The Black Ambition of "A Raisin In The Sun"Roundup
tags: theater, segregation, African American history, Lorraine Hansberry
Koritha Mitchell is an associate professor of African American literature at the Ohio State University. Her latest book is From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture.
When the curtains open on Lorraine Hansberry’s most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, we see Ruth Younger bustling about a claustrophobic Chicago kitchenette: waking her loved ones, cooking, fretting. As the Youngers compete with other tenants for the bathroom down the hall, Hansberry uses stage directions and dialogue to suggest that cramped quarters strain relationships. Recently widowed, Lena Younger lives here with her adult son, Walter Lee, who is Ruth’s husband; their son, Travis; and Lena’s 20-year-old daughter, Beneatha, who wants to become a doctor. Mama Lena has received a $10,000 insurance check because her husband “worked hisself to death,” which Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor store.
The play debuted in 1959 and made Hansberry the first African American woman dramatist produced on Broadway, and its tensions unfold as the United States worked to convince people of color that they would never be at home. Facing segregation and housing discrimination, African Americans cultivated what I call homemade citizenship—a deep sense of success and belonging that does not rely on mainstream recognition or civic inclusion.
Suburban home ownership became a barometer of American success in the 1930s and 1940s, with mortgage loans newly subsidized by the Federal Housing Administration. But Black and Brown citizens were systematically excluded, so most African Americans could not pursue home ownership until the 1950s. Placing Black people’s struggle to attain this marker of American achievement on Broadway, Hansberry accomplished a feat parallel to that of the family she portrayed. Both the Youngers and their creator encountered hostility for daring to reach for what the country defined as success.
Revisiting Hansberry’s 1959 triumph proves poignant in the wake of the open letter to “White American Theater,” which is part of the racial reckoning prompted by the video-recorded police murder of George Floyd. Signed by more than 350 practitioners and creators of color, including Lin Manuel Miranda and Viola Davis, the letter exposes how the theater world resembles other arenas: Its institutions prioritize solidarity statements over self-reflection, structural transformation, and material redress. The letter also suggests that theater criticism facilitates exclusion and condescension: “We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press, but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture.”
Though Hansberry became “a darling of the theater world,” according to biographer Imani Perry, she experienced the racism of its critical culture. Because United States citizenship is built on the exclusion of African Americans, even when Black success does not prompt naked brutality, it inspires condescending reminders of difference, of outsider status. A Raisin in the Sun therefore places a spotlight on what historian Carol Anderson calls white rage: In portraying Black ambition, the play also showcases the white hostility that always accompanies it.