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A Raisin in the Sun | Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry

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Act 1, Scene 2

Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 2 of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun.

A Raisin in the Sun | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary



Mama and Beneatha are cleaning the house on Saturday morning. Ruth is at the doctor's office, and Mama suspects why but doesn't tell.

Joseph Asagai telephones and asks to visit Beneatha. She agrees. Then she warns an indignant Mama not to ask "ignorant questions about Africans." Ruth returns and confirms she's two months pregnant. Beneatha is happy but worried about the lack of space in the apartment. When Ruth refers to the doctor she saw as "she," Mama becomes suspicious. Stressed and tired, Ruth begins sobbing and goes to lie down.

Asagai arrives with a package. He's brought Nigerian records and colorful Nigerian robes for a thrilled Beneatha. He asks why Beneatha has "mutilated" her natural hair and accuses her of assimilationism, a label she rejects. Respectful and kind, Asagai clearly has romantic feelings for Beneatha, who is unsure how she feels. She says she isn't interested in being one of many girls he dates in America. He calls her a nickname from the Yoruba language (his tribe of origin). It's Alaiyo: "One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough." Mama meets Asagai briefly before he leaves and warmly invites him to come again for a meal. She parrots to him what Beneatha told her: that Africans need salvation from colonial powers, not from "heathenism." Once Beneatha is alone she tries on the dress and headdress from Asagai. She looks in the mirror for a while and then quickly leaves the house.

The bell rings—the mailman has arrived with the settlement check. Ruth and Mama are thrilled and nervous. Travis brings up the check and confirms to Mama that it's written for $10,000. After the initial excitement wanes Mama confronts Ruth about the doctor's appointment, since their regular doctor is male. Before Ruth can answer Walter returns home and immediately asks about the money. Mama says firmly that she won't invest in a liquor store. Walter becomes angry and asks how she expects the family to rise from poverty. He starts to storm out despite Mama telling him he should talk to his wife. Fed up with Walter, Ruth leaves the room.

Mama warns Walter he'll push Ruth away and confesses that she's worried about him. Walter admits that his dreams and desires drive him crazy; he senses the future is waiting for him. Money is life, he tells Mama. Mama remembers when "freedom used to be life," and she accuses Walter of not being satisfied with what she and her husband provided. She then springs the news that Ruth is pregnant—and that Ruth might end the pregnancy. The audience discovers that the woman Ruth went to administers abortions. Ruth returns and confirms that she's made a down payment on the procedure. Mama sternly tells Walter to step up and convince his wife to keep the child. Walter says nothing and leaves the apartment.


Music plays an important role in this scene—the South Side saxophone blues the family listens to and the Nigerian folk songs Asagai brings Beneatha. The blues have deep roots in African American history and the plantations of the South. In the 1940s the blues were still fairly new to the Midwest: they represent a narrative of overcoming adversity that's specific to the black American experience and influenced by slavery. The Nigerian folk music has a different connotation. It is proudly performed by Africans who have never had to assimilate into another culture. Beneatha recognizes this difference and considers what it means to her.

Cleaning plays a major role as well. Housecleaning and domestic chores are how the Youngers, particularly the women, show pride in their living space—how they better their environment. As loath as Mama is to have a houseguest during the cleaning chaos, she clearly sees the apartment as a place to host, a place where guests can come and find warmth. Beneatha's joke that the only way to destroy the roaches is to "set fire to this building" indicates that she, like Mama, thinks a housing upgrade would enhance the Youngers' quality of life.

Beneatha and Mama are still struggling to communicate. Beneatha points out that Mama donates to "missionary work," associating herself with the well-intentioned Americans bent on saving Africa. Beneatha then tells her mother what she thinks would help Africa more. To show her daughter that she's making an effort to understand, Mama repeats Beneatha's thoughts on colonialism to Asagai. Though Mama's still deeply devout—there's still God in her house—she loves her children and she's trying to connect. She just doesn't know how.

Asagai's gentle teasing of Beneatha about how earnestly she's "looking for [her] identity" reminds her that for Asagai, identity is more than an academic exercise. He's traveled internationally, and he knows the true circumstances of life in Nigeria and America. Though Beneatha wants to be a "queen of the Nile," she's still influenced by Hollywood and media. Her idea of romance, for instance, is influenced by "novels that men write," though she's becoming more aware of this influence. Just as she's questioning the racism in American depictions of Africa, she's questioning the sexism in literary depictions of women in love. Asagai doesn't find Beneatha as "liberated" as she finds herself. She can't help being an assimilationist, he implies, because she's grown up in America. Despite her fiercely independent streak she's no different than other women in her insistence on holding out for the right suitor.

Asagai's statement that "the sense of a thing can be so different when it changes languages" harkens back to themes of generational misunderstanding throughout the play. Beneatha, in a way, is learning a different language than her family uses. Her confused dancing in front of the mirror "as she thinks a Nigerian woman might" reinforces this disconnection.

The repeated incidence of characters looking off into the distance, trying to imagine or see something that others can't (as Beneatha, Mama, and Walter do in this scene) symbolizes the family's hopes and dreams. Beneatha looks into Africa. Mama looks into her past, at the $10,000 that represents her husband and their life together. Walter looks into his future, gray and murky.

Ideas about money also feed the generational disconnections. Mama is so bewildered by the check she asks Travis, who has presumably had more formal education than his grandmother, to count the zeroes for her. Mama's silence after receiving the check may indicate that she's realizing the money will never be enough to give her back what she's lost, so to her, it's almost irrelevant. She won't sacrifice her principles to give Walter money to spend. Family is more important to her, which is why she rages at Ruth for considering an abortion and grows angry at Walter for driving Ruth away.

Walter sees a different kind of freedom than Mama does. He's more concerned with better jobs, better material objects: the freedom of choice that money represents. He sees no reason not to be like the well-dressed white men making million-dollar deals. Unlike his sister assimilation doesn't bother him; he wants the American dream, even if it's white.

Ruth may be the only one who sees nothing positive in her future. When the act ends the audience isn't sure what decision she'll make about the baby, but they know whatever she does will have grave consequences for her family.

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