Liberty and the Ghetto: Exploring Freedom in A Raisin in the Sun

Lindsay Silver Cohen
Expository Writing 20, Fall 2010

With her very first play, Lorraine Hansberry accomplished most playwrights’ dreams in one fell swoop. Upon its inaugural New York run in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun earned critical acclaim and attracted popular interest. It won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for best play, which made Hansberry the “youngest American, first woman, and first black” to receive the accolade. Hansberry’s work presented the story of an African-American family living in the ghetto of Chicago, testing the boundaries of race and society as they plan a move to a predominantly-white suburb. It was timely, full of commentary on America’s contemporary cultural paradigm, and foreshadowed the national tumult following the civil rights movement. She became an outspoken critic of the social position of African-Americans and the pervasive homophobia of her era, and continued to produce plays subtly espousing her beliefs until her tragic death from cancer in 1965.1Steven R. Carter, “Hansberry, Lorraine Vivian,” American National Biography Online, (accessed October 18, 2010).

Hansberry’s subtle way of including her own ideas and beliefs was one of the most important elements of A Raisin in the Sun. It allowed her to quietly comment on the social ills that incensed her, and to dramatically enhance the deeper symbolism of her work. One of Hansberry’s central ideas in the play was the American concept of freedom, which she represented with the importance of liberation to the characters’ actions, dreams and goals. The play relies on the promise of freedom – from the ghetto, from ignorance, from the lives to which they are accustomed. Simultaneously, the conceptions of freedom among the Youngers shift and change, reinforcing its importance to the play.  Each new grasp for freedom reinforces the Youngers’ need to escape the chains which hold them back, while calling the contemporary definition of freedom-as-suburban life into question. While the Younger family focuses on the goal of suburbia as an idyllic example of freedom, Hansberry actually demonstrates the deep flaws in this dream and establishes her ideas of what freedom means to African-Americans. As such, Hansberry’s play is a broad commentary on the contemporary mainstream American idea of freedom, relying on the misfortunes of her African-American family of characters and the disturbing undertones of the perfect suburban lifestyle to demonstrate its fleeting, surreal nature. 

A thorough examination of the general mid-century American idea of freedom is important to understanding the context in which Hansberry wrote her work. Firstly, the rapid suburbanization which occurred in the wake of World War II was a symptom of a huge residential and cultural shift.2Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 232-233. Thanks to a population boom and a lack of available housing, many millions of new residential units were built from 1945 to the mid-sixties. In 1950 alone, 1,692,000 houses were built. The Federal Government stepped in and helped to finance this wave of construction, intent on ensuring the availability of the American Dream to every returning soldier and his family. The suburb quickly became linked to the American ideal, as millions of families moved from cities to their new homes, and the concept of freedom was simultaneously magnified as a crucial component of suburbia. 

American society in the postwar era, as suburbs popped up all over, was permeated with freedom. Elaine Tyler May describes an encounter between Vice President Nixon and Soviet Premier Khrushchev in 1959, in which the two distilled the most important superpower rivalry of the twentieth century down to a battle of lifestyles. Nixon found America’s superiority to be embodied in the efficient kitchen appliances and servile women of the suburbs, while Khrushchev believed that the employed, relatively independent women of the Republics made his nation superior.3Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 18-29. Gender roles in America placed women solidly in the home, married to a breadwinning husband, with homemaking for their career. They fended off the liberation of female independence, instead keeping women in their place. Racism, as suburbs strove to keep their uniform whiteness (using racial covenants or following the Levittown model, which organized resistance to blacks4Andrew Wiese, “The House I Live In,” in The New Suburban History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue, 112.), excluded blacks and endangered those who did move there. 

The suburb was a bastion of normative, conformist life, a convoluted “freedom” which was more restrictive than outwardly it seemed. It depended on Below the strange, superficial surface, their argument reflected the binary world of the fifties. Suburbia was America incarnate, and it was a crucial symbol of freedom, a model for the emancipation of the world’s oppressed people (who, at the time, were the residents of the Soviet Union). As such, the great metaphor of the American suburb only grew stronger for the citizens of the States – but only for those who fit society’s norms, and could conform to life in the suburbs. For a working-class African-American family, like Hansberry’s Youngers, this goal would be far out of reach, and Hansberry expresses her grief over this with the mystical prospect of their lives in the suburbs.

