A Glimpse into the Lives of African Americans
The 1950s was a time for revolutions and the rise of the Civil Rights movement. It made sense that during this time, some revolutionary literature and plays would be produced. A Raisin in the Sun is a perfect example of such plays. Not only is it the first play performed on Broadway written by an African American woman, the play also hosts almost all African American characters.”The play earned Hansberry the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play in 1959, the first such distinction for an African-American playwright…Hansberry emphasized the dignity of African-American life and culture in her writing and in her active involvement in the Civil Rights movement” (Bader). A Raisin in the Sun provides a glimpse into the lives of African Americans in the 1950’s dealing with racism, classism, and sexism as they try to pursue the American Dream. To understand why there was so much discrimination against white Americans and black Americans, one would have to go back to the Civil War. In 1860, there were 4.1 million African-Americans living in the United States. However, 94% of their population were enslaved and the majority were enslaved in the South (Marchie). After the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment, African Americans were supposed to be treated like any other citizen. Unfortunately, many states developed what became known as “Black Codes” in their new state constitution to “regulate” freed slaves.
Such Black Codes included laws such as “Employmentwas required of all freedmen, violators faced vagrancy charges, No assembly without the presence of a white person, Agricultural workers with their duties and hours regulated, and freedmen were not to be taught to read or write” (Marchie). These Black Codes, the predecessor of the Jim Crow Laws, kept the African American population uneducated and isolated from the rest of the country. This isolation only got worse as the years went by, setting up future generations for failure and keeping African Americans in the lower classes of society.Now, not all African Americans were chained to the lower classes. Some found success in later years and climbed up the social ladder. But with that success came a divide between upper and lower classes of African Americans. “From 1930 to 1950, the New Deal expanded welfare to the majority of Americans. However, the bill still excluded certain minority groups, maintaining social and legal barriers that openly discriminated against a sizable portion of American citizens. The 1960s marked the beginning of an era where individuals were prepared to fight for their rights as American citizens as well as fight the cycle of inequality perpetuated by American “ideals.”” (1950s to the Present).
The best example of this from A Raisin in the Sun is the interactions between Walter Younger, a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, and George, a college student from a wealthy African American family. Walter treats George with little respect and comments about George’s shoes “Why all you college boys wear them fairyish white shoes?” (Hansberry). In this context, the white shoes represent the wealth and privilege that George was lucky enough to be born into and what Walter strives to gain for his family. Unfortunately, these are not the only two issues the face the Youngers. Beneatha and Lena Younger in particular face what every other woman faced: sexism. “Sexism, discrimination based on sex, especially against women by men seeking to maintain male dominance, is as integral a feature of the American democracy and its political system as is racism. And like racism, it is deeply rooted in Western philosophy, sanctioned by an ideology of male supremacism that is not unlike the ideology of white supremacy. In the social contract theory that is the philosophical foundation of the American democracy, women, like blacks, were excluded from the social contract” (Smith). In A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha is in college to pursue her dream of being a doctor.
At that time, doctors were a primarily male-dominated position and it was almost unheard of for a woman to be one. It was even more uncommon for an African American woman to become a doctor. This is proven by Walter’s comment to Beneatha as they are arguing “Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you so crazy ’bout messing ’round with sick people”then go be a nurse like other women”or just get married and be quiet …” (Hansberry) As for Lena Younger, her dream is what every person in the United States wanted.The dream of owning your own home was the “American Dream” that was popularized during this time period. This was also the dream of Lena Younger and her late husband, referred to as “Big Walter”. The apartment where the Youngers lived was only supposed to be a temporary situation. But almost forty years later, after the death of Big Walter, the Youngers were able to get the money they need to move out into a white suburban neighborhood. This part, in particular, is interesting because the events between the Youngers and the people of the suburban neighborhood is eerily similar to what Hansberry experienced in her own life. “In 1938, Hansberry’s father challenged a Chicago statute that prohibited African Americans from living in white neighbourhoods. When the family moved to their new home, an angry mob surrounded the house, threw bricks, and threatened further violence.
An Illinois court ordered the Hansberry’s to leave, but Carl Hansberry fought the order until 1940, when he won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hansberry v. Lee, which overturned the state court decision” (Bader). What happened to Lorraine’s family is the same warning given to the Youngers in her play before they moved into the white neighborhood. It’s also possible that Hansberry took events from her own life and the lives of the people around her growing up in Chicago.This separation of white and African Americans stems back to a court decision made in the late 1800s. The 1896 Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court case upheld the idea of “separate but Equal” that divided and already separated America even further. Before this court case, there was already tension between white and African Americans in the rapidly growing cities of the Industrial Revolution. As freed slaves moved into the cities to escape the treacherous South, Northerners began to feel threatened by them as well as the newly arrived immigrants. So, there was a push to move out of the city and into suburbs. The suburbs provide the convenience of the cities without having to live near minority populations (Marchie). When this happened, African Americans also tried to move out of the cities as well to escape the crime that was slowly rising.
But, because previous generations were set up for failure, the majority of families could not afford to move out of the cities. This is the situation the Youngers were in at the beginning of the play and the dream of Lena Younger. Keeping all these elements in mind, it’s easier to see how A Raisin in the Sun is a product of its time. “A Raisin in the Sun was initially rejected by Broadway producers. It debuted in smaller venues in New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia. On March 11, 1959, the play had its Broadway opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and became an instant popular and critical success. The first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances and was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play in 1959, also a first for an African-American woman” (Bader). The not so shocking part of this play is that even 60 years later, the major conflicts of racism, classism, and sexism faced by the Younger family are still major issues today.