Dear Grandson Adam,
Thank you for lending me your book last weekend. While you were off skiing with the rest of the family, I was totally absorbed reading your high school homework assignment, “A Raisin in the Sun,” in front of a crackling fire in the lodge. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play, you know, in 1958, which was the year I graduated from high school, so I can tell you how remarkable her characters and themes are for that time.
The story takes place in Chicago, on the city’s gritty South Side, and tells of a poor black family living in a three-room flat with a bathroom in the hall that is shared with others. The grandmother, Lena, whose apartment it is, sleeps in one bedroom with her daughter, Beneatha, who is in college. Walter, Lena’s 35-year-old son, is a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman, and he shares another room with his wife, Ruth, who works as a cleaning woman in different homes. Travis, 10, is their son and he sleeps in the living room/kitchen on a sofa that is made up for him each night, which means that he doesn’t get to sleep until any visitor leaves.
When we meet them, the family is excited about the imminent arrival of a “big check,” that turns out to be the proceeds from an insurance policy on the life of Big Walter, Lena’s late husband. The value is $10,000, which in today’s money would be about $160,000. The introduction of this money into the plot is the fulcrum around which the characters, their roles in the family dynamic and their situation in society are defined.
Walter desperately wants to start his own business with the funds, viewing entrepreneurship as a way to rise above a humiliating life stretching out before him as a chauffeur. There are tense exchanges between him and Lena, as he passionately explains to his mother that he can go into partnership in a liquor store with a shrewd friend who has figured out the financing, but they need startup capital.
Lena, for her part, thinking back to their not-so-distant ancestors of slaves, values freedom more than financial success, and certainly doesn’t appreciate the prospect of selling liquor to their neighbors. However she wants to see her son as the prideful head of the family and recognizes his despair at the life in which he feels trapped in mid-century America.
Ruth, who is pregnant, loves her husband and understands that his grind, as they enter middle age, is eroding their marriage. She is the life-giving mother of the next generation and it is she who ultimately urges optimism after Lena makes her pivotal decision. I hesitate to tell you what that decision is because I don’t want to ruin the plot for you. This is a play well worth reading if you have the chance, if only for the messages that continue to be so relevant today.
Beneatha is a most interesting character, attracted by the romantic allure of the distant continent from which her people originally came, albeit unwillingly, yet determined to make her own way through education, the upward mobility ladder presumably offered by the American Dream. She eschews the idea of advancing herself through the traditional female strategy of marrying rich, much touted for her by Walter. At a time when most medical schools were admitting only one or perhaps two women in each freshman class, she is planning to become a doctor. She will need money to pay for that education, and Lena recognizes that fact.
The play is about poverty, masculinity, femininity, opportunity, integration, honor, tradition and especially racism in American, and looks into the future with remarkable prescience. Has much changed in our country over the ensuing 60 years? In 1959, the play received standing ovations and critical acclaim. It was, after all, the first play offered there by an African-American woman, only 28, that purported to tell the truth about black lives. Hansberry came from a wealthy family and could present her initially optimistic message of a different life.
In answer to the question, it could be said she at least started the conversation on Broadway. Racism discussed is, however slowly, racism destroyed. It is up to your generation, Adam, to continue the fight.