A Raisin in the Sun' Racism Essay

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The first-ever black woman to have a play performed on Broadway and all around the world in 35 different languages was accomplished by Lorraine Hansberry according to Nava Atlas in Lorraine Hansbury, Creator of a Raisin in the Sun (Atlas). Hansberry was raised in a black middle-class family in the southside of Chicago as the Civil Rights Movement was expanding. The Civil Rights Movement fought against segregation inspiring young black activists to express themselves in terms of art. Hansberry expressed her views against discrimination based on race. A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window are examples of Hansberry’s work addressing her views on the oppression of minority groups. Topics such as racism and poverty are present in A Raisin in the Sun while The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window discusses contemporary issues in a minority household. Hansberry’s life experiences lead her to become a successful playwright thus inspiring her work and influencing the Black Arts Movement.

Hansberry was born in May of 1930, a time of racial segregation, and faced discrimination living in a white community. As stated in Delano Greenridge-Copprue's article Lorraine Hansberry, was the youngest child of civil rights activists Carl and Nannie Hansberry. Carl Hansberry had a successful real estate company and formed the first bank in Chicago for African Americans (Greenridge-Copprue). As a young child, Hansberry and her family moved into an all-white community where black people were not sold homes. The community had a negative reaction as noted by an incident when someone threw a brick into Hansberry’s home according to the Chicago Public Library in Lorraine Hansberry Biography (Chicago Public Library). As a result, the Hansberry were evicted from their home and eventually brought their case Hansberry vs. Lee, up to the Supreme Court. According to “Theater Appreciation” by James, John W, et al, Hansberry went on to study at the University of Wisconsin where she studied painting but then changed her major to writing (James et al, 30). Hansberry furthered her educational studies in writing and theater in New York City. As a writer, she worked for Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom. During a protest rally at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff whom she married in 1953. Hansberry and her husband collaborated on a folk ballad which was a success allowing her to focus on her passion for theater. Notably, Hansberry focused on playwriting and wrote A Raisin in the Sun which was originally titled The Crystal Stair (Chicago Public Library). Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was originally first performed in Connecticut, but after critical acclaim, it was developed into a Broadway play. According to The Facts on File Companion to American Drama by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig, “A Raisin in the Sun opened on March 11, 1959, at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Award (the first awarded to an African American) and running for an impressive 530 performances” (Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig). Hansberry gained recognition as a young black playwright. In 1964, Hansberry produced her second and final play called The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (James et al, 30). Shortly after, Hansberry fell ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window had its last run the same night Hansberry died of cancer (James et al, 30). Although Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced, he went on to publish her unfinished plays such as Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and, What Use Are Flowers? (Chicago Public Library). In an autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black Nemiroff collected Hansberry’s unfinished works specifically, speeches, journal entries, and writings (Greenridge-Copprue). Strikingly, Hansberry’s impact on the African-American community lead to great attendance at her funeral as “mourners filled the church, and those unable to find room within the church stood outside in a blizzard to pay their respects to the 34-year-old playwright’’ (Greenridge-Copprue). This goes to show that the African-American community viewed Hansberry as an inspirational figure.

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In particular, Hansberry’s work was inspired by important poets and figures. Growing up, Hansberry was surrounded by cultural figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Jesse Owens. Although she was part of the few privileged black families there, she was still aware of the social divides. Hansberry was inspired to get into theater when she “attended a university production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and was moved by O’Casey’s ability to make the particular suffering of the Irish people a commentary on the Universal suffering of humanity” (Greenridge-Copprue). Hansberry envisioned that she could also portray hardships African Americans were facing at the time and began her playwriting career. To accurately depict African-American characters in her work, she would get inspiration from her family members. Her first playwright was A Raisin in the Sun, named after Langston Hughes's poem “Harlem.” Hughes's poem expresses how African American’s fate is fixed.

“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?” (Hughes, 74)

In this poem, Hughes discusses how African American dreams were not important which could cause them to eventually “explode” by protesting. Hansberry was inspired by Hughes's words and she based her first playwright on the poem. A Raisin in the Sun illustrates an African American family living in the South Side of Chicago who have dreams but are unable to attain them because of prejudice and segregation. There were events in Hansberry’s life that she included in A Raisin in the Sun. For example, she once moved into an all-white neighborhood and everyone opposed her black family to live there. In A Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family moves into an all-white neighborhood and faces bribes to move out. This play was successful due to Hansberry’s ability to accurately depict African American struggles in the eyes of white people. Her second playwright, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was also a success but did not capture as much of an audience as A Raisin in the Sun did. In brief, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window addressed contemporary issues, for example, marriage. Before Hansberry’s death, she had worked on three unfinished plays: Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? (Chicago Public Library). Hansberry also had an unfinished opera called Toussaint and an autobiographical novel titled All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors. Her works were inspired by activists in efforts to raise awareness of the oppression African Americans faced.

As a result, Hansberry efforts were an inspiration to African Americans in theater which led to the creation of the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts movement began in the 1960s and according to Candance L. Baker in “To All Sisters: Defending Lorraine Hansberry's Integral Role in the Black Arts Movement in Juxtaposition with the Works of Sonia Sanchez & Adrienne Kennedy” it “featured many black writers and artists who explored the “essence” of black identity in their creative work. Their values were reflected in the artistic expression of the period, often referred to as the 'Black Aesthetic’” (Baker). African-American artists were openly expressing their views about their own identity. Hansberry is credited with inspiring a new generation of Black artists as she “focused on the topic of race in American Society” in her works (Baker). A new generation of African-American artists initiated the spread of activism through their works. Hansberry influenced feminism by creating pivotal female roles in A Raisin in the Sun for black women to portray. Black women were allowed to finally express their talent to portray what it was really like to be an African American during the 1950s. Hansberry’s achievements proved that African Americans were also capable of producing successful plays.

Overall, it may be said that Hansberry’s life experiences led to her becoming an influential playwright. Having been raised in a middle-class family, Hansberry experienced oppression which influenced several of her works. She integrated her personal experiences and works from other African Americans in her plays which made them authentic. Notably, Hansberry is known for her two playwrights- A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Her plays were inspired by ongoing issues, for example, racism. Hansberry also incorporated contemporary issues such as marriage problems. Her playwrights allowed white people to get a glimpse of the life of an average African American. Hansberry became well-known and used her fame to advocate for racial justice. Although Hansberry passed away in 1965, she is credited for starting the Black Arts Movement. She led a new generation of African Americans to express their points of view creatively. To summarize Hansberry lived a short, but very meaningful life advocating for the African-American community. The events and people in her life guided her to create successful plays that enticed the Black Arts movement.

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