My final lecture for the American literature course at the University of Bergen was on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the presence of Big Walter on stage during a performance in Boston that was directed by Liesl Tommy. As well, I have discussed my other lectures from the American Literature class: Introductory Lecture for American Literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. Today, I want to briefly look at my lecture for Hansberry’s play. As usual, you can find it over on Google Docs.
Since I lectured on The Great Gatsby and John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, I decided to begin by using quotes from those two texts to remind students what he had talked about over the course of the semester but also to remind them that the ideals that de Crèvecœur espouses and the advice that Nick’s father gives him do not apply to everyone. As such, I start with the opening of The Great Gatsby where Nick reflects on his father’s words. His father told him that not everyone has the same privileges that he does. This, of course, is true. However, how does it relate to the Youngers? Even if they succeed, will future generations have the same privileges that they achieved?
Along with this, I provided a quote from de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer. In the quote, Farmer James comments that anyone who arrives on America’s shores and works hard can “make it.” They will get “fields to feed and clothe thee; a comfortable fireside to sit by, and tell thy children by what means thou hast prospered; and a decent bed to repose on.” If the person does this, then America will provide for the person’s progeny too, allowing them to maintain that same success. A Raisin in the Sun shows that this success, however, only opens itself up to some, not everyone. De Crèvecœur even intimates as much when he lists the nationalities that make up the new nation. All are European.
Following The Great Gatsby and de Crèvecœur, I turn to the play that the students read the week before: Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman. There are similarities between the Lomans and the Youngers. Most notably, both receive insurance money from the death of the family patriarch. Yet, more differences occur. Hansberry’s play exposes the racist systems that keep the Youngers, no matter how hard they work, in subjugation. Even amidst all of this, they maintain a family unity, tested at times, that sees them through to the end of the play, and hope arises with Walter and Ruth’s pregnancy and the move to Clybourne Park. Yet, even though the play ends with the Youngers happily moving, a cloud of fear hangs over the ending because we know that they will experience violence and discrimination. If the Lomans succeed, would that occur?
From here, I proceed to discuss the importance of Hansberry’s play in regard to the representation of African Americans on stage. James Baldwin stated, “In order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks chose to sing the blues. This is why Raisin in the Sun meant so much to black people.” Just like Black Panther, A Raisin in the Sun provided Black audiences with a real-life representation of their experiences on stage, not stereotypical images.
In “Willie Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live,” Hansberry continues Baldwin’s assessment. Responding to one critic who simplified Walter’s experiences by linking him to Willie Loman, Hansberry made sure to let people know that for many “Walter remains, despite the play, despite the performance, what American radical traditions wish him to be: an exotic.” As “an exotic,” these audience members do not see Walter’s humanity; they pull from their previous encounters with Black characters in popular media which consisted of stereotypes, the stereotypes that Baldwin states Hansberry counters.
Hansberry continues by commenting on the ways that A Raisin in the Sun counters the stereotypes and, in so doing, presents how her depiction of the Youngers works to ultimately help those enduring poverty due to the color of their skin. She writes,
America, for this reason, long ago fell in love with the image of the simple, lovable, and glandular “Negro.” We all know that Catfish Row was never intended to slander anyone; it was intended as a mental haven for readers and audiences who could bask in the unleashed passions of those “lucky ones” for whom abandonment was apparently permissible. In an almost paradoxical fashion, it disturbs the soul of man to truly understand what he invariably senses: that nobody really finds oppression and/or poverty tolerable. If we ever destroy the image of the black people who supposedly do find these things tolerable in America, then that much-touted “guilt” which allegedly haunts most middle-class white Americans with regard to the Negro question would really become unendurable. It would also mean the death of a dubious literary tradition, but it would undoubtedly and more significantly help toward the more rapid transformation of the status of a people who have never found their imposed misery very charming.
I conclude this section with another quote from Hansberry that directly comments on the way that the play works to counter stereotypes. Hansberry says, “The thing I tried to show was the many gradations even in one Negro family, the clash of the old and new, but most of all the unbelievable courage of the Negro people.” In this way, Hansberry shatter the homogeneous view of Blacks by showing the ways that characters have different dreams and aspirations and different thoughts about how to achieve those dreams.
After looking at what Hansberry says about the language in the play, I move on to look at two poems that directly relate to the play. The first, of course, is Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” The poem is the epigraph to the the play, and the play takes its title from one of the lines. As such, I provide a slide with the poem on it and a video of Hughes reading the poem. I walk students through it, drawing their attention to the various questions that Hughes asks and how those questions and lingering answers relate to the Youngers.
Along with Hughes’ poem, I have students look at Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building,” a poem that draws upon Hughes’ as well. Brooks’ poem directly relates to the Youngers’ existence in the Chicago apartment. No matter how hard they work, no matter how hard they dream, they have to worry about everyday things like making it to the bathroom before those down the hall make it. They have to worry about rent, feeding a wife, or husband, and satisfying a man. We see all of this with the Youngers. They cannot sing an aria down the hall amidst the onion fumes because they are too tired. If they allow the dream to even enter in, what would happen? That’s the question. Would the dream take roots? For the Youngers, dreams take root, but those roots do not have the space to expand.
