Great works of literature can imitate life in such rich detail that they put us right in the heart of a scene; we see the movement of battle, hear the inflection of every harsh word spoken, and feel our own hearts break right along with the protagonist’s. Lorraine Hansberry was a talented playwright who did this effortlessly in her ground-breaking play A Raisin in the Sun. Her story follows the struggles of the Younger family. When given an opportunity to leave their life of poverty in their tiny apartment in Chicago’s south side for a home of their own in a white neighborhood, conflicts arise.
But before we even meet the family, Hansberry builds the mood by the briefest description of the setting: “Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years – and they are tired”. Just that little bit tells you so much about the lives of the people living in this space.
Even earlier than this, Hansberry opens the play with a quote from a Langston Hughes poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Talk about powerful imagery. You know before reading a single line that this is going to be a story of struggle and pain.
Hansberry drew on her own experiences when writing this story. Her father purchased property in a white Chicago neighborhood and when that purchase was challenged in court, their family fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. Hansberry reflects on this period in her life in an excerpt from To be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, adapted by Robert Nemiroff.
My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the “American way” could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus, twenty-five years ago, he spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required that our family occupy the disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which, literally, howling mobs surrounded our house…My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America included being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also 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.
Seeing this history, one can see how easy it would have been to write a straight-forward Us versus Them storyline which would have probably been okay, but what makes the story she actually wrote so much more compelling is the authentic, nuanced cast of characters she created who show a range of real emotions and conflicting motivations. Although this book was published in 1959, the relevance still rings true – from the societal issues of racial tension to the more personal struggles of trying to overcome one’s circumstances.
I wonder sometimes about the timing of things, even something as simple as when I am drawn to read a book. My daughter was assigned to read this for school, so it’s been lying about the house for months. I picked it up this week and finished it the day we heard that my husband’s mother had died. Even though her health had been declining and even though we had been preparing ourselves for the end, her passing came unexpectedly.
Over this past week, I have often thought about my mother-in-law’s devotion to her children and how she struggled and did without so that she could lessen her children’s suffering. In some aspects, she minds me of Mama Younger who did the same. Both of these women also tried to instill pride and decency in their children and put their children’s dreams at the forefront. This story now has a special place in my heart and will always be entangled with my memories of a wonderful lady.
Isn’t it beautiful what a great work of literature can do?