Don't you see there isn't any real progress... there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around, each of us with our own little picture in front of us - our own little mirage that we think is the future.
A Raisin in the Sun is a wonderful play, one of the best I've read in a while. Lorraine Hansberry shows how people define themselves and strive for their dreams; in progressing towards what they hope will be a better life, they discover new sources of strength in themselves but also risk self-destruction and undermining others. The play ends on a mix of good spirits and foreboding; the Younger family haven't had it easy up until that point, and they have frightening circumstances to deal with in the future, but they're still alive, fighting with one other and against the world.
Meet the Youngers
The Youngers are a black family living in Chicago's South Side in the years after World War II. The patriarch of the family, Big Walter, has passed away, and his material legacy is an insurance check worth 10,000 dollars - a boon to his family, who have long wanted to get out of their airless, lightless hole of an apartment.
There are six of them: Lena (Mama), Big Walter's widow and the matriarch of the family; their adult children, Walter Lee and Beneatha; and Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, and son, Travis.
Walter Lee is a chauffeur, and both Lena and Ruth work as domestic servants, cooking and cleaning in white people's homes. Unlike Walter Lee, it's apparent that Lena and Ruth don't stop working when they get home; with some help from Beneatha, they take care of all the chores in their apartment, while Walter Lee spends time with his friends, shooting the breeze and cooking up grand business schemes. Beneatha (who at a low point in the play speaks the words excerpted at the start of the post) is a college student, a first for her family. In the course of the play she's also wooed by two very different men - George Murchison and Joseph Asagai - each representing a certain kind of future for her, should she choose one of them.
Dreams deferred, denied, or achieved
Everyone in the Younger family has a dream they want to realize. For Beneatha it's becoming a doctor, and for Walter Lee it's running his own business as a bigshot executive. Lena's primary goal is to move to a real house, something Ruth longs for as well. The only affordable neighborhood within an easy distance of their workplaces in the city is a suburb where only white families live.
Personal flaws and family tension could keep their dreams from materializing. Hansberry might have gone the route of having the family be on the same page, united by the same beliefs and outlook as they fight for a better life, but instead she wrote them as messy and real. Walter Lee fights a good deal with his sister about the man she should marry, and with Lena about what to do with the 10,000 dollars; he wants a chance to be his own boss, and if Beneath got to go to college, why can't he have his opportunity to develop himself?
Walter Lee and Ruth's marriage also goes through a lot of strain. Ruth doesn't have Beneatha's booksmarts or Lena's central position in the family, but it's a testament to Hansberry's writing skills that instead of being a sidelined two-dimensional figure she's distinct, given good lines, a dry wit and a complex character, and made to confront her own difficult choices. As for Lena, she looks at her kids with love and pride and, at times, incomprehension. Of those in the younger generation, Ruth (the aptly named daughter-in-law), is the only one who consistently connects with her.
On top of all the intrafamilial conflict, there are people in their community who would resent their move to a better home, taking it as a sign that the Younger family doesn't know "their place." The one neighbor we do see, Mrs. Johnson, is a riot - a funny portrait of a woman who tries to pass off her nosiness and envy as sincere concern. There are also other people in their community who would more actively undermine their attempts to realize their dream.
And finally there's the all-white neighborhood they want to move to. The neighborhood association sends a representative to try to dissuade them from coming to live there; in a morbidly funny moment, Beneatha refers to him as the "Welcoming Committee," a joke taken up by Ruth and Walter Lee:
Mama: What he want?Lorraine Hansberry's own parents fought racial residential segregation in the northern U.S. (read about the Supreme Court Case, Hansberry vs. Lee) and she knew first hand how violent the situation could get, with black families getting fire-bombed out of their homes, attacked by mobs, and worse.
Ruth: (In the same mood as Beneath and Walter) To welcome you, honey.
Walter: He said they can't hardly wait. He said the one thing they don't have, that they just dying to have out there, is a fine family of fine colored people!
What is progress?
Returning to the excerpt at the top of the post - is progress an illusion? It's fitting that Beneatha makes this pessimistic pronouncement, as someone who's still figuring out her identity.
On the one hand she's the first college-educated person in her family and wants to be a doctor. But if she marries could she still pursue a career in medicine? (Her brother is leaning on her to marry George Murchison, who would be least likely to support her career.) So what is her identity, her role in the family and society at large, meant to be? And what options are available to her as a black woman who wants to go into medicine? She isn't expected to take charge of her family; for better or worse, Lena comes to expect that of Walter Lee, not necessarily because he has good judgment but because he's the man of the house. With her education and career aspirations Beneatha finds herself in an unprecedented position in her family.
Across the generations, the Younger family has progressed out of slavery, then out of the South, to live in their own apartment and to send one family member to college. Even when the "Welcoming Committee" representative from the white neighborhood comes to speak with them, he doesn't threaten them outright, as Beneatha puts it:
Oh - Mama - they don't do it like that any more. He talked Brotherhood. He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship.Progress seems to work uphill, with backsliding and resistance for every bit of ground gained. The newer generations - Walter Lee and Beneatha - are building off of the sacrifices of their parents and forebears in different ways, while also fighting certain battles all over again: not what previous generations fought against - not slavery and not the southern Ku Klux Klan specifically - but against similar forces, in new shapes and forms. They also fight to understand who they are and where they belong in society, and to understand how the legacy of their parents and ancestors affects them; they absorb it, honor it, chafe against it, turn to it sometimes for guidance and mock or ignore it otherwise. The sum total of Big Walter's legacy - along with what Lena has imparted to her kids - is more than 10,000 dollars.
Any push for progress requires risk. Sometimes the desire for a better life is so consuming that it blinds people to potential dangers as they work impatiently towards it. Then again, focusing too much on the dangers keeps people where they are, relatively safe but also miserable and diminished.
Why haven't we seen more of Hansberry?
In addition to being very active in the Civil Rights movement, Lorraine Hansberry made history in theater with A Raisin in the Sun, becoming the youngest American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Tragically her life was cut short, at age 34, by pancreatic cancer.
I read The Modern Library edition of A Raisin in the Sun; it's also the first work I'm writing up for the Classics Club Challenge (you can find the link to the challenge post in the Reading Lists tab at the top of the page as well).