The plot of A Raisin in the Sun revolves around an insurance cheque: Walter Younger, Sr., the family’s patriarch, has died, and his children, grandson and wife are left with $10,000.5Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 43. After much wrangling, the matriarch, Lena Younger, elects to divide the money between three different means of liberation: first, she puts a downpayment on a new home in the Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park, which will free her and her family from the ghetto;6Ibid, 91-93. second, she plans to save for medical school tuition for her daughter, Beneatha, which will free her from the constraints of typical gender roles; and third, she allows her son, Walter Jr., a large chequing account which would enable him to find freedom in personal independence.7Ibid, 107. In some ways, these ideas of freedom mesh nicely with the contemporary American definition: prosperity, family, and a wonderfully conformist life. However, on a deeper level, they represent a counter-culture idea: that freedom can be found in defying gender roles and breaking down the racial barriers which had been so important to American life. Freedom, in these three forms, is made a huge priority by Lena; her choice to devote the entirety of her inheritance in hopes of eventual liberation makes this clear. The money she uses, ironically, is freeing in the consumerist sense which Nixon described. For Lena, though, it is a catalyst for freedom: she hopes to use it to build freedom for her family. Most symbolic of freedom is her dedication of funds to an idyllic house in the suburbs, a piece of the American Dream apparently attainable for all Americans.8Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 20. 

Such symbolism, built into the idea of the house, is deeply grounded in the family history and ideals important to the Youngers. Lena describes herself as descended “from five generations of people who [were] slaves and sharecroppers.”9Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 143. For as long as her family has been in America, its members have been deprived of their freedoms. By moving from the ghetto to the suburbs, she can bring her conception of the American Dream within reach for herself and her family – and for her grandson, Travis, especially, for whom the house truly is. Lena introduces the house as a gift: “[W]hat you think your grandmama gone and done with that money? […] She went out and she bought you a house!”10Ibid, 91. His eventual inheritance of the house, without any hint of slavery or indentured servitude, makes him an important beneficiary of the newly-available freedom in the suburbs, and Lena’s treatment of it as a gift shows her desire to foster freedom in his life. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, initially counsels her to spend the money by running away from the family: “Just pack up and leave! Go on away and enjoy yourself some. Forget about the family and have yourself a ball for once in your life.”11Ibid, 43. Freedom is the prize, and money is the vehicle, but Lena elects instead to spend the money buying her family a house: an action which she predicts will do nothing but create freedom. 

For the next generation of Youngers, born to Ruth and Walter Jr., the house is purported to be equally freeing; it will allow Ruth to raise her unborn child and Travis free from the ghetto. They anticipate great new freedom, with the house behind it. Walter Jr. elaborately dreams about a future in which he and his family enjoy the American Dream, and relates it to Travis: 

[O]ne day when you ‘bout seventeen years old I’ll come home […] after a day of conferences and secretaries […] ‘cause an executive’s life is hell, man […] And I’ll pull the car up on the driveway… just a plain black Chrysler, I think […] Rich people don’t have to be flashy… though I’ll have to get something a little sportier for Ruth – maybe a Cadillac convertible to do her shopping in… And I’ll come up the steps to the house and the gardener will […] say “Good evening, Mr. Younger.” And I’ll say, “Hello, Jefferson, how are you this evening?” And I’ll go inside and Ruth will […] meet me at the door and we’ll kiss each other and she’ll take my arm and we’ll go up to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you […] and I’ll say, all right son – […] what is it you’ve decided?… Just tell me where you want to go to school and you’ll go. Just tell me, what it is you want to be – and you’ll be it […] You just name it, son… and I hand you the world!12Ibid, 108-109.

