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A Raisin in the Sun | Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry

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A Raisin in the Sun | Context


Chicago Housing Law

The Hansberrys' 1938 move to the mostly white Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago prompted their neighbors to enforce a "restrictive covenant" or discriminatory housing agreement. Five hundred Chicago housing owners backed the agreement, which stated that no real estate should be "sold, leased to, or permitted to be occupied by any person of the colored race." These white owners brought an action to the Supreme Court of Illinois, which affirmed the restrictive covenant.

Young Lorraine Hansberry was nearly hit by a brick thrown through a window when a mob attacked their home. To Be Young, Gifted and Black records that she was "spat at, cursed and pummeled" on the way to school, while her mother guarded the home with a pistol.

The Hansberrys appealed the Illinois decision to the U.S. Supreme Court successfully in Hansberry v. Lee (1940). They remained in their home. The case marked a turning point in racially restrictive housing laws, which began to end as the civil rights movement took hold. Despite the victory Hansberry noticed the toll the discrimination took on her family, particularly her father. She based A Raisin in the Sun loosely on her family's housing fight.

The play references physical attacks on black residents of white neighborhoods, but it also focuses on more subtle forms of discrimination. For instance, Mama Younger notes that houses in "colored" areas are twice as expensive as houses in "white" areas. And Karl Lindner, the neighborhood association representative, attempts to coerce the family into an agreement to sell the house.

Accommodation versus Agitation

The two most prominent black leaders in the early 20th century, educator and writer Booker T. Washington and writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois, had radically different ideas about how African Americans should negotiate their post–Civil War position in society. Washington believed in accommodation. He promoted working respectfully among white Americans in order to strengthen African American communities. By earning jobs and prosperity, African Americans would prove their worth.

DuBois believed in using agitation to bring about change. He advocated college education and political action for African Americans. He taught that accepting existing systems perpetuated white oppression and making trouble was the only way to make progress. He echoed the views of 19th-century activist and writer Frederick Douglass, who said, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground." These two views divided black America between "conservatives" and "radicals."

Characters in A Raisin in the Sun display both perspectives. Hansberry explores the effect of each strategy—accommodating and agitating—on black American liberation.

The influence of another prominent black leader, Marcus Garvey, can be seen on the characters of the play. Garvey organized the first major American black nationalist movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Its goals were to build an independent black economy that would exist within the dominant white economy and to establish an independent African nation governed by blacks.

The Civil Rights Movement

The modern civil rights era took off in 1954, when the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of American schools. A Raisin in the Sun first came to the stage in a turbulent time for African Americans. The 1955–56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the 1957 forced integration of Little Rock Central High School had happened only a few years before the play's premiere.

The writer and activist James Baldwin, a champion of Hansberry's work, said of A Raisin in the Sun, "[N]ever before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them." Indeed the play got black audiences to the theater in record numbers.

When white critics praised the play for being universal, Hansberry agreed that "man's oppression to man" was a universal theme. She argued, however, that the characters were specifically black and from the South Side of Chicago.

A Raisin in the Sun

The author of the poem "Harlem," the source of the title of the play, was Langston Hughes. His poetry, fiction, drama, and collections of folklore won international acclaim for their vivid portrayals of African American life. In just a few lines, "Harlem" vividly describes what happens to a dream that has been put off too long; it either shrivels up or festers like a wound. The poem also hints at what happens to the people whose dreams are deferred, in phrases that could serve as descriptions of Mama ("sags/like a heavy load") and Walter ("explode").

Young, Gifted, and Black

Hansberry's characters are composites of her family members and working-class acquaintances on the South Side. Mama Younger and Big Walter are similar to Hansberry's parents, Nannie and Carl Hansberry. "Beneatha is me, eight years ago," Hansberry said of the intellectually curious 20-year-old Beneatha Younger.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black elaborates on the struggles Hansberry faced as a talented, revolutionary black woman in the 1950s and 1960s. Hansberry said, "[I]n order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific" in dramatic writing. By telling a story that had great meaning in her own life, Hansberry was able to reach theatergoers profoundly through A Raisin in the Sun.

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