Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Candace Hisey
Advocating Through Art
Advocating Through Art
The American Dream, a set of beliefs affirming that hard work allows for social mobility, theoretically includes all Americans, regardless of their identifiers; but in reality, it excludes the Black community and other marginalized groups. Homeownership is a key component of this social mobility; however, the housing crisis of the late 1950's barred Black Americans from accessing safe, affordable, and equitable housing. It is commonly misconceived that housing inequality originated as a result of de facto segregation, a division caused by societal differences. However, de jure elements adapted racist practices into law, validating the unethical treatment of Black Americans. Addressing the Black community as a whole, biased legal parameters enabled bigotry. This contributed to the struggle of the Black American: attempting to achieve the social mobility promised by the American Dream but being barred from doing so. As a result, education and employment —which both rely on housing— were compromised, furthering the generational element of Black oppression. In protest of the inequitable political climate of the United States over the course of her lifetime, Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun to bring light to the taxing effects of living in a country with systemic racism deeply embedded in its fabric. Reflecting on the injustices that Black Americans had to endure, she remarked, "One of the things that the American experiences has meant to Negroes: we are one people." Being a member of the "comfortable middle class" which included a disproportionately small fraction of Black Americans, Hansberry was subject to much criticism for her decision to portray the working-class in her play("Lorraine Hansberry Discusses Her Play"). In response to these critiques, Hansberry defended her decision by suggesting that all Black Americans suffer from the same adversities regardless of class. Hansberry's decision to portray an authentic, relatable Black family added revolutionized her play, as each member of the family represents a vital part of the Black community, allowing A Raisin in the Sun to serve as both a protest and a political statement.
Both the Black community and greater society expect men to assume the role of head of the household, providing for their families. Black men, in particular, suffer from this overwhelming pressure due to the societal barriers that prevent them from achieving said goals. Serving as an advocate for the Black men weighed down by the burdens cast upon them, Hansberry uses her character Walter Lee Younger to protest these inequalities on behalf of Black men. Feeling unaccomplished, Walter states, "I'm thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room" (Hansberry 34). His internal conflicts, caused by his inability to meet the patriarchal standards of being the head of the household and supporting his family, put Walter in a state of general unhappiness and constant anger. Working as a chauffeur puts him in service of white people and does not allow him to provide for his family. Therefore, his wife and mother "[have] to go out…to look after someone else's kids," another degrading job that puts Black women in service of white people (71). One benefit of white privilege, inheriting resources from older generations, gives those who benefit an advantage over Black people. Walter feels he has nothing to pass down to his son Travis besides telling him about what life can be, giving him hope for the future. However, the only examples he has "is stories about how rich white people live" (34). Travis will likely never have access to these opportunities due to his race; therefore, Walter can only provide Travis with false hope, which Travis naively believes. Desperately seeking upward mobility, Walter tells his wife Ruth, " I got to change my life baby…I'm choking to death" (33). Walter expresses his desperation to improve his situation as barriers that continue to oppress him have created an unbearable internal conflict. Unfortunately, he does not have the resources to do so nor does he know how to get them.
Uniquely confined by misogynoir, the combination of race and misogyny, and restricted by communal norms to serve as a wife and mother, Black women undergo much scrutiny from the Black community and greater American society. Portraying Walter's sister, Beneatha, as an ambitious young woman with aspirations of becoming a doctor who struggles to find her identity, Hansberry protests the obstacles that Black Women face, which prevent them from achieving their goals. Beneatha experiences internal conflict as a result of the pressure to assimilate and the judgment for doing so. With her mother as an exception, Beneatha finds few people that support her career and are willing to invest in her education. Her brother Walter discourages her from achieving her dream, telling her to "go be a nurse like other women—or just get married and be quiet" (38). Doubted by members of her family and society as a whole, Beneatha faces many obstacles stopping her dream from becoming a reality. Although society expects her to conform to American standards, Beneatha faces criticism for her "mutilated hair" (60). After being called out for her choice to wear modify her hairstyle to align with the societal norm, Beneatha questions her choice to assimilate and reevaluate her identity as a black woman. Her views shift as she expresses her hatred for "assimilationist Negroes" and seeks out information about her African heritage (81) Beneatha then goes on to define assimilation as "someone who is willing you give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture."
