A Raisin in the Sun focuses both on the socioeconomic conditions of African-Americans and their journey for identity in a segregated society. The issue of identity is central in the play, materialized through the Younger family, and their failed assimilation into the American society of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and reluctance of Whites to let Blacks into their community. According to Francis Dedmond various critics complimented the work`s moving story and dramatic impact as well as the play’s honesty and real-life characters.
The setting of the play begins with Hansberry`s description of the Younger`s living room suggesting that “it would be comfortable and well-ordered it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions…… and a table and a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet.” She also mentioned that the apartment was too small to accommodate their entire family, each person shared a bedroom with one another, the family even had to share a bathroom with the other tenants..
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In summary, at that morning the Youngers were about to receive a check from Mr. Younger`s insurance, a sum of 10 thousand dollars that Mama plans to use to aid in bettering her family. However they were burdened with many unforeseen circumstances that jeopardized their wellbeing. Already we see the issue of poverty being highlighted through this scene as it reveals that the Youngers lack financial ability to renovate their home to their contentment, also due to the unfortunate fact that they had to rely on the death of a family member to receive money to survive. Thus, this further goes on to address the African American identity conflict of the blacks being categorized in the `lower class` and not being able to provide for themselves.
Hansberry also used the introduction of major characters in her play to highlight certain issues such as poverty and racial prejudice that reflected the social injustice at that time and also to help draw the attention to the struggle of searching for one’s identity and accomplishing their dreams. Lynn Domina, a poet and author, examines both the racial and gender roles played out in Hansberry’s drama, saying that it raises issues of racial interaction and injustice, as well as the characters attempts to achieve a meaningful life within a struggle against cultural impediments.
Dreams are crucial in the play as it highlights the Youngers desires to rid themselves of their black identity. Mama dreams of moving her family into a house with a yard where children can play and she can tend a garden. Mama’s plant symbolizes both her care for her family and her dream of getting a house, “this plant is as close as I ever got to owning one (house).” She confesses that the plant never gets enough light or water, which is symbolic of how her dream has never gotten the ability to materialize, but still manages to survive.
Beneatha`s dream is far different from that of Mama`s, she on the other hand wants to become a doctor. Hansberry introduces her character whom serves to counteract society’s expectations of women, black woman especially where the norm was to build homes rather than careers and not strive for upward social mobility. Thus she is a symbolical representation of the new African American identity she does not want to assimilate into white culture nor does she want to adopt her African ancestry. Indeed, she wants to carve her own path in society and create a unique identity.
However, her decisions are taunted by the character of George Murchison, a wealthy African – American who adores her. But she finds him shallow and greatly dislikes his willingness to acculturate into white culture, and beliefs and forget about his African identity. Another is her classmate Joseph Asagai from Nigeria. He is proud of his African heritage and climaxing in education so that he can bring about a positive change and modernization in his homeland, an aspect that Beneatha admires. Throughout the play he acts as Beneatha`s moral compass guiding her in finding her identity while staying away from conformity. He also tries to teach her about her African heritage as well, condemning her straightened hair, `mutilated hair and all`, which resembles Caucasian hair, or white hair asking her if she was “born with her hair like that,” leaving her to question whether or not she is proud of her hair (African culture). Their discussion proves how serious Beneatha is about finding her identity and she cuts her hair, embracing her heritage and unwillingness to conform.
Beneatha’s cutting of her hair is a very powerful social statement, symbolically declaring that natural is beautiful, prefiguring the 1960s cultural credo that black is beautiful. Rather than forcing her hair to conform to the style society appreciates, Beneatha creates a style that enables her to more easily reconcile her identity and her culture and recognize herself. . Her new hair is a symbol of her anti-assimilation beliefs as well as her desire to shape her identity by looking back to her roots in Africa.
Though Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play to target and bring awareness to the issues of racial prejudice, and the African American identity crises, many people fail to recognize the hidden meaning. The white press applauded the play for not being only a `Negro play` but one that was a universal drama, implying that the story would be the same if the black characters were replaced with white ones. In part, Hansberry agreed, saying, “I don’t think there is anything more universal in the world than man’s oppression to man.” But she argued that her characters were distinctly Negro and even more specifically from Chicago’s South Side in which she lived and experience similar issues as those presented in the play.
One the other hand, dramatist and screenwriter Tynan who served as a drama critic for the New Yorker expressed the supreme virtue of A Raisin in the Sun saying that despite the play being the first ever Broadway Production by a colored artist, the fact that it was also staged by a colored director makes it even more complimenting.
In conclusion Hansberry perfectly constructed the portrayal of African American identity in the play through setting, characterization, symbolism and themes in the play that was further developed through the historical background of the era in which she lived and experienced. Hence, she created a perfect depiction of the time and was praised by many for her remarkable and outstanding work.
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