Note: In this review I use the term ‘race’ as it is commonly used, but I feel the word is often misused. Read more about the problematic uses of the word ‘race’ here.
A Raisin in the Sun is a gift of a play from Lorraine Hansberry. It is a complex work with foresight and insight that was in many ways unique at the time, or at least certainly in her context. Though the family at the center of the play is Black, and though it is a play that focuses on ‘race’ relations, and ‘racism’, it is not consumed by these themes entirely, but also touches on issues of class and gender and uses telling dialogue to articulate and challenge views. It is a shame that Hansberry passed away at such a young age (a victim of pancreatic cancer), because if this work was any indication, Hansberry had much more to say.
The play revolves around a family who has recently lost their patriarch. The matriarch of the family, (who houses a family of five in a tenement apartment) is to receive a cheque for $10 000 for her husband’s life insurance. The narrative focuses on what is to be done with the money. Lena is the matriarch, and along with her daughter Beneatha, Lena’s son Walter, his wife Ruth and their son Travis, makes up the family at the center of this narrative. Walter believes the money should be invested in a liquor store, Lena feels the money should be used in part to pay for Beneatha’s education (she is studying to be an MD) and also toward the purchase of a house.
Walter is problematic in several ways. For one, he indulges in racist attitudes himself. He passes judgement on his own people and Black women, and adopts racist views handed down by the oppressive system in which they live. He is also sexist in many ways. He expects that women should support their husbands unquestioningly and late in the play, when he is entrusted with money by his mother, he invests and loses his sister’s tuition, showing no respect for his mother’s wishes or his sister’s future. It is his future, that man’s future, and the man’s ideas that matter most to him. The play ends with Walter redeeming himself in a way, but for me the character seems flawed and unsympathetic, which is not to say that her is not integral to the success of the play.
Beneatha seems to be the most interesting character in the play and the most in tune with the world around her and has an admirable moral code. When Ruth tells Beneatha that she should be happy with George Murchison, because “He’s rich”, Beneatha suggests that simply being rich isn’t enough for her. Ruth asks: “what other qualities a man got to have to satisfy you”? Ruth’s observations seem to suggest that marriage isn’t much different than prostitution and that if a woman doesn’t like a man personally, those feelings should be cast aside if he is wealthy. Beneatha though is not concerned about money and in retort Beneatha suggests that she isn’t concerned with how much her husband will make because she is “going to be a doctor” and even suggests she might not get married at all. Later when George suggests that Beneatha is “nice-looking” and that that is all she needs, she dismisses him for his shallowness as she wants a man who will appreciate her mind. When her mother suggests that she will be a doctor “God willing”, Beneatha asserts that “God has nothing to do with it”. Beneatha has no intention of depending on any man or god, but rather is an independent person who aims on defining her own future. There is also an interesting conversation between Beneatha and her mother where Beneatha tells her mother that the only way to get rid of cockroaches is to “set fire to this building”. There seems to be an allusion here to the system which has oppressed them. The only way to rid the system of corruption is to destroy it and create a new one. This isn’t said explicitly, but the implication is clear. Beneatha also has her views expanded by the enigmatic Asagai who tells her that she mutilates her hair by straightening it and convinces her to embrace her hair’s natural form, which her sister ironically challenges as being against nature later in the play. She is not doe-eyed and naive around Asagai though, and is an active participant in their conversations. She challenges Asagai’s vie of women too, when he tells her that his feelings for her should be enough, she retorts: “that’s what it says in all the novels that men write”, noting the male bias in such logic. When Asagai speaks of liberation, Beneatha displays her foresight, noting that when the white men are displaced in Africa, there will be “crooks and thieves…who will… steal and plunder the same as before—only now they will be black”. Beneatha recognizes that exploitation isn’t based on race, but rather on power. People with the power to exploit those who are weak will do so regardless of whatever perceived race either party happens to be. The root cause is greed.
Walter even recognizes this. His mothers suggests that “freedom used to be life”, but now it’s money. Walter tells her: “it was always money… We just didn’t know about it”. The narrative involving Walter also serves to demonstrate this. A friend of his, with whom he decides to do business, runs off with several thousand dollars belonging to Walter and his sister. Like Walter he lives in the tenement slums and is the victim of racism, but he has no sympathy for his fellow man, his fellow victim. He does not hesitate to victimize Walter and steal from him when given the opportunity, demonstrating that the people within a perceived group cannot always move forward because they have forces within that group that work in a manner counterproductive to the goals of the group. We see this with Ruth as well who encourages Beneatha to accept the patriarchal role assigned to women when Beneatha is trying to move forward and create he own equality, a theme that is reinforced when Lena makes her son the head of the house hold and trusts him with the tuition money allotted to Beneatha. Beneatha has her authority taken from her in this instances, and is encourage to forfeit it by fellow women in the play.
One of the more interesting aspects of the play for me is the title, which was lifted from a poem by Langston Hughes titles ‘Harlem’ from the book Montage of a Dream Deferred. The reference is clear. Lena has a dream about what her children might become, and Beneatha and Walter both have dreams of what they might become, but the events that unfold in the narrative prevent most of these dreams from being realized, with the exception of Lena’s dream that they live in a house (a dream which is no doubt about to become a nightmare), and so the dreams are deferred if not extinguished altogether. There may be another way to look at the title though. Who is the raisin in the play? Lena might be the obvious choice since she is the eldest and has had more time in the sun, but I believe there is a case to be made for each of the adult characters. Walter has turned bitter, as has Ruth and Beneatha has seen her childhood dreams of becoming an MD soured because of realities she sees. She wanted to heal people, but she sees that what ails the world the most is far beyond the expertise of somebody who studies medicine, and so she will not be able to bring that dream to fruition. Rather, the dream will become overripe and dry up in the sun.
The play is filled with all kinds of great dialogue. It reminds me much of The Glass Menagerie in that the ending is so devoid of hope. The money is lost, Beneatha may not be able to go to school, and the house that was purchased will not be paid in full and all the members of the family will have to work to keep up with the mortgage. Ruth has a second baby on the way, and there is also the threat of racial persecution considering that they are moving into an all-white neighbourhood who has made it clear that they are not welcome. Though Walter makes a moral stand at the end of the play, it seems like a hollow gesture that is not in tune with the reality of the situation. The work though is great. Again, it is the Beneatha character that propels the play. Lena is well intentioned, but misguided. Ruth puts on a strong front, but when alone succumbs to the will of her husband. Travis is a peripheral character at best and George is everything that is wrong with a capitalist patriarchy. Asagai is the only other character that helps to develop the positive and constructive ideas and challenges Beneatha while giving her the platform to demonstrate that she is equal to her male counterpart. Though the other characters are flawed, that does not imply that they offer nothing. They help to demonstrate flaws in thinking and allow Beneatha to articulate her beliefs. The characters work in concert, most especially when in opposition to each other, and Hansberry crafted a great play with depth and thought provoking ideas. It is a shame she didn’t live long enough to give us more such works.