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Race Barriers to Dreams. “A Raisin in the Sun” by Hansberry Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

Literary works that describe relationships between the representatives of dissimilar ethnic or racial groups often raise the issue of prejudice on the basis of origin. At the same time, the way that explicit or implicit biases impact the balance of power in society is also emphasized. A Raisin in the Sun, the globally recognized play by one of the most prominent African-American playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, is not an exception. Focusing on the life of a Black American family, the author discusses the problems of race-based prejudice, segregation, historical memory, and the role of generational gaps in racial minorities’ attitudes to injustice.

In her play, Lorraine Hansberry places the key characters’ race and the resulting differences from the white majority in the context of everyday life and opportunities. Belonging to the middle class, the members of the Younger family have some money, but their most desired wishes are incompatible with their current financial position (James and Davidson 64). However, at the very beginning of the play, they are waiting to get ten thousand dollars, a life insurance payment, after the death of the father (James and Davidson 64). This money fills the family with hope, and the characters start thinking about their boldest dreams as if there were no race-related barriers to success in the mid-twentieth century (James and Davidson 64). The family members see a large sum of money as one of the best ways to pursue their personal goals. However, racial segregation still exists in different forms and places some de facto limitations on the family’s ability to exercise their rights.

Hansberry manages to demonstrate the problems of race-based prejudice without negative stereotypes. Unlike many literary works of the time, A Raisin in the Sun was written by a representative of a racial minority. Therefore, it was not aimed at using a set of offensive stereotypes in order to amuse the racial majority (James and Davidson 64). The questions of race and biases related to interracial differences are not just among the key themes in work – they are literally at the heart of the plot. Interestingly, different critics, for instance, Harris, and Anderson, are convinced that A Raisin in the Sun exceeds the scope of stereotypical views of black womanhood by introducing second to none characters (Murray 283). As an example, Lena Younger referred to as Mama, is the embodiment of different archetypes of black women simultaneously (Murray 283). Despite the presence of recognizable traits and behaviors, literature scholars define her as an accurate prototype for what is considered to be stereotypical today (Murray 283). Therefore, the need to discuss race-specific problems does not prevent the playwright from creating authentic characters.

Trying to shed light on the roots of segregation and prejudice, Hansberry introduces characters who have a life-long experience of racism and even face the long-run effects of slavery. According to the analysis conducted by James and Davidson, Hansberry makes Mama a prominent female character by referring to her strength “that she acquired through years of struggle” (65). Thus, since she acknowledges the underrepresentation of Black families in American theater, the author contributes to diversity in the art without being disrespectful to the experiences of people who have been oppressed and underrated for many years.

A large portion of the new matriarch’s suffering in the past is strictly interconnected with the imbalance of wealth and power in the American South. It includes, for instance, the family history of slavery that Mama will never forget and the woman’s experience of being unwelcome in some spaces (James and Davidson 66). At the same time, particular references to the family’s past related to racism are interspersed with the discussion of universal problems, such as the need to cope with failures and losses (James and Davidson 65). Based on that, the playwright manages to balance between turning the spotlight on the unique cultural experiences of enslaved people’s descendants and showing the members of the family as common people with ordinary problems.

Prejudiced attitudes to people on the basis of their race are thoroughly illustrated in the play due to the family’s decision to buy a house in a white neighborhood. For each family member, their future place of residence symbolizes different things associated with happiness. However, the representative of the local White community, Mr. Lindner, meets the family and tries to dissuade them from fulfilling their plans (Orem 195). Although he tries to look nice, his real attitudes toward racial minorities become evident when he claims that racial segregation in housing makes African Americans safer and happier (Orem 195). Judging from his words, the presence of pre-destined limitations that are indissolubly tied to racial origin does not cause harm to minority groups and is aimed at protecting their safety and encouraging cohesion. As a culminating point of his racist speech, the man offers the family a large sum of money in exchange for not buying the house (Murray 289; Orem 195). This part of the play leaves no room for the illusion of equality and justice and encourages the family to make a difficult decision.

Apart from the characters’ need to cope with limitations imposed on them just because of their skin color, the play touches upon minority people’s attitudes to race-based discrimination. This problem is shown with reference to the conflict between generations and younger people’s attitudes to the history of oppression. When one of Mama’s children is about to accept the proposal of the White community, she becomes furious (Murray 289). In this scene, it becomes clear that some of her younger relatives do not understand the broad implications of such decisions and their long-term consequences for the self-consciousness of the African-American population. More than that, modern researchers note that Mama symbolizes the memory of the previous generations and an “undying spirit” of pride and courage (Murray 289). Her children see the offer as a source of new opportunities for their family and are not fully aware of its ideological underpinnings and further contributions to segregation. Therefore, in addition to the issue of racism, the playwright raises the problem of the minority’s sense of dignity and willingness to come to terms with their oppressors.

To sum it up, although it is a fictional story, A Raisin in the Sun presents an important source helping to study the problems of racism and race. Its first advantage in this regard is that the play introduces a range of non-stereotypical African-American characters with their strengths and weaknesses, thus contributing to diversity and minority representation in art. The literary work attracts attention to numerous aspects of racism, including segregation in housing and the outcomes of slavery and other forms of legalized oppression. At the same time, it adds to the discussion of race by highlighting generational differences in people’s perceptions of prejudice.

Works Cited

James, Jeena, and Manjula L. Davidson. “Patriarchal Tones in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities, vol. 7, no. 3, 2019, pp. 62-72.

Murray, William. “The Roof of a Southern Home: A Reimagined and Usable South in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 277-294.

Orem, Sarah. “Signifyin(g) When Vexed: Black Feminist Revision, Anger, and A Raisin in the Sun.” Modern Drama, vol. 60, no. 2, 2017, pp. 189-211.

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