My final lecture last fall for the American literature course at the University of Bergen was on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the presence of Big Walter on stage during a performance in Boston that was directed by Liesl Tommy. As well, I have discussed my other lectures fro the American Literature class: Introductory Lecture for American Literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. Today, I want to briefly look at my lecture for Hansberry’s play. As usual, you can find it over on Google Docs.
Since I lectured on The Great Gatsby and John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, I decided to begin by using quotes from those two texts to remind students what he had talked about over the course of the semester but also to remind them that the ideals that de Crèvecœur espouses and the advice that Nick’s father gives him do not apply to everyone. As such, I start with the opening of The Great Gatsby where Nick reflects on his father’s words. His father told him that not everyone has the same privileges that he does. This, of course, is true. However, how does it relate to the Youngers? Even if they succeed, will future generations have the same privileges that they achieved?
Along with this, I provided a quote from de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer. In the quote, Farmer James comments that anyone who arrives on America’s shores and works hard can “make it.” They will get “fields to feed and clothe thee; a comfortable fireside to sit by, and tell thy children by what means thou hast prospered; and a decent bed to repose on.” If the person does this, then America will provide for the person’s progeny too, allowing them to maintain that same success. A Raisin in the Sun shows that this success, however, only opens itself up to some, not everyone. De Crèvecœur even intimates as much when he lists the nationalities that make up the new nation. All are European.
Following The Great Gatsby and de Crèvecœur, I turn to the play that the students read the week before: Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman. There are similarities between the Lomans and the Youngers. Most notably, both receive insurance money from the death of the family patriarch. Yet, more differences occur. Hansberry’s play exposes the racist systems that keep the Youngers, no matter how hard they work, in subjugation. Even amidst all of this, they maintain a family unity, tested at times, that sees them through to the end of the play, and hope arises with Walter and Ruth’s pregnancy and the move to Clybourne Park. Yet, even though the play ends with the Youngers happily moving, a cloud of fear hangs over the ending because we know that they will experience violence and discrimination. If the Lomans succeed, would that occur?
From here, I proceed to discuss the importance of Hansberry’s play in regard to the representation of African Americans on stage. James Baldwin stated, “In order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks chose to sing the blues. This is why Raisin in the Sun meant so much to black people.” Just like Black Panther, A Raisin in the Sun provided Black audiences with a real-life representation of their experiences on stage, not stereotypical images.
In “Willie Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live,” Hansberry continues Baldwin’s assessment. Responding to one critic who simplified Walter’s experiences by linking him to Willie Loman, Hansberry made sure to let people know that for many “Walter remains, despite the play, despite the performance, what American radical traditions wish him to be: an exotic.” As “an exotic,” these audience members do not see Walter’s humanity; they pull from their previous encounters with Black characters in popular media which consisted of stereotypes, the stereotypes that Baldwin states Hansberry counters.
Hansberry continues by commenting on the ways that A Raisin in the Sun counters the stereotypes and, in so doing, presents how her depiction of the Youngers works to ultimately help those enduring poverty due to the color of their skin. She writes,
America, for this reason, long ago fell in love with the image of the simple, lovable, and glandular “Negro.” We all know that Catfish Row was never intended to slander anyone; it was intended as a mental haven for readers and audiences who could bask in the unleashed passions of those “lucky ones” for whom abandonment was apparently permissible. In an almost paradoxical fashion, it disturbs the soul of man to truly understand what he invariably senses: that nobody really finds oppression and/or poverty tolerable. If we ever destroy the image of the black people who supposedly do find these things tolerable in America, then that much-touted “guilt” which allegedly haunts most middle-class white Americans with regard to the Negro question would really become unendurable. It would also mean the death of a dubious literary tradition, but it would undoubtedly and more significantly help toward the more rapid transformation of the status of a people who have never found their imposed misery very charming.
I conclude this section with another quote from Hansberry that directly comments on the way that the play works to counter stereotypes. Hansberry says, “The thing I tried to show was the many gradations even in one Negro family, the clash of the old and new, but most of all the unbelievable courage of the Negro people.” In this way, Hansberry shatter the homogeneous view of Blacks by showing the ways that characters have different dreams and aspirations and different thoughts about how to achieve those dreams.
After looking at what Hansberry says about the language in the play, I move on to look at two poems that directly relate to the play. The first, of course, is Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” The poem is the epigraph to the the play, and the play takes its title from one of the lines. As such, I provide a slide with the poem on it and a video of Hughes reading the poem. I walk students through it, drawing their attention to the various questions that Hughes asks and how those questions and lingering answers relate to the Youngers.
Along with Hughes’ poem, I have students look at Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building,” a poem that draws upon Hughes’ as well. Brooks’ poem directly relates to the Youngers’ existence in the Chicago apartment. No matter how hard they work, no matter how hard they dream, they have to worry about everyday things like making it to the bathroom before those down the hall make it. They have to worry about rent, feeding a wife, or husband, and satisfying a man. We see all of this with the Youngers. They cannot sing an aria down the hall amidst the onion fumes because they are too tired. If they allow the dream to even enter in, what would happen? That’s the question. Would the dream take roots? For the Youngers, dreams take root, but those roots do not have the space to expand.
This, of course, is not all that I present in the lecture. In the next post, I will finish up the discussion of my lecture for A Raisin in the Sun. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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