Hansberry, Lorraine 1930-1965
Lorraine Hansberry 1930-1965
(Full name Lorraine Vivian Hansberry) American dramatist and essayist.
For additional information on Hansberry's career, see BLC, Ed. 1
With her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Hansberry became the first African American and the youngest woman to ever win the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. A drama as much about class as race, the work traces the experiences of a black, blue-collar family whose members decide to move into a white neighborhood. The play's popularity proved that theatergoing audiences, Broadway producers, and critics alike were ready for dramas by and about African Americans to be a part of the New York theater scene. A Raisin in the Sun was, however, criticized by some militant blacks for what they viewed as assimilationist themes. Following the phenomenal success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry continued to work as a dramatist and also wrote a collection of essays, though A Raisin in the Sun overshadowed the rest of her work throughout her short life.
Born in 1930 into a south-side Chicago neighborhood to middle-class parents, Hansberry described her early childhood as an insulated one. Surrounded in the ghetto by other families like her own, she did not experience racism until she left that community. When she was seven years old, she and her family broke what was known as a "covenant law," or a legal sanctioning of housing discrimination, when they moved into an exclusively white neighborhood. Her family, along with the NAACP, fought the city's order for them to move. The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court and the covenant law was deemed unconstitutional. The family was harassed for the duration of the legal proceedings. In high school Hansberry became interested in the theater and later attended the University of Wisconsin. For a time, she was a student of the visual arts, studying painting in Chicago and abroad. In 1950 she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a writer. As politically minded as her parents, Hansberry wrote for the Paul Robeson publication Freedom and participated in various protests. She met the man who would later become her husband, Robert Nemiroff, at a protest at New York University. Nemiroff was a white writer and an ardent supporter of a liberal political agenda. The couple married in 1953, and Nemiroff supported his wife's writing career. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, debuted in New York in 1959. In 1964 Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced, but he remained an integral part of her career. Hansberry died of cancer on July 12, 1965.
A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry's best known and most acclaimed work, is set in a south Chicago apartment shortly after World War II. It centers on the Younger family, which includes the matriarch Lena; her daughter; her son Walter Lee and his wife Ruth; and Walter and Ruth's son, Travis. Lena's husband has died and the family is waiting for the check from the insurance company. Although Walter wishes to invest the money in a business, he instead supports his mother's desire to move to a new neighborhood, a predominantly white area; the family subsequently runs into resistance from the community, which does not want an African American family living in their midst. The play ran for 530 performances and in 1961 a film version was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil. In addition to the New York Drama Critics Circle Award that Hansberry had already won, she received a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for a Screen Writers Guild award for the screenplay. Following the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry began writing a new play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). This play features a disillusioned Jewish intellectual who struggles with his sense of social responsibility. Reviews were mixed, and sales poor. The play closed on Broadway in 1965, on the day of Hansberry's death. Her ex-husband and literary executor Nemiroff collected Hansberry's writings in the autobiographical work To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969). Additionally, Nemiroff edited and published the last three plays Hansberry had written, which were eventually staged in 1970: Les Blancs, a protest against colonialism; The Drinking Gourd, a story about slavery and emancipation; and What Use Are Flowers?, a fable featuring a hermit who attempts to impart to his children his recollections of a past civilization.
The award-winning A Raisin in the Sun is a critically esteemed work and is often considered on par with such other classics of American theater as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Even decades after the original production, the play and its ranking in American theater are the subjects of critical analyses. Robin Bernstein reviews the debate that surrounded the play after its debut. Some critics praised the play's universal themes, while others focused on the deft manner in which Hansberry captured the unique experience of a black family. Bernstein argues that in some critical circles, the fact that the play was viewed alternately as universal or particular was held up as a strange paradox. The critic further explains that this view—that the play successfully portrayed both universal and particular concerns—was maintained by some white critics who sought to undercut the achievement of a young, female, black dramatist. Leonard R. N. Ashley assesses Hansberry's overall contribution to American theater, but focuses his analysis on A Raisin in the Sun. Ashley observes that although the play does not achieve theatrical greatness, hampered as it is by an overly conventional structure and awkward plotting, it nevertheless, through its groundbreaking nature and social relevance, has earned its lauded position in the history of American theater. Taking another approach, Frank Ardolino examines the thematic structure of A Raisin in the Sun. Ardolino demonstrates the ways in which Hansberry carries the theme of generation throughout the play, supporting it through birth imagery and through parallels between the character Ruth and the biblical Ruth. The connections among the characters emphasizes Hansberry's focus on the value and power of home and family, Ardolino states. He further argues that Hansberry explores the theme of generation as it relates to family lineage, and in terms of personal growth in spite of social and economic obstacles.
