Book Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

I’m about to read a play called Clybourne Park, which borrows plotline from A Raisin in the Sun, so I thought I’d review the original play this week and review Clybourne Park next week. This review contains nearly a complete plot summary and will thus spoil the play if you haven’t read it. This is a play I teach most years, and I enjoy watching my students’ reaction to it. Just like the younger characters in the play, my students have been somewhat sheltered, and for some, this play opens their eyes.

A Raisin in the Sun is a play that takes place in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago during the time of racism in the mid-to-late 1950s. As the play opens, the Younger family is eagerly awaiting an insurance check for $10,000 (a significant amount of money in those days—much more significant than today). This is a life insurance payout for Walter Younger, the grandfather of the family, who has recently passed. Throughout the play, Mama, the grandmother, reminisces on the work ethic, values, and dreams of her late husband. She references that they had lost one baby to poverty and worked very hard to raise their other two children, Walter and Beneatha, who are now adults and live in the small apartment with Mama, Walter’s wife Ruth, and Walter and Ruth’s son, Travis. Needless to say, it’s a tiny apartment for so many people, but Mama works hard to provide for everyone to have a stable life.

The conflict comes when Walter reveals that he wants to use the insurance money for a business proposition: he wants to open up a liquor store with some friends. On the other hand, Beneatha would gladly accept the insurance money to pay for her schooling—she is currently an undergraduate student (the first in her family to go to college) and wants to be a doctor.

Walter criticizes his sister, telling her she should be a nurse instead, or just get married and be quiet. He disapproves of her ambition and her insistence on vocalizing her opinions on everything, which was not readily accepted for females of her time. At the same time, Walter is trying to become an entrepreneur, which was not easily done for African Americans at the time. Meanwhile, Mama just wants the family to get along. As if the arguments aren’t bad enough, Ruth finds out she’s pregnant with another child, and the family worries about where the baby will sleep—Travis already has to sleep on the couch in the living room, and Mama and Beneatha are doubled-up in Mama’s room. The trouble pushes Ruth to consider having an abortion, and the decision nearly tears the family apart. Walter, selfish to get rich quick, doesn’t seem to care about his wife’s decision. Mama is sorely disappointed, and Ruth is emotionally frustrated.

Mama, who has already lost a child to poverty, resolves to buy a house, allowing Ruth to have the baby. The most affordable house, though, is in an all-white neighborhood. Houses for blacks are much further away and much more expensive. Though the family is hesitant, they are happy to be moving…except Walter.

In the end, Walter makes a stupid decision. He takes the money and invests it with one of his “partners,” a man no one else in the family trusts. The man runs off with the money, leaving the family penniless. They have the chance to sell their house in the all-white neighborhood for a profit—the whites in the neighborhood do not want a black family to move in—or move into the neighborhood and work hard to collectively make enough money to pay off the house. Mama leaves it all up to Walter, who is ready to sell out in exchange for the money.

The final scene is the crux of the play. Walter rehearses to his horrified family just how he will act when the representative of Clybourne Park comes to give him the money in exchange for signing an agreement not to move into the all-white neighborhood. As he rehearses, he begins in a bitter way, but his dialogue breaks down so that at the end, he is speaking in a dialect that would have been used by slaves. In a sarcastic way, he is telling the imaginary man that he and his family are not worthy of living in the neighborhood—they are not human beings, and they have no right to dirty the white neighborhood. At this point in the play, Walter is crying because he realizes the true significance of his decision and words, especially because his young son is watching. Walter realizes how wrong he was, that he and his family need to retain their dignity, even at the cost of hard work and sacrifice.

It’s an important decision that perplexes my students every year (“Why didn’t he just take the money and screw the white neighborhood? Hell, I’d do it over again in another white neighborhood, too, and get rich off of ‘em!”). But in the historical context, it’s an important decision. Throughout the play, Mama references the fact that she lived so close to slavery that for her, pride and dignity—and basic luxuries like a safe place to live with enough food—are things she appreciates, but things that her children take for granted. This sense of pride is found again at the end of the play.

Just like Beneatha is trying to forge the way for other women to become doctors, Walter and his family decide to forge the way for people of all backgrounds to live in neighborhoods that would eventually, even if decades later, would no longer be segregated. It’s an inspiring ending and important for the younger generations to read. They live in a different world, and it’s healthy for them to understand the struggles that people fought so that we live in a largely equal world with largely equal rights.

If you aren’t able to see the play performed, it’s a quick read.

I look forward to reading Clybourne Park and see what Bruce Norris does with this storyline.

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