Replete with a high-paying job, two luxurious cars, servants, Ruth in the role of the perfect housewife, a sprawling mansion, plenty of educational opportunities for Travis, and the magical freedom to give his son whatever future he desires, his dream is hugely important. With its reliance on opportunities for advancement and the role of freedom in the future, this dream is wholly contingent upon a move to suburbia. Walter Jr. expects to embody the same suburban dream that his wealthy white neighbours do. He relies on the contemporary connection between suburban life and freedom for his dream, and seeks its comfortable, liberating “reality.”

However, the truth about freedom in the play is less than that which the Youngers expect. Ruth’s impassioned, joyful outburst when she learns of Lena’s purchase is tragically ironic: 

All I can say is–if this is my time in life […] to say good-bye […] to these goddamned cracking walls! […] and these marching roaches! […] and this cramped little closet which ain’t now or never was no kitchen! … then I say it loud and good, HALLELUJAH! AND GOOD-BYE MISERY … I DON’T NEVER WANT TO SEE YOUR UGLY FACE AGAIN!13Ibid, 93-94.

She is overjoyed at the opportunity to leave the ghetto, to find a sense of freedom in the suburbs, yet there is a deeper hint about Hansberry’s understanding of freedom. Her suggestion that she will never see the ugly face of misery again is bizarre, considering the standard for entry into suburbia. Unless the Youngers were a white, middle-class family who conformed to the social norms of the fifties, freedom would be unavailable. Restrictions in the interest of homogeneity are crucial to the maintenance of the suburban ideal. The residents of Clybourne Park, where the Youngers hope to move, send a representative, Karl Lindner, to push the Youngers to sell the house back to the community,14Ibid, 118. and when he is twice rebuffed, he ominously says “I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into.”15Ibid, 149. His threat demonstrates the normative goals of suburbia, and reflects the danger of a tangible reduction in freedom through the move. Lindner embodies the status quo: a white man of the suburbs, sent to enforce conformity and prevent the freedom of those like himself from modification by new, African-American influences. 

While the Youngers envision a miraculous transformation in their lives, the realities of suburbia and of contemporary American culture prevent them from adopting the freedom which they had sought for so long. Ignorance within the African-American community, compounded by a resistance to change, is portrayed as dangerous within the play, and their neighbour Mrs. Johnson is a primary illustration of this. Aware of their plans to leave the ghetto, Mrs. Johnson first minimizes them by calling it “[moving] on up a little higher,”16Ibid, 99. and then predicts a future headline, “NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK – BOMBED!”17Ibid, 102. She represents the backward, ignorant black population who Hansberry saw as unwilling to fight for social change.  No matter where the Youngers go, they will have to deal with the black-repressive American idea of freedom, which will leave them by the wayside. It permeates the social psyche so deeply that even African-Americans, like Mrs. Johnson, accept it as gospel. This is the problem which Hansberry seeks to remedy: that freedom, in America, means the exact opposite of what it should. Instead of signifying an expansion in liberty and dignity, freedom is embodied in the repression of African-Americans and relies upon a racist, classist society to exist. At once, Mrs. Johnson’s reaction is a tacit realization of the reality – that the house will not guarantee freedom – and a reflection of the contemporary social environment. 

In hushed tones throughout the play, Hansberry refers to her ideas of freedom for the Youngers. Lena’s exhortation that “something has changed” from worrying about being lynched to her children “talking ‘bout things [Lena and Walter Sr.] ain’t never thought about hardly,”18Ibid, 74. while delivered with a tongue-lashing, reflects the freedom her family enjoys. By virtue of the changes in American society, her and her family naturally have more freedom than their forebears, which is hugely important to Hansberry’s ideas. Instead of relying on a suburban house for freedom, as the Youngers seem to, Hansberry wishes her audience to understand that the Youngers have freedom of their own already. There is freedom in self-awareness, freedom in racial pride, and freedom in the lives which every human is given. By including and demonizing conformity, tactfully characterizing the suburbs as racist and focused on the repression of women, and drawing attention to the short-lived nature of prosperity and the pervasive ignorance of the time, Hansberry carefully constructs her commentary. A Raisin in the Sun, with these remarkable elements underlying its acclaimed lines, reflects on the place of freedom in midcentury American society, and encourages its audience to question the traditional interpretation and replace it with a more substantive version of freedom.

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