Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Set in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1950s, A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway and proved to be both a popular and a critical success. The play focuses on a few weeks in the life of the Youngers, a close-knit African-American family that struggles with poverty and racial oppression. The play opens as the Youngers eagerly await a ten-thousand-dollar check, payment on the deceased Mr. Younger’s insurance policy. Tension naturally arises over what to do with such a princely sum, and as the play progresses, we learn what each character dreams of and how their dreams are challenged by the oppressive world in which the Youngers live.
Like her characters, Lorraine Hansberry grew up in Chicago’s South Side, and her family, like the Youngers, moved to an all-white neighborhood when she was young. Threatened with violence and legal action by their racist neighbors, her family was forced to defend themselves legally, successfully arguing their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The title of play comes from a 1951 Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.” Does a “dream deferred,” Hughes asks, “dry up like a raisin in the sun,” or does it “fester like a sore”? In the poem, Hughes explores the tension between aspiration and oppression, and the last line foreshadows the social unrest of the late 1960s: “Or does it explode?” Hansberry explores the same themes in her groundbreaking play. Dreams and aspirations are central to the narrative, as are the complexities of racism, identity, and family bonds.
The play was written and is set on the eve of enormous social change in America. The world the Youngers live in seems to be transforming before their eyes, though not without a good deal of resistance from some in society. Beneatha, the daughter in the family, says that progress sometimes feels like an illusion—not a line stretching to infinity or an arc bending toward justice, as Dr. King later pronounced, but an unending circle where little ever changes.
Hansberry examines fundamental issues in this work that soon would envelop the black community and the nation as a whole. Through her multi-dimensional characters, she asks us to consider the nature of oppression, the conflicts and bonds between men and women and between one generation and another, and the myriad ways racism affects individuals and strains the ties of community. She also asks us to face difficult questions about assimilation, identity, and morality. The burgeoning civil rights and feminist movements are introduced into the play, as is the imminent black pride movement. Hansberry looks offshore too, educating her audiences on the struggles for independence on the African continent. What makes A Raisin in the Sun such a timeless and important play is perhaps much simpler though. Hansberry is one of the first playwrights to create a realistic portrait of African- American life, and the Younger family still rings true after more than fifty years.
When the play debuted in 1959, its themes were quite controversial, but Hansberry’s drama was a hit among audiences both black and white. It won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best play of 1959 and ran on Broadway for nearly two years. Sadly, Hansberry’s promising career was cut short by cancer. The playwright died at the age of thirty-four, just six years after the curtain first opened on A Raisin in the Sun.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe the struggles of the Younger family.
2. Identify and discuss the play’s primary themes, motifs, and symbols.
3. Identify the dreams and aspirations of each member of the Younger family.
4. Identify and discuss the conflicts of gender, race, and generation explored in the play.
5. Describe the concepts of African-American beauty and identity presented in the play.
6. Explain how poverty, discrimination, and racial segregation impact the lives of the characters.
7. Recognize literary devices, such as metaphor, irony, and allusion.
8. Determine what makes A Raisin in the Sun such an important and timeless play.