Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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How does Beneatha perceive race in A Raisin in the Sun?

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When Joseph Asagai, her Nigerian friend, first comes to the Younger apartment, he teases Beneatha about their first meeting, when she spoke of her “identity.” This quest shapes most aspects of her character.

Beneatha is very concerned with class and heritage as they intersect with race. Her aspiration, to become a physician, will definitely involve a move up in class status. Although there were African American physicians in the 1950s, there were far fewer than today. For Bennie, gender is an issue in this regard as well; for example, her brother urges her to pursue the more typically female career of nurse.

In her relationship with the ultra-bourgeois George, class and race merge when she accuses him of being “assimilationist.” However, this is a term that Joseph had earlier tossed at her, and she vehemently denied. When George arrives for their date, he is shocked and displeased that Beneatha has cut her hair and shaped it into a natural. He calls her “eccentric,” and she declares “I hate assimilationist Negroes!” To Ruth, who is confused by the term, George explains that it is “a college girl’s way of calling someone an Uncle Tom.” When she chides him for “giving up his own culture,” they get into a huge argument about what he sarcastically calls “our Great West African Heritage.” Beneatha defends it with information about early African achievements in technology and medicine. This conversation shows that she had been studying culture and is not just paying it lip service.

That Beneatha is maturing in dealing with people about race is shown after her mother buys the house and Mr. Lindner from the “welcoming committee” comes to try to buy them out. Although she is obviously upset, she largely holds back from speaking until he has finished, mentioning the “very generous offer” he wants to make, then witheringly condemns him with a single phrase: “Thirty pieces and not a coin less.” After he leaves and her mother comes home, she and Walter joke about his visit and purpose, while it is clear that she can anticipate some potential consequences of her family’s move. At the same time, she is contemplating marrying Joseph and moving to Nigeria. Regardless of her decision, she is clearly aware of the implications of race.

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Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun is going through a period of trying to find who she is.  She is searching for identity through her African roots in an attempt to discover what it means to be a black woman.  Beneatha has been influenced by her African boyfriend, Asagai, to seek out and become more African than American.  He accuses Beneatha of being “white” because she straightens her hair instead of wearing it natural.  Beneatha tries throughout the play to express herself and find a compromise between her African self and her American self, something her family thinks is odd. She discusses current civil rights issues and even dances to African music in Nigerian robes. Beneatha represents a new awareness to the black experience of the time period that will evolve into future black movements of the 1960’s civil rights era.  She is learning to express herself through her heritage and history by embracing African culture.  In that expression, she rejects discrimination and racism of the time period. She is realizing her self-worth as a black woman in the 1950’s who has been touched by the Afro-centric politics of the time. 

(I have always found Beneatha’s name odd because it contains the word, “beneath.”  It is a strange name for someone who is finding her true identity. What do you think? What was Hansberry’s purpose in naming her Beneatha? Is there any symbolism to the name?)   

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