After having students look at Brooks’ poem, I immediately have them zero in on the first two pages of the script where Hansberry provides a description of the Youngers’ apartment. Here, I have them pay close attention to a couple of items. The first is the way that Lena’s dream, over time, has turned into weariness. At one time, “the furnishings of this room were actually selected with care and love and even hope — and brought to this apartment and arranged with taste and pride.” However. “[w]eariness has, in fact, won in this room” as time passes and the inaccessibility of the American Dream, due to racism, keeps the Youngers down.
Continuing, I zoom out some to provide students with a broader perspective. I show them one of Jackie Ormes’ “Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger” panels where Patty-Jo looks at family in an one-room apartment and comments that the government is more concerned with military spending than with the lives of the inhabitants who reside in that space. Coupled with this image, I quote James Baldwin who said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” The Younger family highlights Baldwin’s comment and Brooks’ sentiments in “Kitchenette Building” throughout the play.
We see the weariness that poverty and constant struggle have on the Younger family from the very beginning. In the first scene. Walter gets up and moves over to his wife Ruth asking her, “You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything. Me, the boy, the way we live — this beat-up hole — everything. Ain’t you?” The lack of financial stability does not just affect the family’s physical well-being; it affects their relationships with one another too. Ruth and Walter, even with flashes of intimacy and love, struggle in their relationship, all due, at least in the play, to the fact that they cannot get their heads above the water.
To highlight the historical underpinnings of the Youngers’ struggle, I turn to a video from Adam Conover’s Adam Ruins Everything on the suburbs. In the video, Conover details the continued effects that redlining has on economic opportunities for families such as the Youngers. He has Nikole Hannah Jones discuss these issues as well. Along with A Raisin in the Sun, I tie the video in to discussions of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” which takes place in the suburbs of New Jersey. This would also work well with Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”
Next, I discuss with students the Hansberrys’ own history with restrictive covenants and the 1940 case Hansberry v. Lee where the Supreme Court ruled that the white community could not deny the Hansberrys from moving into the neighborhood. This case, however, hinged on the fact that the community falsely stated the percentage of individuals who did not want the Hansberrys to move in. The case did not strike down restrictive covenants. That did not occur until 1948 with Shelley v. Kraemer. I did not go into all of this detail with students, but I did highlight for them how the Hansberrys, even though they moved to the neighborhood, still experienced prejudice. For this, I use a quote from Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Lorraine’s sister, Mamie, recalled that a chunk of cement was thrown through the window by a member of the mob. The cement almost caught Lorraine’s head. It was thrown with such force that after it shattered the glass, and nearly hit the seven-year-old girl, it landed at the living room wall and lodged itself tightly into the plaster. “That was a grotesque sight to see that lodged in the wall,” Mamie told the Tribune. “You know that somebody doesn’t like you, doesn’t want you there.”
At this point, I have students think about the end of A Raisin in the Sun. While the play ends with the Youngers moving to Clybourne Park, what happens once they are there? This is something that students need to consider and think about.
From here, I move to examining the different dreams that each family member has and how those dreams continually get deferred. I begin with Walter and his dream to own his own store. In the opening scene, he tells Ruth, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it . . . I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room — (Very, very quietly) — and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live . . .” The racist society has stifled Walter’s opportunities, and even though he has a drive to succeed, he has become weary as well.
He tells Lena how much he wants to make something of himself, to make money so that Travis will not have to worry. Lena gets taken aback by Walter’s continued focus on money, and she walks him through African American history and the struggles that she, and his ancestors, endured. However, as Walter shows, those struggles are not over. Along with Walter, Ruth wants a home with a yard for Travis so he will not have sleep on the couch in the living room and chase rats in the street. Ruth’s dream is like Lena’s when she was younger, but the day to day grind of just trying to survive gradually diminishes her hope of achieving that dream.
Both Ruth and Walter echo Big Walter and his thoughts about his own dreams. Lena tells them that Big Walter would always say, “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams — but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.” While Big Walter knew that he may not succeed, his children hopefully would. Ruth and Walter echo this. They want something better for Travis, and in this manner Travis serves as their overarching impetus for success. Even though Walter and Lena clash over the modes of achieving the success, each appears to have to have the same goal in mind.
Along with Ruth and Walter, I look at Benetha as well and her relationship with Joseph Asagai. I do not have time to go into too much detail here, but I point out to students the Pan African discussions that the play contains, especially as they are expressed through Asagai and even negatively through George Murchison. I even show a clip from Black Panther to highlight the importance of Benetha’s decision to have natural hair.
I conclude by focusing on Walter’s final speech with Linder. Here, I focus on how he moves from a submissive position of acquiescing to Linder’s desire for the Youngers to not move to Clybourne Park to his assertion that the family will move to Clybourne Park and that Linder and the committee cannot change their mind. Here, Walter shows the familial connection that I discussed in the last post and shows the ways that Travis encapsulates his dream. He calls Travis over to him and has Travis stand there with him as he tells Linder that the family will move.