Traces of Civil Rights in a Raisin in the Sun
When we hear that every journey begins with a small step, we do not often think of the troubling times that lead to freedom. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, America was a precarious place to live for people of color. A Raisin in the Sun captures this mood of the country by focusing on the difficulties African-Americans experienced before the Civil Rights Movement. Through a variety of characters and circumstances, Hansberry exposes the difficulty experienced by African-Americans during the 1950s, prior to the civil rights movement. While action was being taken and some efforts were made, America was still for the most part a segregated and prejudice country. African-Americans were not afforded simple rights that many would think would have come with the fifteenth amendment. However, history teaches us while laws change, hearts, minds, and attitudes are slow to follow and this is where the Youngers find themselves. They are living in a world where they are recognized as people and citizens of the United States but do not enjoy the privileges as their lighter-skinned counterparts. They can vote and make money but they are still seen as less than human by many people and are thus not granted the same opportunities. In perspective, the Younger family deserves just as much the same rights as any other family because they are citizens, too. This historical context shapes many characters in the play, namely Walter. His mother realizes the difficulties associated with being African-Americans and does what she can. Beneatha dreams bigger things for herself and hopes to help those around her. Suffering has shaped each character uniquely. A Raisin in the Sun is an excellent study in American culture because it demonstrates the difficulty of life after laws are passed but hearts lag behind.
South Chicago becomes home to the Youngers and when we first meet them, they are awaiting an insurance check that has the ability to significantly alter their future. The 50s are not just a time of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. David Cooper writes the play "manages to recover and sustain ethical idealism amid conditions, personal and societal, that would make fatalistic surrender understandable. It does so without sentimentality and in spite of the unresolved conflicts and uncertainties that are left over at the play's end" (Cooper). The play and its vague ending encapsulates the experience African-Americans were experiencing. At the time Hansberry published the play, civil rights were on the cusp of becoming a volatile issue. Hansberry could not have ended the play any other way because she did not know how things would turn out in this country. As it is, the play reflects a mood and tone of an entire generation of African-Americans attempting to achieve their interpretation of the American Dream. Cooper states the play is about "distress, futility, and tragedy" (Cooper) and "hope and pride and what kind of conviction and commitment it takes to bring hope out of hopelessness, courage out of fear, and idealism out of fatalism" (Cooper). This is what Hansberry's generation faced and they knew the only way to succeed was to fight for what they believed in. Their courage and their knowledge that what they were fighting for was right is the only thing that carried them through the years prior to the civil rights movement.
Hansberry brings the audience into the Youngers' economic and social factors immediately. Robin Bernstein maintains the play's success stems from Hansberry's ability to "encapsulate 'Negro experience' in the readily knowable, digestible, and non-threatening form of theatrical realism" (Bernstein). Real life gets in the way of dreams, Wilkerson states. The hope of "enjoying the fruits of freedom and equality have been postponed as they struggled merely to survive economically" (Wilkerson). Their challenges are associated with their social standing and Walter suffers from this the most. Walter represents the African-American male in America during American in the 50s. Hansberry places him against the racial milieu in America where the African-American male suffers from the oppression that operates in a passive way. While the Civil War was over and all men were supposed to be equal, they were still treated very differently by the color of their skin. The Youngers situated in a cramped apartment in the south of Chicago represent the reality of this struggle. The fact that the family relies upon an insurance check as their big break is another representation of the struggle many families like this face. Their story is not exaggerated not it is unrealistic.
Walter dream is not his problem; it is how sets out to achieve that dream that gives him trouble. Walter wants to be a self-made man and there is no crime in this. He wants to be a success and take care of his family and this is a decent, understandable dream. As a man, it was important for Walter to provide for his family because his image is attached to his dream. He works very hard to convince his family that investing the money will be a good way for them to get ahead. Darwin Turner explains that Walter "typifies the upward-moving American male. He honors ruthless capitalism; castigates blacks for lack of shrewdness in business; denounces wealthy people who consider themselves superior because of their wealth" (Walter). Walter's present and future are shaped by his capabilities and they are held back partially because of how he and other African-Americans are perceived in the play. Walter is not just fighting a difficult economy; he is fighting generations of hate and discrimination. Such a life can make one think that there is no hope for the future and this is partially why Walter goes for the liquor-store deal. Walter saw his father work hard every day and then die while his family lived in that tiny apartment. For Walter, a lifetime of hard work does not actually change anything in the white man's world. Walter does not know what the future holds for him as a black man and he thinks that investing in this deal would be better than the thankless life his father lived. He wants more for himself and his family. This is not a terrible dream; it was no doubt shared by every other African-American family in Chicago at the time. However, he is so blinded by the possibility of this dream, he fails to see the risk involved. He fails to see that one of his own could take his money and run with it. He can only see that dream and unintended consequences are the furthest things from his mind.
Walter's dream of taking care of his family is an honorable one. He wants to raise his family in a home that is not cramped. The Youngers' living situation is a direct result of the pre-Civil Rights era. African-Americans were still living the way sharecroppers did -- huddled in small homes with little money. As we have discussed, Walter becomes misguided when he begins trying to make that dream come true too quickly. He allows himself to be tricked with a get-rich-quick scheme. He tells Ruth Charlie Atkins makes $100,000 and for this reason alone, she should support Walter and his dream. He says," Baby, don't nothing happen for you in this world 'less you pay somebody off!" (Hansberry 2209). When Walter learns his mother will not loan him the money, he says:
You tell that to my boy tonight when you put him to sleep on the living-room couch . . . tell it to my wife, Mama, tomorrow when she has to go out of here to look after someone else's kids . . . And tell it to me, Mama, every time we need a new pair of curtains and I have to watch you go out and work in somebody's kitchen. (2226)
He hopes he can make her feel guilty about her decision but this passage also reveals much about the era in which the Youngers lived. Before the civil rights movement, it was not uncommon for more than one family to share an apartment with children sleeping on sofa. Walter's mother watched the children of other people and she also worked in their houses. They do not have discretionary spending money and when things such as food and clothing are needed, extra work must be done to come up with the cash. It is a strapped existence and this is what Walter wants so desperately to escape. Walter tell her money is "life" (2228) but she knows what lies at the heart of Walter's problems and finds she must constantly remind him of how far African-Americans have come. She says, "You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grow; that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar" (2228). Here we see the past merging…