Last post, I wrote about the first part of my lecture for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. I discussed the ways that I connected Hansberry’s play to the rest of the course, specifically to John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As well, I looked at the importance of Hansberry’s play in respect to representation. I concluded by briefly examining Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building.” Today, I want to finish up by walking through the rest of the lecture.
After having students look at Brooks’ poem, I immediately have them zero in on the first two pages of the script where Hansberry provides a description of the Youngers’ apartment. Here, I have them pay close attention to a couple of items. The first is the way that Lena’s dream, over time, has turned into weariness. At one time, “the furnishings of this room were actually selected with care and love and even hope–and brought to this apartment and arranged with taste and pride.” However. “[w]eariness has, in fact, won in this room” as time passes and the inaccessibility of the American Dream, due to racism, keeps the Youngers down.
Continuing, I zoom out some to provide students with a broader perspective. I show them one of Jackie Ormes’ “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger” panels where Patty-Jo looks at family in an one-room apartment and comments that the government is more concerned with military spending than with the lives of the inhabitants who reside in that space. Coupled with this image, I quote James Baldwin who said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” The Younger family highlights Baldwin’s comment and Brooks’ sentiments in “Kitchenette Building” throughout the play.
We see the weariness that poverty and constant struggle have on the Younger family from the very beginning. In the first scene. Walter gets up and moves over to his wife Ruth asking her, “You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything. Me, the boy, the way we live–this beat-up hole–everything. Ain’t you?” The lack of financial stability does not just affect the family’s physical well-being; it affects their relationships with one another too. Ruth and Walter, even with flashes of intimacy and love, struggle in their relationship, all due, at least in the play, to the fact that they cannot get their heads above the water.
To highlight the historical underpinnings of the Youngers’ struggle, I turn to a video from Adam Conover’s Adam Ruins Everything on the suburbs. In the video, Conover details the continued effects that redlining has on economic opportunities for families such as the Youngers. He has Nikole Hannah Jones discuss these issues as well. Along with A Raisin in the Sun, I tie the video in to discussions of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” which takes place in the suburbs of New Jersey. This would also work well with Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”
Next, I discuss with students the Hansberrys’ own history with restrictive covenants and the 1940 case Hansberry v. Lee where the Supreme Court ruled that the white community could not deny the Hansberrys from moving into the neighborhood. This case, however, hinged on the fact that the community falsely stated the percentage of individuals who did not want the Hansberrys to move in. The case did not strike down restrictive covenants. That did not occur until 1948 with Shelley v. Kraemer. I did not go into all of this detail with students, but I did highlight for them how the Hansberrys, even though they moved to the neighborhood, still experienced prejudice. For this, I use a quote from Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Lorraine’s sister, Mamie, recalled that a chunk of cement was thrown through the window by a member of the mob. The cement almost caught Lorraine’s head. It was thrown with such force that after it shattered the glass, and nearly hit the seven-year-old girl, it landed at the living room wall and lodged itself tightly into the plaster. “That was a grotesque sight to see that lodged in the wall,” Mamie told the Tribune. “You know that somebody doesn’t like you, doesn’t want you there.”
At this point, I have students think about the end of A Raisin in the Sun. While the play ends with the Youngers moving to Clybourne Park, what happens once they are there? This is something that students need to consider and think about.
From here, I move to examining the different dreams that each family member has and how those dreams continually get deferred. I begin with Walter and his dream to own his own store. In the opening scene, he tells Ruth, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it . . . I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room–(Very, very quietly)–and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live . . .” The racist society has stifled Walter’s opportunities, and even though he has a drive to succeed, he has become weary as well.
He tells Lena how much he wants to make something of himself, to make money so that Travis will not have to worry. Lena gets taken aback by Walter’s continued focus on money, and she walks him through African American history and the struggles that she, and his ancestors, endured. However, as Walter shows, those struggles are not over. Along with Walter, Ruth wants a home with a yard for Travis so he will not have sleep on the couch in the living room and chase rats in the street. Ruth’s dream is like Lena’s when she was younger, but the day to day grind of just trying to survive gradually diminishes her hope of achieving that dream.
Both Ruth and Walter echo Big Walter and his thoughts about his own dreams. Lena tells them that Big Walter would always say, “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams–but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.” While Big Walter knew that he may not succeed, his children hopefully would. Ruth and Walter echo this. They want something better for Travis, and in this manner Travis serves as their overarching impetus for success. Even though Walter and Lena clash over the modes of achieving the success, each appears to have to have the same goal in mind.
Along with Ruth and Walter, I look at Benetha as well and her relationship with Joseph Asagai. I do not have time to go into too much detail here, but I point out to students the Pan African discussions that the play contains, especially as they are expressed through Asagai and even negatively through George Murchison. I even show a clip from Black Panther to highlight the importance of Benetha’s decision to have natural hair.
I conclude by focusing on Walter’s final speech with Linder. Here, I focus on how he moves from a submissive position of acquiescing to Linder’s desire for the Youngers to not move to Clybourne Park to his assertion that the family will move to Clybourne Park and that Linder and the committee cannot change their mind. Here, Walter shows the familial connection that I discussed in the last post and shows the ways that Travis encapsulates his dream. He calls Travis over to him and has Travis stand there with him as he tells Linder that the family will move.
This, of course, is not all that I present in the lecture. I left out a couple of items that I focused on. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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