Putting this work into context: It is the beginning of the twentieth century in Chicago, a city that really demonstrated the racial prejudice that embodied the culture of the time, which was well portrayed by how the blacks lived in separate neighborhoods from the whites (Charters and Charters). The century before that, the nineteenth century, had witnessed massive black emancipation, a process which is believed to have triggered the good renowned Civil War of 1861, while at the same time was rightfully affected by it (Hansberry 1). In other words, the emancipation of the blacks is one of the factors that led to the Civil War, while at the same time, this very process was fully implemented following the conclusion of the war, when it was passed by Congress that all black slaves should be freed by their white owners. It was a lengthy and costly process, costly especially to the white owners that dragged itself over the greater part of the nineteenth century.
Therefore, the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was a time of new and unfamiliar experiences, charged with much energy and mixed emotions on the part of the now freed blacks (Rockoff and Walton 15). Yes, it was true that the blacks had been freed, but with this freedom came up unique and perhaps unanticipated challenges (Hurston, Cullen and Wright 121). Where were the blacks to live? How were they to earn a fair living for themselves? Who would represent them in political, social, and economic affairs? Were they entitled to the same rights their former owners enjoyed? Did they have rights in the first place, or did they lack a claim in this foreign land? Did they now have the freedom of expression? Were they any lesser human because of their skin color? Were they also entitled to the different forms of entertainment that one should enjoy, perhaps by virtue of just being human? Could they now integrate with their former white owners in the towns, shops, and streets?
It is useful for one to take into consideration this unique situation that the blacks had now found themselves in, while not ignoring the kind of adjustments and especially psychological adjustments, that they needed to make to fully benefit from their now freed state (Wintz 55). It was against this backdrop that the blacks decided to give a creative or rather artistic voice to their personal experiences and circumstances (Fitzgerald 29). Perhaps this would be better welcomed and heard than simply crying foul and demonstrating in the streets. Thus in the 1920s, black musicians, artists, poets, and dancers alike came together to give voice to these concerns in New York City, in what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance (Hurston, Cullen, and Wright 12). It was a time of great progress and achievement for them, as their works came to be celebrated not only across the City but also the nation. In fact, it was during this time period that Jazz music was born, through the efforts of a group of black musicians (Fitzgerald 17). Then from this age arose a bright shining star, Langston Hughes, who wrote several literary works that praised the strength, ingenuity, and culture of the blacks. The fruit of the Harlem Renaissance had gained positive responses nationally (Hurston, Cullen, and Wright 71). Was this the promise of a new dawn of acceptance for the blacks?
Yet amidst all this joy and revolution, nobody could have anticipated the Great Depression or the World War II that were yet to come, nor the great adversity the blacks would have suffered as a result (Rockoff and Walton). It was against this backdrop that Langston wrote Harlem in 1951, as though crying out for the wonderful times that had been and that had brought so much hope for the blacks (Hurston, Cullen, and Wright). It was a nostalgic, yet evocative piece that deliberately expressed the cry of the blacks, they desired to express themselves, but the American society denied them this. It was in this piece that Hughes posed the question, (paraphrasing), Shall our dreams not dry up like a Raisin in the Sun if they are continually deferred?
Biography of Lorraine Hansberry
A little before Hughes’s writing of Harlem was the birth of another star, Lorraine Hansberry, in 1930, in the city of Chicago (Charters and Charters). She was born to black parents who had been fortunate enough to receive a good education and were successful by the standards of the time (Hansberry). Born at a time when segregation was legal, she was the fourth-born and youngest child of the family. Growing up, she had watched her parents advocate and fight for the rights of black people. Notably, hers was amongst the first few black families to dare move into a white community. This move was undoubtedly met with a lot of criticism especially from their unwelcoming neighbors, who even threatened to take legal action against them. Lorraine’s father moved to defend his family and even managed to have his case heard in the Supreme Court. Lorraine was therefore not unfamiliar with the challenges one had to encounter or rather suffer just by virtue of being black (Charters and Charters).
Lorraine was equally fortunate to receive a good education, albeit the fact that it was in a public black school. It was while receiving her education that she perhaps stumbled upon and later became inspired by the writings of Hughes. Evidently an autobiographical piece, Lorraine set out to write the play A Raisin in the Sun, determined to be a spokesperson for the blacks with no voice. Her intent comes to us as no surprise, given her upbringing and more personally, her experiences.
What Is the Theme of a Raisin in the Sun?
