On the Radicalism of A Raisin in the Sun

I’m at the point in the semester where I teach Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959),  the famous play about the Younger family moving from a Black Chicago neighborhood into the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. I include this text on my syllabus for American Literature Since 1914 because it’s a significant text by a Black woman that falls within the proscribed time period. But I have been thinking lately that perhaps that’s not enough of a reason to include this text, for several reasons:

  • Typically, students have already read this. I teach in Southern Indiana, and I am pretty certain nearly 90% of all students I’ve had in this course have read this play in high school or possibly earlier. Thus, the text isn’t introducing students to anything new.
  • I already include a fairly diverse array of texts (though it could use even more diversity, no doubt), among which include poetry by Black women and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which is also about a poor Black protagonist in segregated Chicago.
  • The play is often seen as rather conservative and a type of “uplift” drama that encourages African Americans to seek middle class status as a type of social conformity.

I started to think about these factors last semester and made some small steps toward revising my approach to teaching Raisin; now I am moving further ahead with these revisions and adding two new companion texts that will hopefully help add complexity to our study of Hansberry’s work. This is all still a work in progress, but I’ll outline my new approach below.

Because it fits chronologically right after Native Son in my syllabus, I have students read that novel and A Raisin in the Sun back to back. The thematic overlaps are also helpful for students, and they can readily see evidence of small social advances between 1940 and 1959. But the final scene of the play–the Youngers leaving their dingy Black Belt apartment for the new home in a white neighborhood is often read as a bougie dream come true, the family seeking parity with white folks by achieving the middle class “American Dream.” The play is much more than just its final scene, of course. It is a domestic drama about family, about finding your identity in a difficult world, and about the relative value of not backing down when faced with racist threats.

But that final scene carries so much weight; it’s meant to be a happy ending, but how can students really understand the gravity of what the Youngers are moving into? What does it mean that this Black family has “won” the chance to move into their own home, but have to face thinly veiled threats from Karl Lindner, the representative of Clybourne Park’s “New Neighbors Orientation Committee”:

“What do you people 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.

So, last semester, I asked students to consider what might happen to the Youngers when they moved, to consider what kind of environment they were moving into. That started to add some complexity to our discussions, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to find a more effective way to contextualize the situation the Youngers are actually in at the end of the play. So I decided to ask my students this semester to consider whether the play could be read as a radical text, and assigned them to read Amiri Baraka’s 1986 essay “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion.”

In this essay, Baraka argues that he has reconsidered Hansberry’s text in the light of newer productions, including one directed by Harold Scott. He observes that he used to read the play as “‘middle class’ in that its focus seemed to be on ‘moving into white folks’ neighborhoods,’ when most blacks were just trying to pay their rent in ghetto shacks.” Now, he argues, he realizes the play is:

“the accurate and stunning vision of the real struggle. […] the concerns I once dismissed as ‘middle class’–buying a house and moving into ‘white folks’ neighborhoods’–are actually reflective of the essence of black people’s striving and the will to defeat segregation, discrimination, and national oppression. There is no such things as a ‘white folks’ neighborhood’ except to racists and to those submitting to racism.”

 This idea brings a whole new dimension to the play for students. Now, we could discuss whether the Youngers are in fact civil rights heroes or pioneers in the struggle for acceptance and civil rights (fictionalized, of course). It allows students to consider the courage involved in the move to Clybourne Park, which Baraka frames as an activist move that deliberately disrupts the whiteness of that neighborhood. The students could also debate whether Mama Younger was herself an activist in her purchase of the house. In the play, she acknowledges that her generation had to face much more difficult times, worrying about lynchings and job rights. She sees her children’s generation as much more privileged, and soft because of it. Yet she never describes buying the house as a radical act. She just wanted a safe place for herself and her family, with a garden.

And, yet the critique remains: how radical is it to seek middle class satisfaction, no matter what dangers lie ahead? I have no immediate answer to this question, but I will explore it in a future blog post. For now, I’ll just acknowledge Beyoncé’s argument that “the best revenge is your paper.”

To complete this mini unit on the African American experience in Chicago, I’ve assigned Robert O’Hara’s Etiquette of Vigilance, which imagines Travis Younger about 50 years after A Raisin in the Sun. I chose this play over others* that also “re-imagine” Hansberry’s work because it is decidedly postmodern, which is a literary style my students need to become familiar with, and because it is a complex exploration of the father-daughter relationship framed by the fallout of the events in A Raisin in the Sun. Hopefully, this will give students the opportunity to see how influential Hansberry has been in American theater, and how the legacy of the Civil Rights era has impacted these fictional characters, and thus, our own contemporary society.

Reading List and Citations:

Baraka, Amiri. “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion.” A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Ed. Robert Nemiroff. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1958.

O’Hara, Robert. Etiquette of Vigilance. Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun. Eds. Rebecca Ann Rugg and Harvey Young. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 2012.

*I realize that Bruce Norris’ play Clybourne Park might seem a more suitable play to assign due to my focus on the economics and movement of the Youngers into that neighborhood. However, O’Hara’s play more suitably introduces students to aspects of postmodern style. And I’ve read it only once, but I did not care for Clybourne Park. I realize now that it was highly celebrated, winning the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize, but I found it a bit contrived, and not particularly interesting. I plan to re-read it this summer, though, so I can give it a better chance.

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