I picked up A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry because it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before she Turns 40. It was a quick read for me while I was on my epic backpacking trip this summer. A Raisin in the Sun is an award-winning play that debuted on Broadway in 1959. According to Wikipedia, it was unique at the time for having an almost all-black cast that performed for the primarily white, Broadway audiences. It also drew more black people to the traditionally, mostly white theater audiences. Even though I knew nothing about the plot of this play when I read it, there are numerous spoilers below because this play is such an old classic that I assume everyone else knows all about it.
The play centers around three generations of one family, all living in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side. Walter and Ruth Younger, their adolescent son Travis, along with Walter’s mother (Mama) and Walter’s sister, Beneatha, are the main characters. Walter and Beneatha’s father, and Mama’s husband recently passed away. The family is awaiting the arrival of a settlement check from the insurance company for $10,000.
The family is wrestling with the daily grind of poverty, and they have different views of how the money can be used to help them. Beneatha needs the money to go to school. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store with some friends of his. Mama wants to move to a nicer place, and Ruth is exhausted and would like to lessen their struggle.
Mama eventually uses some of the money for a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. She gives the rest to Walter to invest, as long as he sets aside enough for Beneatha’s education. Walter’s friends take off with the money, including Beneath’s educational funds. At the same time, they are visited by Karl Lindner, a white representative of the neighborhood they will be moving into. Lindner offers the Younger family money to not move into the house they just put the down payment on. Walter is at first ready to accept this deal, but he changes his mind. The play ends with the family getting ready to move.
In addition to the issues surrounding the Younger’s decision to move into a white neighborhood, and, especially, their steadfastness in getting their own house despite the opposition and fear of violence, Hansberry also addresses identity, abortion, and hopelessness. For instance, Beneatha wrestles with the balance between assimilation of white culture and pride in her own. She is dating two men, one a successful businessman (George Murchison), and one a traditional African man (Joseph Asagai). Joseph Asagai complains that Beneatha is mutilating her hair when she straightens it, and tells her not to worry about the lost money while Murchison is obviously looking for a woman who portrays the standard image of a successful, black woman.
I also felt a lot of compassion for Ruth Younger. She seemed exhausted. Trying to keep up with the work, being a mother, and making ends meet was already too much for her when she finds out that she is pregnant again. Ruth is seriously considering an abortion, something her mother-in-law finds totally unacceptable.
I was impressed by this play. It is still relevant and relatable today, even though it was written over fifty years ago (and almost ten years before The Fair Housing Act of 1968). The characters were well written and felt like real people. I did not quite understand Walter Younger and the faith his mother put in him when she did not approve of his plans, but I think it had to do with traditional family roles and believing in her son. The play ended in an optimistic manner, with the family happy about defying Karl Lindner and excited about moving into their own home. However, I was anxious for what they would have to deal with in a hostile, white neighborhood and I hoped rather than believed that their lives would not be ruined by fear and violence.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.