Any written work dealing with even a small aspect of the play Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry should be excused its length because it is inevitable for the writer of the piece to digress at least slightly to express his/her admiration for the impact of the play and the its great creative and social contribution. “Hansberry saw History whole, …the present and the future in the light of the past” wrote Frank Rich in his 1983 review of the play. That precisely is the victory of the play which had local headlines screaming, “Housewife’s play is a Hit” when Raisin in the sun started its tryst with Broadway destiny. “Miss Hansberry’s play is a social protest, but it is such a consummate work of art that the objects of protest applaud it vigorously each night on Broadway” wrote John.A.Davis in 1960.
Lena Younger (mama) is the central character of the play and the matriarch of the family, which is about the struggle of a black family to break into the middle class respectability and acceptance. The aspirations of several or all of the characters of the play can be attributed to the American dream which like the eagle in the national symbol always aims to fly higher and higher than wherever it is stationed in the present. The focus of this essay is however the American dream and its realization from Lena Younger’s perspective.
She is the typical wife, mother and the matriarch of the family capable of infinite love and compassion and at the same time who can dare to dream for the upward mobility of the entire family. In the initial Acts the playwright establishes the general squalor of their living space. It is therefore obvious that mama wants her family to move to Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood with better space and better living conditions.
In Act II, Scene I, Mama announces that she has made a down payment with the insurance company for a house, which she says, would have cost them double in a black neighborhood. Though it is easy to look at this scene as a simple wish fulfillment of a Family matriarch of having better dwelling where her dear grandson Travis can grow up and her children Walter and Benny can live in relative comfort, it can also be seen as the realization of a dream, a dream she and her late husband used to share about providing better for their children than they could provide for themselves in their lifetime. That practically has been the second half of the great American dream.
Always aiming to extract better from life and looking to grow upwards is the first half of the American dream and making it better for our kids is the second part that compliments and steps up the aspiration of the American dream. In deciding to move into a better dwelling mama takes the great leap of making living conditions better for her next generation and the next (Travis). In the earlier scene, Hansberry establishes that Lena Younger insists on having regular weekend cleaning rituals though they live in a cramped, lived in and roach infected tenement in the ghetto of Chicago.
This shows that she has all along tried to instill pride in who they are before aspiring to become what they want to be. As a person belonging to the generation which suffered the racial discrimination the most and who also witnessed the civil rights movements demolishing Crow’s Laws and provide equal rights to the colored people, she has the emotional strength to not hate her present condition though she dreams of better days for herself and more importantly her family.
In the next scene, seeing the devastation of her on Walter at not being able to pursue his dream, She hands over the rest of the money to him, with a clause that some of it be set aside for Benny’s medical education. This single act is the expression of several sentiments. As a mother Lena does not want Walter to feel belittled and lost in life. She wants him to assume the role of the man of the Family with a little more assurance. She also wants him to take his chances in life to grow and be what he thinks he is capable of. She is willing to wager her last money on her son’s dream.
At the same time she is also a firm believer of gender equality, may be through maternal instincts, which is why she instructs him to set aside money for his sister’s education which is as important to Benny’s dreams as a business enterprise is important to Walter’s dreams. In act III , the culminating act, when all seems to be lost, she has the tenacity to accept that dreams might need to be deferred when calamity strikes because only living in the present can ensure that dreams survive to see the light of the day tomorrow.
Though her daughter-in-law Ruth feels the most saddened by this possibility, mama tries to console people to love what they have before running to acquire a better life. “Sometimes you just got to know when to give up some things…and hold on to what you got.” (Act 3, pg. 130)She also teaches the readers and the people watching the play an important lesson, though she is not formally educated herself, about loving your family.
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” (Act 3, pg. 135). It was important to love your family when they were down. When finally Walter sees the point in owning responsibility and taking pride in what he is than in what he is worth, there is happiness all around because they are embarking on a journey that is sure to have its share of pitfalls and obstacles but it is a better tomorrow.
Lena takes pride in the fact that her son has come into his own. Only Lena is able to understand that her husband’s money was supposed to bring her children into their own intellectually and socially. If that money did not perform the task by being spent but being lost, she is till happy because the loss of the money enabled her children to resolve an identity crisis and define themselves which spending ten times the money could not have ensured. (As an aside, Hansberry had used the platform created by Raisin in the sun’s commercial and critical success to continue the work of public commentary that she had started during her newspaper stint at “Freedom” to preach the universality of the American dream and incompleteness of the American Freedom as advocated by martin Luther King)(Keppel, 204,1995)
The great American dream of people of Lena’s generation was to see that their children grew up into a liberated world, where they need not deal with the world with affected deference or bottled up frustration or anguish. She realizes the dream (though, through a misfortune) that her children are able to deal with who they are and she is happy for this transformation of character than for any material comfort she could have seen them enjoy in her lifetime.
Frank Rich, “Theater: Raisin in the Sun , Anniversary in Chicago”, New York Times, 5 October 1983, p.C24.
Keppel, Ben, Ralph Bunch, Kenneth.B.Clark, Lorraine Hansberry and the cultural politics of Race Harvard: Harvard University Press 1995
Dr.Sue-Ellen Case, Performing Feminisms: Feminist critical theory and theatre, John Hopkins Press 1990