, is that he has accepted the American myth of success at its face value, that he is trapped, as Willy Loman was trapped, by a false dream. In planting so indigenous an American image at the center of her play, Miss Hansberry has come as close as possible to what she intended—a play about Negroes which is not simply a Negro play.

The play has other virtues. There are genuinely funny and touching scenes throughout. Many of these catch believably the chatter of a family—the resentments and the shared jokes—and the words have the ring of truth that one found in Odets or Chayefsky before they began to sound like parodies of themselves. In print, I suspect, the defects of Raisin will show up more sharply, but on stage— where, after all, a play is supposed to be—the impressive performances of the three leads (Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil) draw attention to the play's virtues.

A Raisin in the Sun deserved the Critics' Award as much as any other play of this season, and more than most. That statement, however, is as much an accusation of the season as it is praise of the play. Every fall, when the advertisements begin to bloom in the pages of the New York Times, I am filled again with certainty that something is about to happen on Broadway. Every spring, when the results are in, I am aware of a dream deferred, a raisin shriveled. This season, however, has been duller than most. I cannot recall any moment of real excitement. There were small pleasures, small merits, but no revelations. The one real experiment in form, Shimon Wincelberg's Kataki, a full-length monologue play (and it came from television), was put quietly to sleep by tepid reviews. It is perverse to expect something really fine, I suppose. The Ibsens, the Shaws, the Chekhovs have always been the exceptions in the theater and they have had to make their way against the theater itself. The Broadway business is at present congenial to adaptations of novels and television plays, to mechanical comedies, to the Pinero-like seriousness of Wilham Inge and Robert Anderson, to anything that is safe, even though a high percentage of the safeties turn out to be bombs.

American fiction, it seems to me, is alive now and aware of its life. American drama, except perhaps for musical comedy (Candide, after all, is the best American play in many years), is, if not dead, often deadly—and does not particularly care that it is. Arthur Miller is the only one of the postwar American playwrights whose concern with the theater is likely to engender excitement and he, perhaps wisely, works slowly and appears infrequently. Even Tennessee Williams, whose mixture of old expressionism and new neuroticism once had vitality, seems now mechanical in his flamboyance; Sweet Bird of Youth, for all its acclaim, looked to me like the same old rabbit out of the same old hat. There is something sad about the fact that the Critics' Award went to a play that not only uses an outdated form, but often uses it clumsily. I do not want to disparage Miss Hansberry's achievement with A Raisin in the Sun. It is a first play and a good one; more important, it has hold of one of the central dramatic problems of our time. If one were to compare her with Chekhov, however, as Brooks Atkinson did in his review, the comparison could hardly be as flattering as the Times critic made it. I hope that Lorraine Hansberry will go on to write more plays and that all of them will be as good as or better than A Raisin in the Sun, but I do not expect to find in them any real hope for a vital American theater. A Raisin in the Sun is the best play of the year, but the American theater today is an old man in a dry season. Where does that leave us? Waiting for fall, of course.

Source: Gerald Weales, "Thoughts on A Raisin in the Sun," in Commentary, Vol. 27, no. 6, June, 1959, pp 527-30. Weales is an American drama critic; he is a winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism and the author of numerous books on drama.

New Yorker Review of A Raisin in the Sun

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

The supreme virtue of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's new play at the Ethel Barrymore, is its proud, joyous proximity to its source, which is life as the dramatist has lived it. I will not pretend to be impervious to the facts; this is the first Broadway production of a work by a colored authoress, and it is also the first Broadway production to have been staged by a colored director. (His name is Lloyd Richards, and he has done a sensible, sensitive, and impeccablejob.) I do not see why these facts should be ignored, for a play is not an entity in itself, it is a part of history, and I have no doubt that my knowledge of the historical context predisposed me to like A Raisin in the Sun long before the house lights dimmed. Within ten minutes, however, liking had matured into absorption. The relaxed, freewheeling interplay of a magnificent team of Negro actors drew me unresisting into a world of their making, their suffering, their thinking, and their rejoicing. Walter Lee Younger's family lives in a roach-ridden Chicago tenement. The father, at thirty five, is still a chauffeur, deluded by dreams of financial success that nag at the nerves and tighten the lips of his anxious wife, who ekes out their income by working in white kitchens. If she wants a day off, her mother-in-law advises her to plead flu, because it's respectable. ("Otherwise they'll think you've been cut up or something.") Five people—the others being Walter Lee's progressive young sister, and his only child, an amiable small boy—share three rooms. They want to escape, and their chance comes when Walter Lee's mother receives the insurance money to which her recent widowhood has entitled her. She rejects her son's plan, which is to invest the cash in a liquor store; instead, she buys a house for the family in a district where no Negro has ever lived. Almost at once, white opinion asserts itself, in the shape of a deferential little man from the local Improvement Association, who puts the segregationist case so gently that it almost sounds like a plea for modified togetherness. At the end of a beautifully written scene, he offers to buy back the house, in order—as he explains—to spare the Youngers any possible embarrassment.

His proposal is turned down. But before long Walter Lee has lost what remains of the money to a deceitful chum. He announces forthwith that he will go down on his knees to any white man who will buy the house for more than its face value. From this degradation he is finally saved; shame brings him to his feet, the Youngers move out, and move on; a rung has been scaled, a point has been made, a step into the future has been soberly taken.

Miss Hansberry's piece is not without sentimentality, particularly in its reverent treatment of Walter Lee's mother, brilliantly though Claudia McNeil plays the part, monumentally trudging, upbraiding, disapproving, and consoling, I wish the dramatist had refrained from idealizing such a stolid old conservative. (She forces her daughter, an agnostic, to repeat after her, "In my mother's house there is still God.") But elsewhere I have no quibbles. Sidney Poitier blends skittishness, apathy, and riotous despair into his portrait of the mercurial Walter Lee, and Ruby Dee, as his wife, is not afraid to let friction and frankness get the better of conventional affection. Diana Sands is a buoyantly assured kid sister, and Ivan Dixon is a Nigerian intellectual who replies, when she asks him whether Negroes in power would not be just as vicious and corrupt as whites, "I live the answer." The cast is flawless, and the teamwork on the first night was as effortless and exuberant as if the play had been running for a hundred performances. I was not present at the opening, twenty-four years ago, of Mr. Odets' Awake and Sing!, but it must have been a similar occasion, generating the same kind of sympathy and communicating the same kind of warmth. After several curtain calls, the audience began to shout for the author, whereupon Mr. Poitier leaped down into the auditorium and dragged Miss Hansberry onto the stage. It was a glorious gesture, but it did no more than the play had already done for all of us. In spirit, we were up there ahead of her.

Source: Kenneth Tynan, in a review of A Raisin in the Sun (1959) in the New Yorker, Vol. 69, no. 15, May 31,1993, pp. 118,122. A dramatist and screenwriter, Tynan served as drama critic for the New Yorker from 1958 to 1960.

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