The famous Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, wrote about Black frustration during the pre- and early-civil rights era in a 1951 poem entitled “Harlem.” In the opening line of the poem, Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The following lines use metaphor to ponder the answer: “Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?” According to African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the answer would appear to be “yes.” Throughout her play -- the title of which is borrowed directly from the poem Hughes wrote a few years earlier -- Hansberry exposes the audience to the impossibility of common American Dreams for poor black citizens growing up in mid-twentieth century urban environments, even when money is no longer an issue. What manifests throughout the play is the racial discrimination and oppression that keeps dreams just out of reach for each of the Younger family members causing those dreams to shrivel and their possibility to shrink away from those who dared to dream them, leaving only a sense of unfulfillment and non-reward in place of a postponed, put off or forgotten dream once ripe with possibility and hope.
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The play’s ultimate message, however, is not one without hope -- the shriveled grape, as Hansberry reminds us, is sweetened with the sun’s nourishing light; the metaphoric implications of which become visible through the Youngers’ ability to unite, rise above adversity and achieve the ultimate American Dream, together, as a family. However, important to note is that while Hansberry chooses to reward her characters with achievement and success, her play is a constant reminder that, for many black families living in the Civil Rights era, such an optimistic outcome was unlikely, much less guaranteed. As a result of its contemplations about racial discrimination, oppression, unity and American dreams, the play has endured since its 1959 debut as the “first Broadway play written by an African American woman” (Hosten, 2004, p.53).
To begin the analysis, the play must be first contextualized within the larger cultural framework that underpins the play’s events and informs its characters. The play debuted in 1959, an important time in American history. The Civil Rights movement, which resulted in legislation that guaranteed “basic civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race, after nearly a decade of nonviolent [as well as some violent] protests and marches, ranging from the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott to the student-led sit-ins of the 1960s to the huge March on Washington in 1963” (Watson, 1998), was in full rage between the years 1955 and 1965. Particularly in Chicago, where Hansberry’s play is set, “race relations in Chicago had become more tense than they had been in over a generation” from the early 20th century onward (Ralph, 2005). During the play’s run, Chicago was a place where numerous protests and school boycotts occurred (Ralph, 2005), placing the Younger family directly into the oppressive atmosphere and political crossfire of racial tension and class turmoil during this era.
Throughout the play, the main characters aspire toward their own mainstream American dream, only to find that the realities of injustice and oppression that the Civil Rights Movement sought to expose and eradicate would prevent their dreams from readily becoming a reality, despite the founding American philosophies of freedom, justice and equality for all. In his book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, author Jim Cullen points toward the distinction in generations between the notion of “the good life,” acknowledging the quest for freedom as the dream that originally fueled our ancestors and built the country while defining contemporary American dreams as having become all about “upward mobility . . . typically understood in terms of economic and/or social advancement” (2003, p.8). Mama herself makes note of the deep association between lifelong American goals and ambitions, generational shifts and econoic/social advancement in Act I, scene II when she comments on Walter’s acknowledgement that money is life. “Money is life,” mama repeats, with bewilderment over how American dreams have changed. “Once upon a time freedom used to be life -- now it’s money” (Hansberry, p.61).
Unlike our relatives from a few generations past, for those of us born into freedom in America, the classic American dream, since the early 20th century, is now understood in public consciousness as the goal of buying one’s own home. While the Younger family aspires toward this American dream individually, at moments, and collectively toward the play’s end, each family member possesses their own individual American dream in terms of home ownership, business venture and education -- the latter two being additional instances or extensions of upward mobility through economic and social advancement.
Walter, Mama’s son, has his own dreams about what to do with his father’s insurance money at the beginning of the play. Frustrated with the oppression of his neighborhood, Walter’s American dream of upward mobility is to purchase a liquor store business. This dream is unattainable for Walter in two ways. One, this dream is not a lifelong ambition but rather, a quick way to fix his family’s problems. Secondly, Walter thinks that he can invest his father’s money and multiply it through this business venture, but he will need to rely on his business partners and put his own money into it first for that to occur. The problem is, what would money do for a family that remains stuck in an oppressive, segregated, urban environment? The liquor store would only keep the family in poverty and oppression, not rescue them from it. Ruth tries to get Walter to see this, but Walter’s frustration with discrimination and oppression leads him to believe that people must be paid off, the colored man is deliberately held down, and oftentimes, their women keep the men in such a position (Hansberry p. 22-23). The truth of the matter is that Walter’s liquor store would only be contributing to the labor and social problems of the inner city, not eliminating it. It would not help him or his family to get rich quick, or even at all. It would simply chain them down to the environment from which they all dream of rising above. Additionally, As Mama acknowledges, the Youngers’ “ain’t no business people,” just “plain workin’ folks” (p. 30). In the era of segregation leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, educational opportunities were different for men and women, blacks and whites, as were places to live and business locations. What Walter fails to recognize is that even if the liquor store business itself were profitable, it would not be successful in a poor urban environment with an undereducated owner with little to know business acumen. It would become more of a burden on Walter’s family than it could ever be a liberating force, given the social circumstances in Chicago with regard to race, gender and labor during the 1950s. As it turns out, this dream was never even within Walter’s grasp -- when he eventually gives his friend most of his money to invest in the business, Willy runs off with it, leaving Walter without the money nor a business venture to profit from.
