I love how inconclusive your portrait of a 1950’s working-class African American family is in A Raisin in the Sun (1959) – the way it seems to be going in one direction, only to destroy its map in the end and leave us in the middle of the road, contemplating a line we had mistaken for a circle.
The plot centres on the question of how the Younger family will spend a life insurance check they are about to receive after their patriarch’s death – and, later, on the question of how the family will deal with the difficulties they will face to move to their new home in a white neighbourhood.
The title comes from Langston Hughes’ poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred” (1951, also known as “Harlem”): “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore / — and then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat?/ Or crust and sugar over/ — like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags like a heavy load/ Or does it just explode?”
Does it explode? This seems to be the play’s guideline. Do people simply surrender to their circumstances and passively watch as their aspirations are destroyed? Or do these dreams still retain some power, even when annihilated? Can dreams emerge in different ways and with unpredictable force? What is a deferred dream made of?
A deferred dream – this spectral thing that both exists and does not exist at the same time, a haunting ghost. Only that, this time, the characters seem to be inhabiting the ghost, trapped by its spectral walls, as they seem to be haunted by a multitude of deferred dreams which are embodied in the old apartment where the family lives – a place that has seen better days, and that mirrors back to each of the characters everything that they lost or longed in vain to achieve in life.
Within this somewhat claustrophobic domestic setting, the play addresses issues of assimilation, feminism, racism, Africanism, and social class – all from the perspective of working-class African-American characters. Raisin follows the struggles and frustrations of a family in search of the American dream – and exposes the gap between this dream and the reality faced by working class African-Americans in the 1950’s USA. You seem to be exploring the different forms racism can impact on each of the members of the Younger family, as they strive to achieve this ubiquitous and mythical American dream.
I found Beneatha’s personal dilemma particularly interesting: while desiring the opportunities and comforts that existed predominantly in white upper-class society at the time, Beneatha also refuses to submit to the dominant white culture from which such comforts sprung. While she wants to break free from the white American dream, she is also trapped by it, as she wants a share of the comforts of an existence along the lines of the white upper middle class.
The play balances itself in this tension between the American dream and the black American reality, as well as in the irony we find in the fact that, although such dream seems to be based on moral values - freedom, equality, justice, autonomy -, in practice, it submits these values to economic patterns and material achievements – by which, ultimately, the dream is defined and subdued.
Nothing changes substantially for the Younger family in three acts, and at the same time everything changes. Raisin’s is an ambiguous ending: full of lost dreams, on the one hand, and laden with fresh hopes on the other. But still, the point at which the family ends is not the same point at which it had started. While, at first, they project their dreams and frustrations on the insurance money they were about to receive; by the end, the money ceases to be the issue, and their share on the American dream takes on an entirely different nature and dimension – that of dignity. The book does not end with a dream achieved, nor with a dream deferred, but with something more immaterial – the decision not to let that dream dry like a raisin in the sun.
“It isn’t a circle–it is simply a long line–as in geometry, you know, one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end–we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd by those who see the changes–who dream, who will not give up–are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the “realists”! ” Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.” Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
“Asagai: Then isn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?
Beneatha: AND YOU CANNOT ANSWER IT!
Asagai: I LIVE THE ANSWER!” Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
About the book
- Vintage, 2004, 151 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- Written and completed in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun opened on March 11, 1959, becoming the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The 29-year-old Hansberry became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
- In 1961, the movie version of A Raisin in the Sun, with a screenplay by Hansberry, earned a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival.