Hansberry promotes a sense of African heritage through her character, Beneatha. Beneatha was a college student struggling to find her identity. She tried to find herself by getting in touch with her roots.
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Beneatha tries to express her opinions and ideas, but since she is the youngest she feels confined and restricted. Hansberry states Beneatha’s conflict when she writes Why? Why can’t I say what I want to around here like everybody else? (Hansberry 39). It is when she begins to embrace the thought of returning to her African roots, she started to appear happier. Although, Beneatha’s happiness may in some cases be attributed to possible infatuation, Hansberry shows her true passion concerning embracing her African heritage through Beneatha’s original conversation with Asagai when she states You see, Mr. Asagai, I am looking for my identity! (Hansberry 49). Thus, by revealing Beneatha’s interest in Africa to be genuine, coupled with her excitement, Hansberry then expresses a sense of pride in returning to one’s roots as well as encourages African Americans to embrace theirs.
Hansberry connects African heritage to not only a sense of belonging, but also hope in an unpredictable, and difficult future, which as a result gives strength, and hope to African Americans in a time when they faced resentment and segregation in various parts of the United States. This message continues today as a source of pride for one’s heritage as well as hope in times of trouble, such as the economic trouble faced by many Americans in the recent years.
However, Kristin Matthews argues that the focus on pan-Africanism takes Blacks away from more pressing issues like racism and civil rights. She states that during Beneatha’s dance her eyes are far away back to the past as a means of challenging the racist capitalist system represented by George Murchison (Matthews 563). Yet, by fantasizing in the past, Beneatha fails to focus on the issues of the present, thus inhibiting her from making time-relevant decisions regarding her current predicament and future. At the same time:
Just as George’s assimilationist black bourgeoisie is an escape rather than a solution to the socio-economic crisis of blackness facing the Younger family Asagai’s proposal of a Pan-African return an escape. Leaving Southside Chicago would not change Southside Chicago nor would it change her family’s present position within that oppressive social system. (Matthews 564)
Through this statement, Matthews points out that a returning to one’s African heritage does not solve one’s problems in their own country nor does it change the problems that the Younger family faces moving to an all-white neighborhood. However, despite Matthews’ arguments that returning to one’s African heritage pulls that attention from more issues at home. Hansberry’s focus and encouragement still creates a sense of pride for African Americans in their African roots. As a result, Hansberry encourages self-pride in African Americans as well; after all, one needs to be proud of one’s heritage before they can be completely proud of oneself.
Besides encouraging interest in African heritage, Hansberry also examines the black national identity and how the two are connected. She achieves such through her variation of the American Dream as defined by her characters, Lena and Walter. For Lena, the ultimate realization of the American Dream lies in finally owning a house. Hansberry expresses Lena’s yearning in the statement: I remember just as well the day me and Big Walter move in here Hadn’t been married but two weeks and wasn’t planning on living here no more than a year (Hansberry 32). Although Lena fails to realize this dream until after her husband’s death, she continually works towards achieving her American Dream, not matter how many times other events cause it to be deferred.
On the other hand, Walter defines the American Dream in terms of social and financial standing, thus leading to his desire to open a liquor store. However, Walter’s desire for wealth becomes blinding to the point of fantasy, illustrated when he says I’ll pull the car up in the driveway just a plain black Chrysler something a little sportier for Ruth maybe a Cadillac convertible (Hansberry 91). For Walter this fantasy becomes so controlling that he only begins to face reality and establishes his own self-identity after his dreams of business are crushed. Sayed Abdelmawjoud explains:
Previously, he was totally self-centered ignoring the dreams and needs of the other members of the family and thinking exclusively about his materialistic personal gains. Now, he forgets all about such selfish things and takes into account all the members of the family. (Abdelmawjoud 12).
This critique explains the change noted in Walter at the end of the play when he lets go of his dreams to quickly strike it rich and begins to think of what is best for his family. Through this realization, Hansberry address the importance of family and dignity over money and materialistic wealth. Thus showing how there is more to life than possessions. However, by characterizing Walter as a young black man, trying to achieve the same lifestyle as whites, Hansberry reflects the ideology held by many African Americans, however, by showing a change in Walter’s thinking, she establishes the black identity as more than keeping up with white people. She shows that the black national identity includes not only hard work, but family and self-pride as well. At the end of the play, Walter states we come from a people who had a lot of pride. I mean we are a very proud people (Hansberry 130). By stating that not only do they, the Youngers have a lot of pride, but also the people they come from, Hansberry includes pride into the definition of the black national identity. This encompasses many different prides, including pride of oneself, one’s national identity, and one’s heritage. Through this, the author calls African Americans to not try and copy the lifestyle and ways of white Americans, but instead to embrace who they are and where they came from as blacks and to use that pride and identity to carve their place in American history.
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