Abstract: In Sarah Orem’s critique of A Raisin in the Sun, she argues that Beneatha’s strong, feminist portrayal justifies the definition of the play as a feminist production. While I agree that Beneatha’s character serves to give voice to many feminist issues at the time, the reduction of the play’s theme to one specific character disregards the complex relationships and identities Hansberry worked to portray. In order to make a play so relatable to black audiences, Hansberry purposefully created a set of equally important, complex characters that could combine to create a production more universal to all identities existing within the black community.
Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was a revolutionary play that delved into the lives of an African American family struggling to navigate their way through the many obstacles that come with a life weighted down by oppression and poverty. Each member of the Younger family represented a definitive facet of oppression, whether it be through gender, age, or economic status, all under the heavy blanket of racial discrimination. With so many complex and telling characters combined into a single production, it is understandable why critics were led to the idea that there is one character that should serve as a focus, as is so common in conventional plays. In “Signifying When Vexed: Black Feminist Revision, Anger, and A Raisin in the Sun,” Sarah Orem adopts a feminist view upon the character dynamic within Raisin. In her essay, Orem argues that Beneatha’s convictions and values placed in contrast to Walter Lee’s more impressionable, insecure character was created by Loraine Hansberry in order to subvert patriarchal stereotypes and place a strong female in the spotlight of a progressive play. While I agree that Beneatha’s emboldened character sets up a platform upon which the audience is meant to take a closer examination of the role of patriarchal figures and expectations of gender roles, I believe that there are several other contrasts and contradictions of character that are deserving of equal attention. What makes Hansberry’s Raisin such a timeless masterpiece is not its relation to a particular character or issue, but rather its universality in regard to struggles within the black community, made possible through the complex characterization and embodiment of the variation of suppression of every individual in the play.
When interviewed regarding the presence of universality versus particularity within her play, Hansberry very blatantly stressed that Raisin “was a play about honest-ta-God, believable, many-sided people” (Bernstein 23). Each character was meant to be complex and resistant to one-on-one comparison becoming their only function. To argue that Beneatha’s character was solely created to undermine the patriarchal presence of Walter Lee is to ignore the many imperfections she holds that place her equal to Walter and speak more about issues apart from just feminism—her struggle of black identity, her approach and realization of adulthood, and her occasional childish nature. The conclusion that Beneatha’s character overshadows Walter because of his weaknesses regarding monetary decisions and self-awareness cannot stand, as Beneatha faces the same exact issues when she switches between wearing traditional African clothing with Asagai and then taking it off with Joseph, and then again when she struggles between the decision to move to Africa where there is guaranteed acceptance, or to face the challenges ahead of her in America and continue to pursue a career at home. Such imperfections are exactly what Hansberry refers to when she speaks of the “many-sided” people she created. If her characters and motives within the play had only one truth to reveal, then this would be reflected through conventional static, secondary characters, but this does not stand for a single Younger, as they each reveal their flaws and continue to grow even through the end of the play.
No single member of the family submitted to circumstance without challenging expectations. Even apart from the characters I have already discussed this holds true, as Mama’s character learned to place more trust in her son and “avoid[ed] the dominant stereotypes that permeated the culture” at the time,while Ruth pushed back against both faith and the law in her consideration of abortion (Murray 283). In this sense, Raisin becomes inarguably a play more accepted and impactful for its universality rather than particularity. In the time the play was originally produced, the African American community was faced with struggles that reached students, wives, men, children, and every other corner of black society. In order to encapsulate the way in which discrimination found its way to every niche within the black community, Hansberry created a dynamic in which a diverse array of identities within the black community could be represented. With some characters, such as Walter and Beneatha, reactions to oppression were expressed more loudly, through lengthy monologues and passionate outbursts of frustration. When emotions are presented as so, it is understandable why Orem or other critics may be tempted to focus the play’s message on a singular issue. However, when I re-read the play more carefully, I realize that these scenes are meant to represent the younger, more rebellious generation springing out of darkness and on the brink of civil action. The “smaller,” quieter ones such as the Mama and Ruth, however, are still equally represented and allotted independent scenes discussing more universal struggles such as poverty and abortion in order to still reach broader audiences and shed light on their resilience amidst an era so strongly associated with the more independent and rambunctious crowd.
What I recognize throughout the pages of Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is an accomplishment of “universality through particularity.” I hope to avoid what Bernstein so adamantly cautions against throughout his critique in which upon the play’s release, many white critics tokened it as a play bred out of “universal struggles” to re-instill white supremacy. It is not my intention to imply that the characters in Raisin are meant to apply to any race or class of people, as I believe this would be a complete misreading of the text. Rather, I aim to support Bernstein’s claim that “the appearance of a paradox depends on the assumption that universality and particularity are static” (Bernstein 22). Instead, I argue that Hansberry very clearly remained within the realm of the black community existing within the time the play was produced, and from this place, created a unique dynamic of characters that were not intended to overlap, outshine, or point to a singular issue. Through each member of the Younger family, Hansberry touched upon multiple aspects of black oppression and the many identities existing within the African American community. To this effect, I believe Raisin worked to relate to large audiences existing within black identity, while simultaneously working to awaken white audiences to the many issues present within these communities that have not always been scribbled onto signs or used to categorize large protests.
Bernstein, Robin. “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun” Modern Drama Volume 42 (1999): 16-27
Murray, William. “The Roof of a Southern Home: A Reimagined and Usable South in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 277–294. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26468027.
Orem, Sarah. “Signifying When Vexed: Black Feminist Revision, Anger, and A Raisin in the Sun.” Lib.davidson.edu. Accessed March 17, 2019. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/article/660528.
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