Race: A Decision for One's Opportunities Yingjie Cheng


Throughout the American history, the concept of race and its meaning has evolved—from when there was no distinction between the races to discrimination towards a specific racial group. As society progresses, people have made several attempts to establish equality among all races, but the internal feelings of superiority within white people still persist. In my research, I seek to explore how these tensions and contrasting perspectives influence the lives of African Americans with the guidance of Lorraine Hansberry's work A Raisin in the Sun.

How does Lorraine Hansberry establish the characters in "A Raisin in the Sun" to reveal the effects of racial tensions that act as a barrier for minorities to reach their dreams?

The idea of race has had a significant influence on American history and how people of color are perceived. As society progresses, many attempts are made towards granting equal rights to African Americans—though progress exists, discrimination is still present. Racial prejudice has been a significant barrier for African Americans to reach for their dreams. For instance, redlining, the act of mortgage lenders to draw lines in portions of a map to indicate the areas in which they do not want to make loans, is an example of the barrier that prevents people of color from living equally as the white people. The complex racial tensions are explicated by Lorraine Hansberry in her play A Raisin in the Sun. In her literary work, Hansberry explores the challenges a typical African American family encounters in a time of segregation and disenfranchisement in 1950s Chicago, and their way to cope with these barriers. Even though Hansberry focuses on a specific period of time, her work speaks universally for the desire to improve the circumstances for the people of color while also challenging the best way to achieve them. Ultimately, Hansberry illustrates the characters in a way that reveals the racial prejudice and discrimination acted upon minorities, and how it poses a challenge to their values as well as their dreams.

To begin, Hansberry establishes the mood of the play with the widespread idea of the American Dream, and the Youngers’, an African American family, desire to achieve that kind of lifestyle. The Youngers, a three generation family of five, live in a small dwelling of two bedrooms on the South side of Chicago. In the play, we can see that the living space is cramped, with the kitchen similar to the size of a closet. This setting foreshadows the upcoming events, such as Ruth’s pregnancy, that poses a challenge and why the family longs for a new place to live. The family’s apartment stands in a poor neighborhood inhabited mainly by African Americans, most of whom migrated from the South in an attempt to escape from racial discrimination. Through this setting, Hansberry demonstrates how society establishes the white race as the norm and one that is superior, which inevitably created segregation—unofficial, but prevalent throughout the North. This discrimination is the main reason that prevented the people of color to live the same lives as the white people. The neighborhoods in this city are distinctly separated based on race, and the people of color are unwelcome in a white neighborhood, as seen through the facial expressions when the Youngers family first moved into their new home. Through the play, we can see that race is the deciding factor of a person’s fate as well as the cause of challenges they face.

Beneatha, Ruth, and Walter Younger in the small, cramped apartment. Copyright © 1961 Columbia Pictures Corporation
Beneatha Younger expressing care for her husband, Walter Younger, who presents himself coldly towards his wife. Copyright © 1961 Columbia Pictures Corporation
Lena, Walter, Beneatha, and Ruth Younger in the living room of their home, which has two bedrooms for a family of five. Copyright © 1961 Columbia Pictures Corporation

Moreover, Hansberry carefully illustrates the character Walter Younger to highlight the types of responsibilities an African American man has to address as well as the internal turmoil present as a consequence of the failure of his plans. When the play begins, the author establishes Walter as one who is miserable and disrespectful to his family. This can be seen as result of his distaste for working as a chauffeur for a rich white man and dissatisfaction towards himself—the inability to provide for his family. He longs for the opportunity to be his own boss and to be able to take good care of his family the way he believe he should. This environment and attitude towards his current lifestyle is the primary motivation for Walter to invest towards a liquor store. He ignores everyone’s concern against this investment, because he sees this as an opportunity for improving himself and his family’s lives. By setting the plot in this way, Hansberry can better delineate Walter’s character and values, and ultimately highlighting the struggles encountered by a typical African American man during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. These struggles challenge individuals of their morals and personal values—as seen through Walter, who would rather invest in a liquor store than saving money for his sister Beneatha for medical school. Through Walter's character, Hansberry allows the audience to view the world through the father of a poor African American family and the responsibilities he has to face in addition to the burdens society have put on the family due to their race.

The family first move into their new home in the white neighborhood. Copyright © 1969 Columbia Pictures Corporation
Mr. Lindner approaches Walter with the offer of giving him money if he moves out of the white neighborhood (Left). Lena Younger and her houseplant, which represents her constant protection of her dreams (Right).

Furthermore, Hansberry also characterizes Lena Younger in a way that helps illustrate how the dreams and values of the family are once again put to a test. Lena Younger is a dedicated black woman who struggles to instill her values, such as her faith in God, in her children. Her nurturing and soft personality is also illustrated through her attachment for her houseplant. Although the plant lacks nutrition, Lena does not give up and believes that one day it will truly thrive. Through creating the plant as a symbol that helps further establish Lena’s character, Hansberry demonstrates Lena’s version of the American Dream, and her constant protection towards the plant represents her internal longing to live this dream. Additionally, when Mr. Lindner offered to pay the family not to move into their new house in the white neighborhood, Lena’s faith is put to a test. The family aspires to move beyond segregation and deeply believes that people of color deserve to be treated equally as the white people. Through this scene, Hansberry clearly demonstrates the acts of racism and feelings of superiority from the white people, and their belief that the people of color are unworthy. Based on these perspectives, Hansberry reflects on how the lives of African Americans are affected by this distorted point of view and their continued struggle of improving the living the American Dream.

