I learned about Lorraine Hansberry through the great songwriter, musician, performer and civil rights activist hero Nina Simone. Hansberry, a genius playwright who died at age 34, was one of the first people who inspired Simone to work for social justice and the rights of black people.
Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun is a brilliant, stunning work of art, as well as important social commentary on the oppression of minorities and the need for compassion that transcends human constructed barriers. Such assets of literature are still highly relevant 55 years after A Raisin in the Sun’s debut.
The title of the play, and perhaps the premise, comes from the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.”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?
Hansberry asks the same questions as Hughes’ poem in A Raisin in the Sun, a drama both captivating and heart-wrenching in its realistic depiction of the lives of a hard-working yet impoverished black family living in cold war era Chicago. A Raisin in the Sun centers around the dreams each family member has for a better life—dreams that are hungry for progress & growth, desperate for survival & self-worth. Ultimately it is the communal, life-giving dream of the family matriarch, Mama, which brings understanding, strength, perseverance and dignity to a family hindered by circumstances–victims of racism, poverty and bad luck.
Every line in the A Raisin in the Sun serves to show insight into the characters of the family and adds to the construction of scene and setting, such as in the following passage portraying Mama’s messages of love:
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing…Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
The speaker, Mama, is an emblem of a family structure that holds love above all else, allowing self-respect and humanity to prevail.
Hansberry’s play shows that amidst a world of hypocrisy, hatred and apathy, we can overcome the most daunting trials through love for one another, understanding, solidarity and being true to ourselves, our families, and a greater good. We may be broke and have nothing material in this world, but strength comes through maintaining dignity and being able to hold our heads high with satisfied minds.