Hers is a play that brings alive the struggle of a black family that belonged to the lower class as they tried to weave their way up to society’s middle class (Hansberry). The story mainly focuses on how this family tries to agree upon the use of $10,000 that they were to receive from insurance, following the death of their father. However, the two main characters involved seem not to agree on how to spend the money, something which causes minor conflicts to arise between them.
A Raisin in the Sun Characters
Walter Lee, the son, greatly desires to better provide for his enlarging family by investing the entire amount in a liquor store in partnership with his friends (Hansberry). His mother, the Mama, is opposed to this move, especially because of ethical reasons, and also because she would want to use part of this money as a down payment for a house in a white community. Mama goes ahead and executes her plan and this causes Walter to explode in anger, something which greatly strains their relationship. In a bid to mend this withering relationship, Mama decides to entrust Walter the remaining amount. He goes ahead to secretly carry out his initial plan, hoping that it will quadruple his capital investment. But behind his back, his partner steals his money. The family has now suffered a grave loss, something which strains every family member’s valor (Hansberry). After much hesitancy and ambivalence, the family holds their resolve to move, even amidst warnings from a community representative of the whites. In the story also are other characters, such as Asagai, who Lorraine uses to bring out some of the celebrated themes of the African past and heritage.
What Makes a Raisin in the Sun a Notable American Play?
Her play opens in 1959, and it is received much praise from both the black and white communities (Charters and Charters). Before her work, it was almost inconceivable that anyone would have bothered to pay attention to the plight of the black family living in the Southside of Chicago, and perhaps all across the United States of America. The play undeniably presented the premise and struggles of the blacks most realistically and naturally. Before this, the role of a black person in a play was often brief and comical. But here was a piece of work that had the black person take center stage, and more so, presented them as human beings, with genuine concerns and real needs. This play was opened at a time that was just about to culminate to the height of blacks’ dissatisfaction against their denial of rights and voice by the American society, a state which is affirmed by the American Civil Rights movement and the Feminist movement in the 1960s.
Lorraine’s play won her the Best Play of the Year title in the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (Charters and Charters). She scooped the award at a very rare time as the fifth female, only black writer to have attained the award, and the youngest playwright of her time. There she was, boldly rising up to defend the rights of her people in the best way that she was able to, given the circumstances.
Taking full advantage of her newly acquired fame, Lorraine drew attention to the concerns of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle of the blacks as they sought to gain independence from the white colonialists (Wintz 29). Her work can be viewed as a turning point in the evolution of American Art, as it pointed to so many issues that were prevailing in the United States of America in the 1950s. For a long time, the United States had been painted as a land of economic prosperity, of happy American housewives, with their husbands bustling in the towns & cities striving to earn their families a living, and of blacks who were gratified by their low-grade state. Yes, America was rising after the Second World War and was already receiving global attention as it sought to secure its place as a global industry leader in this delicate time (Wintz). Yet this picturesque painting was nothing but a fallacy, and very far from the truth. It failed miserably in bringing out the reality that was on the ground especially for the blacks, and surprisingly also for the white housewives; apparently, they were not as happy as they had been painted to seem a fact which was brought out by the Feminist movement. Such is the political, social, and economic backdrop against which a Raisin in the Sun was cast (Charters and Charters). While it cannot be ignored that the author used the play to write her own story, it is a fact that she was making a plea to be seen and heard, which was not just for herself.
Quotes From a Raisin in the Sun
"I know that's what you think. Because you are still where I left off. You with all your talk and dreams about Africa! You still think you can patch up the world."
"Asagai, while I was sleeping in that bed in there, people went out and took the future right out of my hands! And nobody asked me, nobody consulted me – they just went out and changed my life!"
"I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy… Mama – look at me."
"Bad? Say anything bad to him? No – I told him he was a sweet boy and full of dreams and everything is strictly peachy keen, as the ofay kids say!"
Charters, Ann and Samuel Charters. Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama / Edition 6. St. Martins: Bedford, 2012.
Fitzgerald, Scott F. Tales of the Jazz Age. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922.
Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer's Reference, Seventh Edition. St.Martins: Bedford, 2010.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Chicago.
Hurston, Neale Zora, et al. The Harlem Renaissance: A History and an Anthology. Wiley, 2003.
Rampersad, Arnold. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Random House Inc, 1990.
Rockoff, Hugh and Garry M. Walton. History of The American Economy, Eleventh Edition. Ohio: South-Western, Cengage Learning, 2010, 2005.
Wintz, Cary D. African American Political Thought, 1890-1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph. Routledge, 1995.
X., J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. "Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, Sixth Edition." New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 1790-1818.
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