In the 1950s racism and segregation were still very profound in society’s views. When Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun debuted in 1959, it was subject to a variety of critiques from a multitude of audiences that immediately sparked a debate about the message of the play. A Raisin in the Sun has been misunderstood as a symbol of racial integration and given the impression that African American families can achieve the American Dream through homeownership.
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The debate about the interpretations diverted attention away from Hansberry’s political message and its criticisms of upward mobility, normative domesticity, and the white nuclear family which is primarily seen through Hansberry’s showing of segregation as an essential part of the American Dream. Hansberry used A Raisin in the Sun as a chance to share her life experiences and to explore the effects societal and systemic oppression can have on a person’s interpersonal and private life.
Many critics overlooked this powerful message and saw the play as a sign of desegregation and African Americans’ ability to achieve the American Dream. Bernstein recounts how some white critics were surprised to find many similarities between their own experiences and the life of the Younger’s and praised its wide appeal through its universalness. Other white critics were amazed the particularity of the play as an honest and inside look into the private lives and culture of African Americans praised it as one of the first Negro plays (16). Both interpretations conflict with Hansberry’s message of the play and the paradox created by the two further misconstrued the message viewers took away from the play. Even when Hansberry disputed these claims by calling the play both universal and particular the paradox continued to survive amongst the mixed reviews of critics. Due to racial prejudice and societal norms of the time, a majority of audiences misinterpreted Hansberry’s message. Their responses and reactions further misconstrued the ideals of the play for future audiences and distracted them from Hansberry’s true message.
The debut of A Raisin in the Sun was groundbreaking as it was the first play produced on Broadway that was written by an African American woman. In addition, it is one of the first plays to focus predominantly on African American culture, never before in American theater history had so much truth of black people’s lives been on seen on stage (Bernstein, 20). This contributed to the play’s broad appeal, intrigued white audiences who wanted to learn more about black culture and attracted black audiences who wanted to see their experiences displayed on stage. The broad appeal of the play caused a majority of white critics to see it as universal and relatable even though it was about an African American family and sparked the conflict between the play being universal or particular. Bernstein says in her article that the paradox is mainly supported by the idea that the play is universal or particular and that it cannot be both (22). Both interpretations distort Hansberry’s message, but they accomplish this is different ways.
The universal interpretation claims the play shows African Americans struggling through the same problems as anyone trying to achieve the American Dream. It considers the play to have a happy ending as the Younger’s are able to move into their new home and overcome their economic struggles. However, this is not the case. Although they are able to move, they move into a house in a hostile white neighborhood and face a plethora of new challenges as an African American family in a predominantly white community. This interpretation and reality of the play illuminate the fact that the, politic and social meanings were misread every which but Sunday (Rose, 29). Hansberry disputed this by challenging anyone who thought the play had a happy ending to live in one of the communities the Younger’s were moving to (38). The idea of the play representing a universal American Dream contradicts Hansberry’s critique of it, white audiences are able to relate to the accomplishment of financial and economic gain but fail to see this gain will not lead the Younger’s to a better life. The Younger’s do not move onto a life where they will be treated equal in society, rather they move into an area where they will still be subject to the same prejudice and racist exclusion, they were subject to before. The universal interpretation misconstrued Hansberry’s message by belittling its political significance by suggesting, Blacks were ‘just like whites’ (Rose, 38).
The actions of white people to keep African Americans out of certain areas illustrates the fact the African Americans and whites were not equal. It comes mainly from the idea that African Americans could achieve the American Dream, which entirely overlooks the point in Hansberry’s message that black exclusion was an essential component to the American Dream, which can be seen in the bribe offered by Mr. Lindner. It’s interesting to note that universal responses place positive themes and message onto the play while simultaneously omitting the negative, yet more prominent ideas. Claiming the characters in the play as universal strips them of their race and omits the unique struggles they experience as African Americans, this undermines their struggles and contradicts Hansberry’s message of the American Dream being unachievable to African Americans. Rose attributes this to two possibilities, either white audiences did not fully understand the play, or they did not want to fully understand the play (38). This aspect of the interpretation relates to ideas prominent in the interpretations that categorize the play as particular. The universal interpretation distorts Hansberry’s message by misinterpreting it, it praises the play on its theme of racial and economic triumph when in reality the Younger’s are in no better position than they were in the beginning of the play.
