In the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Race and Racism play an important role in developing the plot, characters and themes. Hansberry has been radical in that she has put a black ordinary American family on stage and she has presented their everyday struggles using everyday language in an ordinary setting. Hansberry has challenged the stereotypical presentations of black life she has seen in mainstream media. She has been didactic in her presentation of her views in order to promote her revolutionary ideas about inequality in Southside Chicago and the USA in general.
The characters in the play need to be African American because Hansberry wants to ask the question – What is a true American?
MAMA Son – I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers – but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ‘em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor. (Raising her eyes and looking at him) We ain’t never been that – dead inside. (3.1.97)
Hansberry makes the point that generations of black people have suffered and made sacrifices to build America, they have a right to be there and they should have access to the American Dream without having to sell their dignity, identity and self-worth.
Mama and Big Walter lived in a time when segregation was lawful and lynching was still a serious threat in order to remind Walter and Beneatha that they are fortunate not to live in those times. Mama reminds Walter of the daily humiliations which they had to endure in order to survive – ‘sitting at the back of the bus’; ‘stay alive’ and maintain ‘dignity’.
I believe Walter blames his race for his misfortunes because he is yet to encounter Mr Lindner and his casual racism to fully understand how difficult it is to fight against institutional racism. He believes his family are not aspirational they don’t encourage any of his attempts to break away from stereotypical jobs assigned to the black community.
Beneatha appears to be Hansberry’s mouthpiece on race, she uses the term assimilationist to describe George Murchison. She rejects American values and chooses to seek African culture as a means of finding an identity, strength and purpose. Beneatha is educated to a higher level than the rest of her family, whilst studying she has encountered some revolutionary ideas and when she shares them with her family she feels alienated because they can’t understand her. She can’t accept George Murchison as her life partner despite his riches and his social status because she realises he will never make her happy as he doesn’t support her desire to be a doctor.
The term assimilation could also be applied to Walter’s attempts to extract money from Mr Lindner. He shows his family the performance in advance which is horrifying to the female characters and the audience. The only way Mama can prevent this heart breaking and humiliating performance is to force him to show his son how to behave in order to get on in this world.
At this point in the play Hansberry redeems Walter’s character making him the hero of the story – the realisation that a dream is empty without the love and support of family.
14 Key Quotations on Race
1. What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
2. ASAGAI …You came up to me and you said… “Mr. Asagai – I want very much to talk with you. About Africa. You see, Mr. Asagai, I am looking for my identity!” (He laughs)
3. WALTER Mama – sometimes when I’m downtown and I pass them cool-quiet-looking restaurants where them white boys are sitting back and talking ‘bout things…sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars…sometimes I see guys don’t look much older than me.
4. MAMA Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could.
5. BENEATHA [Assimilationist] means someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture!
6. WALTER Why? You want to know why? ‘Cause we all tied up in a race of people that don’t know how to do nothing but moan, pray and have babies!
7. LINDNER (Turning a little to her and then returning the main force to WALTER) Well – it’s what you might call a sort of welcoming committee, I guess. I mean they, we – I’m the chairman of the committee – go around and see the new people who move into the neighborhood and sort of give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park. BENEATHA (With appreciation of the two meanings, which escape RUTH and WALTER) Un-huh.
8. LINDNER …. I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.
9. LINDNER (Looking around at the hostile faces and reaching and assembling his hat and briefcase) Well – I don’t understand why you people are reacting this way. What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted and where some elements – well – people can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve ever worked for is threatened.
10. WALTER …Mama, you know it’s all divided up. Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the “tooken.” (He laughs) I’ve figured it out finally…People like Willy Harris, they don’t never get “tooken.” And you know why the rest of us do? ‘Cause we all mixed up. Mixed up bad. We get to looking ‘round for the right and the wrong; and we worry about it and cry about it and stay up nights trying to figure out ‘bout the wrong and the right of things all the time… And all the time, man, them takers is out there operating, just taking and taking.