Ruth, like Mama, aspires to her American dream of owning a home. Both women realize that moving into a home elsewhere in the city would provide increased space, growth and safety for the family. This American dream has personal meanings to each woman. For Mama, this dream would be the fulfillment of her and her late husband’s ultimate goal -- a goal they were never able to realize together in his lifetime. For Ruth, it would mean providing her son, Travis, with better opportunities to grow and learn in a better environment. While Mama, the play’s nurturing character, also wants this for Travis, she and Ruth disagree on several points about how and why they should seek a home with the insurance money. This dream will not work out for them (until later) for several reasons.
To begin with, the women who share this American dream desire it for different, individual reasons. As the rest of the events and environments surrounding the Younger family make clear, progress is impossible without banding together. The segregation of the 1950s deliberately kept people and their ideas separated and apart, and this segregation is expressed metaphorically through the Younger women’s inability to band together to work toward their equal but separate dream. Secondly, every woman desires to have a not only a home but a home life that is inaccessible for them from their current place in the world. Even if they were indeed able to afford to live in the white neighborhood that both women dream of living in, the political and racial turmoil of the time would, as Walter recognizes, keep them oppressed even in better material circumstances. Furthermore, Walter’s constant depredation and argumentative attitude toward the women in his life would only perpetuate the oppression and discrimination the women seek to get out of.
Beneatha is Walter’s smart, young, independent sister, who also has an American dream of her own -- education. She strives to be a doctor, but unlike her boyfriend, George, she is unwilling to assimilate or capitulate to white culture in order to do so. Beneatha aspires toward great educational and career dreams, which is impossible for both a woman as well as an African American in her time, causing a kind of oppression on two counts to her character. Number one, women were supposed to be homemakers in the 1950s, not career people like the male providers. Number two, education was much different -- and oftentimes, unequal -- for black students than white students in the Civil Rights era. For Beneatha, her dream is impossible in her current time and place and will be deferred until the cultural circumstances surrounding her change. Until then, her choices are to become a doctor and move to Africa with Joseph, or accept and assume a white identity as best she can with George. Neither option allows her to become a successful doctor who embraces her African culture here in America.
Toward the end of the play, after each family member is forced to acknowledge the harsh realities and setbacks that underpin their dreams, they begin to band together. Walter finally assumes responsibility for himself and others, recognizing the trust Mama and the others continue to have in him, and puts a down payment on a house, refusing a brine of money not to move into the white neighborhood. This instance signals a turning point not only for the Younger family, but for Americans in general. Like the Civil Rights Movement happening outside of their domestic sphere, what happens in the Younger household once their dreams have been denied and shriveled up is a fight against and a rise above the adversity and oppression holding them down. The Youngers come together and work together to achieve the American dream that provides upward mobility for them all.
In the end, for the Younger family, the American dream did not come quite as readily or easily as it did for white and/or privileged citizens living in the 1950s, and was impossible to achieve selfishly or without the support and help of other family members. Although, as Hansberry’s work compels us to acknowledge, these trials and tribulations that the Younger family had to endure -- and that the Civil Rights Movement sought to eradicate -- were not in vain, nor were they successful in preventing the Younger family from ultimately attaining the American dream as a strong, unified family unit. For the Youngers, a dream deferred does not simply shrivel and dry up like a raisin in the sun, as the famous poet Langston Hughes has pondered. For this oppressed family, who stood tall, unified and resolved in the face of adversity, their dream deferred turned out to be much more than a dream or wish could ever be on its own. For the Youngers, through their strengths, efforts and victories, their American dream became ultimate triumph and victory (M’Baye, 2009, p.171).