The Enduring American Dream in Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun'
Our dreams and ambitions can be seen as an organism, one that must adapt when met with the complications of life in order to survive; the dreams that prevail are the ones that are adaptable in form, but remain uncompromising in their purpose. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is a play about the Youngers, a family trying to make ends meet in the south side of Chicago in the 1950s. Hansberry was a prolific black playwright, author, and Civil Rights activist who penned this influential play in 1959. Throughout the play, Hansberry interprets the American Dream as a shared goal that needs to be adaptable to the changes of life in order to exist. This deviates from the conventional concept of the American Dream which places the focus on the individual with little consideration to communal success. The Youngers are able to adapt their American Dream by sharing the fruits of their individual labor with one another, maintaining a sense of familial pride, and cultivating hope. Importantly, in this play, Hansberry is taking the focus away from the individual American Dream and putting it in the context of a family.
Hansberry uses “Harlem” by Langston Hughes as the epigraph of the play. This poem reflects on what happens to a person’s dreams when they are deferred. The title comes from the lines, “Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” (Hughes). By including this poem in the play, one cannot help but ask: how does this story relate to these lines? At the beginning of the play, we learn of the hardships that have delayed the American Dreams of the Youngers. The “raisin” in the sun symbolizes a non-living husk of the American Dream that was once ripe with potential. The dreams of the Youngers, at the surface, have been set aside to the point that they are unreachable. However, by the end of the play we see how the Youngers face the adversity of their situation with pride and enduring kinship. The “raisin” might be dead, but it is also a potential for new life. The “raisin” is the dead harvest of the vine, but it is also the vessel for the seeds of a new vine. By the end of our time with the Youngers, the “raisin” takes on this new meaning. Hansberry is showing how the American Dream might never happen for one person, but can become the basis for another. In this way, the dream can adapt and survive even when it seems unviable on an individual level.
One example of this surviving seed of the American Dream is the money the family inherits from “Big Walter”. At the time of the play, Walter Sr. has passed away, and the circumstances of his passing has left his wife, Lena (known in the household as Mama), with a large sum of money. When Mama tells Travis, her grandson, what she has done with a large portion of his grandfather’s money, she explains that she bought a house for them to live in, and that it will one day become his. She tells him: “Now when you say your prayers tonight, you thank God and your grandfather - ‘cause it was him who gave you the house - in his way” (Hansberry 91). She is explaining to Travis that while the dream of Big Walter was not realized in his lifetime, his hard work towards that dream is now a resource for Travis to use in his attainment of the American Dream. This inheritance is the American Dream in a form that is unbroken by the hardships the individual could face because it can be passed on to the future generations to fuel their ambitions.
The key to the adaptability of the Youngers’ American Dream is that it is a broad shared dream among them - a sense of pride and heritage. As Walter explains to Lindner why his family will not accept the community’s offer to buy them out of their new home, the Youngers support him. They show their shared connection to family pride and their shared American Dream, despite their differences. When Walter speaks to Lindner, his conviction grows, saying: “…what I mean is that we come from people who had a lot of pride” (Hansberry 148). Walter tells Lindner how his sister is going to be a doctor, and how his son is the 6th generation of his family in the United States. Each of the Youngers have their own personal aspirations, but they come together in the pride they have for building on the American Dream carried by Big Walter and Mama. While their individual goals might be delayed or changed by reality, this foundational dream of elevating the status of the entire family is unshaken by the shifts in the environment. With this as the platform that they can all build on, the family is able to adjust the reality of their dreams to fit the changing circumstances, without losing hope.
While Walter’s denial of Lindner’s offer is a clear moment of expression of the Youngers' shared American Dream, Mama’s houseplant is the embodiment of it. Mama’s houseplant is a quiet reflection of the family’s vitality despite the unideal conditions they have survived in. While Mama is talking to Ruth about how strong-willed her children are, she says the same of a nondescript plant describing it as a “… little old plant that ain’t never had enough sunshine or nothing…” (Hansberry 52). To Mama, this plant is the closest she is able to have to “… a garden like I used sometimes at the back of houses down home” (Hansberry 53). By “down home,” she is referring to her home of the South, where she and her husband migrated from in search of the opportunities in the North along with many other people of color in what is called the Great Migration. This plant is not only a symbol of her past, which did not play out as she had hoped, but also a representation of the future for her family. She sees in this plant the spirit of her resilience, which is strong in her children as well. While the family members might envision the fruit of this plant in their own ways, the origin of this plant is clear to all of them. In the final scene of the play, the Youngers rally after Walter tells Lindner they are going to move despite their family being unwanted there. The movers arrive, and their journey to their new home is finally underway. Mama is the last to leave their old home, but not without her houseplant. Alone, Mama “…goes out…. The door opens and she comes back in, grabs her plant, and goes out for the last time” (Hansberry 151). Hansberry ends the play this way to emphasize that the houseplant is Mama’s legacy and must follow the family, wherever they go. The plant must survive whatever conditions the family finds themselves in next. Mama’s houseplant is the mascot for the Youngers’ American Dream, one of family bonds, persistence, and pride.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a story of struggle, but also of perseverance and adaptation. Hansberry shows us how the American Dream might have to change shape for people as they handle the twists and turns of life, but with adaptation and community, the core of the American Dream of one person can exist for generations. Hansberry has us carry the symbol of “the raisin in the sun” from the beginning of the play and our interpretation of that image changes as the play progresses from the dried dead husk of a dream, to the potential seed of that dream in new soil. With Mama’s passing on of the house to Travis, Hansberry is providing an example of an American Dream inherited and therefore not entirely defunct with the passing of Big Walter. She gives us the core of the Youngers' American resilience through Walter’s redemptive stand against Lindner. Finally, she takes that seed of a dream from the title, and plants it into her story to show us that the roots of the Youngers' American Dream are deep, with Mama as the steward to transplant the family to more fertile soil. Walt Whitman describes his version of the American Dream as “Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love” (Whitman) in his poem “America”. Similarly, Hansberry connects the American Dream to the cycle of life and adaptation to show how this allows the American Dream to survive even the harshest of conditions. Similar to the American Dream of the Youngers, A Raisin in the Sun has prevailed as an essential body of work in American culture, particularly Black American culture. There have been adaptations since the debut of this play on Broadway, as the mainstream acceptance of the content and cast has changed. The play has had mostly positive reviews, but there is some disagreement over the interpretation of the play. Some see it as a more general message of the American working class, while others find this interpretation to be limiting the specific experience and struggles of Black families in the US.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1994.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2002, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem.
Whitman, Walt. “America by Walt Whitman - Poems | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1891, poets.org/poem/america-1.