Lorraine Hansberry: “A Raisin in the Sun”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, was a groundbreaking play in so many ways. Hansberry was the first African American woman to write a Broadway play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the best play of 1959. The play tells the story of an ordinary African American family, warts and all, and addresses an all-too-common challenge faced by black families in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – housing discrimination.

In the play, the Younger family lives in a cold water flat on the south side of Chicago. Lena Younger – the widowed matriarch of the family, known as Mama – has had a lifelong dream of buying a home of her own. When her husband dies, she decides to use part of the life insurance money as a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood. Though there are other plot lines involving her daughter, Beneatha, her son, Walter, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, the major focus of the play is Mama’s decision to buy the house and the pushback the family gets from white residents in what is to be the Youngers’ new neighborhood.

In a scene that might seem a bit heavy-handed but was unfortunately all too real, a Mr. Lindner – a white man – is sent as the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. On behalf of the neighborhood’s other white residents, he offers to buy the house from the Youngers at a premium – more than what the house is worth. In sweet-talking words, he says that “most of the trouble in the world . . . exists because people don’t just sit down and talk to each other . . . that we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem. The other guy’s point of view.” After that preamble, he finally gets to the point:

Well – you see our community is made up of people who’ve worked hard as the dickens for years to build up that little community. They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people who don’t really have much but those little homes and a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in. . . . [T]he overwhelming majority of our people out there feels that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community, when they share a common background. 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, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.

When the Younger family balks at his offer to buy the house from them, he says, “What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted? . . . People can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve worked for is threatened.”

A Raisin in the Sun has been popular since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959, and it is a perennial favorite in high school English classes. What many people do not know, however, is that the play is based in part on Hansberry’s own family history. In 1935, her parents, Carl and Nannie Hansberry, bought a house in the all-white Washington Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Anna Lee, a white homeowner in the neighborhood, sued the Hansberrys on the grounds that a restrictive covenant prohibited blacks from buying property in the neighborhood. The case – Hansberry v. Lee – ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the Court’s 1940 finding hinged on a technicality and not on the issue of whether racially based restrictive covenants were legal or constitutional, the decision nevertheless paved the way for making such covenants illegal.

Lorraine Hansberry herself seems to have had mixed feelings about the court case and her father’s fight for housing fairness. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, she said,

My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the “American way” could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus, twenty-five years ago, he spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. . . . My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.

So powerful and hard-hitting was Hansberry’s play in its depiction of the insidious practice of racially based housing discrimination that the FBI tracked Hansberry’s activities – both before and after the play’s Broadway production. Learn more at F.B. Eyes Digital Archive.

Curious about the play’s title? It comes from Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Harlem,” which opens with the lines: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” And that raises the question: will the Younger family accept the substantial amount of cash Mr. Lindner offers – or will they move into Clybourne Park anyway, risking possible violence from their new neighbors? Indeed, the play refers to another black family whose new home in a white neighborhood was bombed in an attempt to scare them away. With the promise of more money on one hand and in the face of possible violence on the other, what will the Youngers do?

You’ll have to read the play or – better yet – watch the original film adaptation to see what the Youngers ultimately decide to do. Do they achieve their dream or does it continue to dry up like a raisin in the sun? The original film stars Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, both of whom starred in the Broadway production as well. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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Watch:Watch Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee as Walter and Ruth Younger in a three-minute scene near the beginning of the 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. You may also want to watch the three-minute original trailer for the 1961 film.

Image Credit: Public Domain, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/hansberry-lorraine-1930-1965.