Abstract: Since its release, critics have presented an array of arguments regarding A Raisin in the Sun’s intended focus and representation. Some scholars advocated for the play’s supposed “particularity” by narrowing Raisin’s message down to subjects so narrow as a single character or motive. Meanwhile, other critics whitewashed the play through an interpretation of universality that made it relate to all audiences rather than directly to the black community. Both extreme particularity and universality compromise the merit of the playwright, however, as she intentionally created such a wide array of contrasting characters and conflicts in order to represent the broad spectrum of oppression and identity within the African American community during the 1950s. In order to fully appreciate the production’s goals, I argue that the complexities and struggle of each individual within the play be equally recognized as a piece to a larger, darker puzzle of black oppression. In order to do so, readers must find a balance within the pre-established paradox between particularity and universality by examining the way in which Raisin remains particular to the balck community, while simultaneously becoming universal within the community’s bounds.
In Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the characters represent an amount of diversity and complexity present within the African-American community of the time. This inclusion and avoidance of missed niche within the structure of a political and socially-motivated production has sparked a “paradox” of both particularity and universality. While I recognize that the author intentionally sought to represent every aspect of African-American society during the early twentieth century, to put them at odds with one another and argue that there is one character deserving of focus is to ignore the significance of a large group represented through an individual character and further the problematic idea that a black story could not be a human story.
One approach which encapsulates the problematic exclusive attitude related to particularity is Sarah Orem’s critique upon the feminist role played by Beneatha. In order to construct a powerful argument supporting the idea of Beneatha as a strong feminist figure, Orem states that “Beneatha appears to mimic the anger performed by her brother Walter Lee in order to critique and undermine him” (Orem 190). While I agree that Beneatha was intended to become a feminine crusader against the pressures placed upon colored women at the time, it does not become essential to place her against another vital character and make her Walter’s replacement. In fact, I believe it was Hansberry’s intention to create equally strong characters that are meant to exist within their own realms of status and oppression. 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 the simplistic approach needed to reduce them down to one aspect of their nature and then proceed to utilize it for one-on-one comparison. 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 the fighting scene at the very end that reveals her still childish nature and equal immaturity to her brother who has ironically just achieved “manhood.”
The entire Younger family consisted of individuals that embodied differing stages and perspectives of African American livelihood within a country just on the edge of a massive civil rights movement. No single member of the family submitted to circumstance without challenging expectations, and the fact that this remains a major part of the progression of the plot and development of a theme maintains the notion that the play’s content is much too complex and reliant upon recognition of its broad-reach to all audiences. In this sense, Raisin becomes inarguably a play more accepted and impactful for its universality rather than particularity. Now and 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 never discriminated from one to another within the black community, Hansberry created a dynamic in which every facet of 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 carve the play down to a single representation or message. 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 grandmother 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 the “little” people and their strength 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” as a way 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” (Berntein 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 nearly all aspects of black oppression and the many identities existing within the African American community. To this effect, I believe Raisin worked to relate to all 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. Just as a family cannot exist with a single individual, the struggle of the black community cannot be simplified to a single identity or frustration, but must be considerate of all its components and united under one roof, where all faces can be seen and voices heard.
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
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.
On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others