Walter Younger reads the offer from Mr. Lindner, foreshadowing the presence of redlining in the play.

The play “A Raisin in the Sun” is a reflection of the lifestyle of a typical African American family, and how their dreams and values are challenged by the discrimination and deep-rooted distaste from the white people. Hansberry effectively illustrates the characters and the plot to reflect upon the issues during 1950s Chicago. Her work speaks universally, not just for the citizens of Chicago, but for all people of color who have faced similar obstacles. Overall, the play conveys that one’s race is what ultimately decides his or her opportunities and fate.

Walter declines Mr. Linder's offer in front of his son Travis proudly as he shows what values truly mean to him. Friedman-Abeles

Works Cited

“A Raisin In The Sun.” Trailers From Hell, 3 Oct. 2018, trailersfromhell.com/a-raisin-in-the-sun-2/.

Chenelle, Susan, and Audrey Fisch. “Text to Text | 'A Raisin in the Sun' and 'Discrimination in Housing Against Nonwhites Persists Quietly'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Mar. 2014, learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/text-to-text-a-raisin-in-the-sun-and-discrimination-in-housing-against-nonwhites-persists-quietly/.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: A Drama in Three Acts. New York: Random House, 1959.

“‘Mama's Plant Is a Symbol of Her Care and Dreams for Her Family’: American Actress, It Cast, Teaching Theatre.” Pinterest, www.pinterest.com/pin/551620654333440996/?lp=true.

Pfeiffer, Lee. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 June 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/A-Raisin-in-the-Sun-film-1961#/media/1/1003279/133089.

Robinson, David. “'A Raisin in the Sun' Reveals Playwright Lorraine Hansberry's Black Activism.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 22 June 2019, www.biography.com/news/lorraine-hansberry-raisin-in-the-sun-summary-black-history.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Lorraine Hansberry.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Lorraine-Hansberry.


Process Reflection

An obstacle I faced during the process of creating the site was the deciding the performance to support my research question. Initially, I wanted to base the project on Harper Lee’s well known work, To Kill a Mockingbird. I had an idea on writing about how one’s race can be a deciding factor on his or her fate and opportunities, and thought that Lee’s work would provide a good representation for this research question. After receiving feedback from both my GSI and professor on my choice of performance selection, I realized that basing my research on literature may not be the best choice—analyzing the novel is not adequate for me to fully expand upon my research question, and also since this class concentrates on the performance aspect instead of literature. This took some time for me to realize and I am glad that my instructors pointed it out. Although I already started to analyze how Lee’s work relates to and presents the central idea of my research question, I made the decision to change the performance to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which is a play about redlining and racial segregation that we briefly studied in class. I believe that the plot in and Hansberry’s central message throughout the play parallels with the central idea of my research. Changing the central work that I based my project on was an obstacle, and I overcame it with the help of my instructors and critical analyzation of both works to see which one fits my research question the best.

Moreover, I think the peer reviews really helped me improve my project. Everyone has different experiences and beliefs, and the two peers who viewed my project carried their own perspectives, which was what made their feedback critical. It was nice to know the initial impression my project makes on various people. For example, a peer noted that the way I presented the pictures were effective in that it emphasizes the cramped living spaces in the Youngers family. I also changed the formatting of the website based on these impressions. I realized that I did not label my abstract paragraph and that affected how the peer viewed my site, in which he or she thought that the paragraph was the beginning of my essay. In addition, listening to classmates’ presentations in class also helped me gain insight. Although they may be on different topics, they introduced to me new perspectives of analyzing critical on a topic, which aids me to reconsider if the current content and structure of my essay fully analyzes and answers my research question well.

My in-class presentation did not go smoothly as I wanted it to be—due to inadequate preparation and nervousness for speaking in front of a large audience on a stage setting. I did not do a good job on explaining and introducing the central idea of my project and the research I did to my classmates. As a result, I decided to create a short one minute video in lieu of my in-class presentation to better present my project to the class.

My thinking did not change drastically throughout the process. My research question is how Lorraine Hansberry uses the characters in the play A Raisin in the Sun to reveal the effects of racial tensions, and how they act as a barrier for minorities to reach for their dreams. While researching and drafting my essay, I realized that my research question did produce new sets of questions. Since this play took place during the Civil Rights Movement, how does racial segregation evolve in the aftermath of the movement, and how does it still affect minorities today?

Overall, this research project allowed me to delve deeper into the topic of redlining and racial segregation as well as how it was a constant obstacle for black people during their lifetime. Even if they relocated from the South to the North, discrimination was still prevalent. This act of segregation and its evolution is an essential aspect of American history and was what created America.