A Raisin in the Sun: Resistance and Joy

<em>A Raisin in the Sun: </em>Resistance and Joy

In a 1964 letter to the editor of the New York Times, playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote about different modes of resistance that she had witnessed within her own family: “I [. . .] remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.” Hansberry is referring here to the preparations her mother, Nannie Hansberry, made to defend her black family from violence after moving into a primarily white neighborhood in Chicago in 1937, and to the suit against the city’s restrictive housing covenants that her father, Carl Hansberry, with NAACP lawyers, took all the way to a Supreme Court victory in 1940. She demonstrates a keen awareness of the multiple ways in which people of African descent in the United States have fought for their right to live with dignity, calling into question the idea that there is any difference at all between radical and respectable resistance. 

Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun and its 1961 film adaptation (for which she also wrote the screenplay) similarly highlight various strategies of African American resistance. Simultaneously fighting overlapping systemic oppressions, the members of the Younger family refuse to defer their dreams (to reference the same Langston Hughes poem from which the play and film take their title), instead affirming their belief in themselves and one another through moments of shared joy, connection, and nurturing. The film version was the second theatrical feature by director Daniel Petrie, a veteran of filmed television plays who treats the material with respectful restraint. 

Focusing on how the members of one black family living on the South Side of Chicago after World War II respond to receiving a ten-thousand-dollar life-insurance check after the death of their patriarch, A Raisin in the Sun engages with many issues that remain salient for African American people nearly two decades into the twenty-first century. Hansberry draws attention to gender, class, and generational tensions within black communities, relationships between African Americans and Africans in America, competing definitions of progress and success, and the ways in which structural racism affects the everyday lives of black people. While some contemporary critics offered what they saw as a compliment to the play by commenting that the Youngers were just like any other American family, Hansberry insisted, in a piece of writing included in her posthumously published book To Be Young, Gifted and Black, on the particularity of her vision: “I have told people that not only is this a Negro family, specifically and definitely culturally, but it’s not even a New York family or a southern Negro family. It is specifically South Side Chicago.” The race, socioeconomic class, and geographic location of the Younger family indelibly influence the experiences and outlook of its members. Moreover, even within this very specific milieu, Hansberry depicts a variety of black perspectives through her different characters, a diversity that was rarely represented in mainstream American culture at the time. 

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