The particular interpretation claims the play specific to African Americans and categorizes it as a Negro play. This also distorts Hansberry message as it distracts the viewer from underlying messages in the play about social injustice and establishes a divide between African Americans and whites. Since this was the first time African American lives were displayed in a public setting, a setting that was familiar to white people, some viewers saw the play as opportunity to learn about authentic African American culture. Bernstein elaborates on this idea in her article and explains how it dehumanized African Americans and subdued Hansberry’s political messages(17). The extreme curiosity in African American culture shows how differently whites viewed blacks during the time period, they viewed African Americans as an exotic creature they could learn about and not as another person. This is also placed a novelty on the experiences and cultural aspects of African Americans, by making black experiences appear understandable to and consumable by white audiences, simultaneously made those experiences collectable (Bernstein, 18). White audiences did not want to see the play to become more educated on African American culture, but rather to learn trivia about them. This idea promotes an underlying superiority complex, for whites saw African American culture as something to collect, like stamps or coins, and that it did not hold the same significance as their own culture.
The idea of the play specifically about African Americans puts extra emphasis on the role of race throughout the play, which proved to distract viewers and critics from other central messages of the play. This is primarily seen in Walter’s class struggles, he views his low class status as emasculating and is constantly attempting schemes to make him rich. Hansberry complained about how some critics were unable to reflect on Walter’s class dispute dependent of his race, Bernstein attributes this to white critics ability to ignore certain aspects of the play (19). Not only does this show a lack of political interest in the play, but it also shows how pre-existing prejudice and norms affected people’s interpretations of the play. Hansberry was aware that societal stereotypes of African Americans would be carried into the theater as expectations of character behavior, If audiences went to the theatre to see the simple, lovable, and glandular ‘Negro’, the would find him, regardless of what actually occurred on stage (Bernstein, 17). The particular interpretation distorts Hansberry’s message by simply ignoring any ideas that do not involve the racial aspect of the play. By placing emphasis on the racial stereotypes and characteristics held by society, the audience closes their mind to any different kind of image or person an African American could be. The two interpretations maintain the paradox between the play being universal or static. Well both contribute to the distortion of Hansberry’s message, she easily disputes this contradiction by claiming a play can be both universal and particular and uses A Raisin in the Sun as an example. The play is specific as it focuses on the struggles of an African American family and universal as it focuses on their struggles in their quest for the American Dream.
Hansberry paralleled the experiences of her own life with A Raisin in the Sun, It is well known that Hansberry’s family was personally acquainted with the violence inherent in property ownership in Chicago (Matthews, 556). When her family attempted to move into a white neighborhood, they were met with violence, this caused Hansberry’s father to take matters to Supreme Court where he won his case against restrictive housing. The issue of restrictive housing is crucial to the play as the primary catalyst to conflicts and as a symbol of Hansberry’s message. Hansberry’s message reflects her political opinion on a nation divided by segregation, Raisin calls for the rebuilding of a house divided – a building of ad from diverse materials and labours (Matthews, 558). She proclaims through the story there is no progress or change when people fight on alone. This is illustrated by each of the Younger’s individual failures in achieving their personal dreams and in their success as a family by purchasing and moving into the house in Clybourne Park. Equally as important is her message of positive relationships in the home, and creating a space where one can express themselves freely. This is predominant with Walter, throughout the play is consistently denied his dreams in the home and in society, in turn it negatively affects his relationship with his family. Mama Younger expresses this message when she is talking with Beneatha, There is always something left to love (Hansberry, 119). She goes on to explain that even though one may not agree with a family member’s plan, a frequent issue throughout the play, they must always offer them love as a form of support. Mama gives Walter the money to pursue his liquor store dream.
Racial ideologies and norms of the 1960s distorted and led to the misinterpretation of the political message from A Raisin in the Sun. It wasn’t until decades after critics and audiences began to understand the true messages behind her play. Rose mentions the case of Amiri Baraka who retracted his rejection of the play thirty years after it debuted. Baraka stated that he missed the central point of the piece and suggests the reason, that racial discrimination fuels a seductive rage and this seductive rage blinded many to the political importance of her work (Rose, 39). Societal norms and prejudices have the ability to change the way people view and interpret the literary work of others, as with Hansberry’s play segregation and white superiority led people to misunderstand the meaning of A Raisin in the Sun for decades.
Bernstein, Robin Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Project MuseModern Drama Volume.42 (Spring 1999): 16-27. Google ScholarWeb. 15 Nov. 2018.
Matthews, Kristin, L. The Politics of Home in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Project MuseModern Drama Volume.51 (Winter 2008): 556-578. Google ScholarWeb. 15 Nov. 2018
Rose, Tricia Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and the Illegible Politics of (Inter)personal Justice. KalfouVolume.1 (Spring 2014): 27-60. Google ScholarWeb. 15 Nov. 2018.
Hansberry, Lorraine, and Robert Nemiroff. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Signet/NAL, 1988.Print.
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