Hansberry uses Beneatha's struggles to be taken seriously in her career and find her identity in order to protest such issues in the mainstream theater community. Hansberry's depiction of Ruth Younger, Walter's wife, who struggles to support her husband, maintain her marriage, and raise her son, serves as a protest against the barriers that Black men create for Black Women. In an argument with Ruth, Walter complains that Black women "don't understand building up their men and making them feel like somebody" (35). Walter's internal struggles cause his frustration and unhappiness; however, he blames Ruth as he cannot blame greater society and the oppressive American system for his issues. He then continues to say Black Women only know how to "Moan, pray and have babies." (87). This misogynistic remark corners Ruth, suggesting that her only capability is serving as a wife and a mother. Through her depiction of Ruth and Walters's strained marriage, Hansberry coverys how the oppressive nature of American society takes a toll on minorities, specifically Black Americans, often damning their relationships.
With the intention of implementing feasible improvements for the younger generations, the older generations of the Black community sacrifice what they have, regardless of how little that may be. Hansberry uses Mama Younger, the family's matriarch and household head, to display the intergenerational relationships in Black families. She once dreamt of home ownership, and sharing those dreams with Ruth. Mama states, "You should know all the dreams I had 'bout buying that house and fixing it up and making me a little garden in the back—(She waits and stops smiling) And didn't none of it happen" (48). Although Mama never achieved her goal of owning a home due to lack of resources, she strives to make her vision a reality for her family. Following her husband's death , the arrival of a ten thousand dollar insurance check provides her with the financial means to gift her children with their own home, a meaningful symbol of freedom and a staple of the American Dream. Out of love for her family, Mama strives to provide her children and grandchildren with what she never had. She sacrifices in an attempt to ensure that her offspring will not experience her struggles or share her disappointments. In regards to her late husband, Walter Sr., Mama adds,"He sure loved his children. Always wanted them to have something—be something. (45). The sacrifices he made during his lifetime provides his family with a hefty check which giveshis children with opportunities he and Mama never had. After purchasing the new house in a white suburb, Mama tells Travis that "she went out and bought you a house (91)" As the youngest member of the family, Travis represents the future of their family. He likely will grow up and raise his family in that house. Hansberry uses this exchange between Mama and Travis to illustrate the progress that each generation makes for the next.
When the neighbor Miss Johnson comes to visit, Hansberry reveals the division present within the Black community. Miss Johnson exclaims, "you hear some Negroes 'round here talking 'bout how they don't go nowhere they ain't wanted and all that— but not me honey! (100). She views seeing other families achieving social mobility as threatening due to her belief that there is only so much success available for black people to obtain and the advancement of others limits her from doing the same. The lack of unity within the community results from the toxic ideologies that the status quo perpetuates.
In contrast to the standard degrading, stereotypical portrayal of Black people on the Broadway stage, Hansberry's depiction of a realistic Black family accomplished her goal of giving the representation necessary to advocate for her community. Each member of the Younger family represents a specific part of the Black community and conveys the burdens they face daily. A Raisin in the Sun also forced white audiences to hear black voices and be less oblivious to the racial disparities present in American society. Despite her own affluence, Hansberry pulls these observations from her own life. She explained, "Daddy felt that this country was hopeless in its treatment of Negroes…He didn't feel free." (Ross) Regardless of his accomplishments, race still contributed to her father's treatment as a second-class citizen. Hansberry was trying to bring light to experiences like her father's through the Younger family, and this act of protest gave representation to the Black community, revolutionizing American theater.