A Raisin in the Sun (drama) 1959
The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (essays) 1964; also published as A Matter of Colour: Documentary of the Struggles for Racial Equality in the USA, 1965
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (drama) 1964
*To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: The World of Lorraine Hansberry [adapted by Robert Nemiroff] (drama) 1969; also published as To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 1969; as To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, An Informal Autobiography of Lorraine Hansberry, 1970; and To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words [acting edition], 1971
Les Blancs [adapted by Robert Nemiroff] (drama) 1970
†Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry (drama) 1972
*This drama, an assemblage of Hansberry's letters, speeches, plays, and essays, was posthumously adapted for the stage by Hansberry's former husband, Robert Nemiroff.
†This collection includes The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?.
Leonard R. N. Ashley (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Ashley, Leonard R. N. "Lorraine Hansberry and the Great Black Way." In Modern American Drama:The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, pp. 151-60. Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.
[In this essay, Ashley assesses Hansberry's contribution to American theater, stating that A Raisin in the Sun was both acclaimed and controversial, and that despite some deficiencies, it deserves a respected place in the history of American theater.]
It is odd that when Philip Rose wanted to produce Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and made the rounds with the script, he was told the play was not what Broadway wanted. Yet Raisin is a quintessentially commercial Broadway drama. It is old-fashioned: Brooks Atkinson called it a "Negro The Cherry Orchard,"1 and Tom Driver said that "the effect that it produces is comparable to that which would be had in a concert hall if a composer of today were to write a concerto in the manner of Tchaikovsky."2 It is safe: it is Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller in blackface in a conventionally naturalistic and well-made drama about people who could be of any racial minority, what Atkinson identified as "human beings who want, on the one hand, to preserve their family pride and, on the other hand, to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate."3 It is relevant without being radical and sweet without being saccharine, uplifting and not too disturbing. C. W. E. Bigsby put his finger precisely on the play's commercial appeal when he wrote:
For all its sympathy, humour and humanity, … [Raisin ] remains disappointing…. Its weakness is essentially that of much of Broadway naturalism. It is an unhappy crossbreed of social protest and re-assuring resolution. Trying to escape the bitterness of Wright, Hansberry betrays herself into radical simplification and ill-defined affirmation.4
Originally prompted by Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock,5 which dramatizes the hardships and hopes of the ghetto, and by Langston Hughes's "Mother to Son," in which a black matriarch asserts that "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair,"6 Hansberry finally put the emphasis on "a dream deferred" in Hughes's poem "Harlem," in which he asks whether such a dream will "dry up / like a raisin in the sun"—or "explode."7 Hansberry was dedicated to political activism: she met her Jewish husband on a picket line and worked for Paul Robeson's radical journal Freedom, writing such pieces as "Harlem Children Face Mass Ignorance in Old, Over-crowded, Understaffed Schools" and "Noted Lawyer Goes to Jail: Says Negroes' Fight for Rights Menaced."8 However, she was not about to talk of the dream exploding into violence. As Raisin ends, the black Younger family, who have been planning to move from their dilapidated Chicago apartment to suburbia, decide not to accept money to stay out of the white neighborhood; if the battle awaits them, it takes place conveniently after the curtain falls.
Raisin opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 11 March 1959 and ran for 530 performances on Broadway. It became a favorite on liberal college campuses, was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier, and won the 1961 Cannes Film Festival award.9 Most significantly of all, Raisin was hailed as the Best Play of the Year, although it competed with a middle-brow success (Archibald MacLeish's J.B.), a minor Eugene O'Neill play (A Touch of the Poet), and a major Tennessee Williams play (Sweet Bird of Youth). Hansberry became the youngest and the first black woman recipient of the New York Drama Critics' Circle award. Raisin became a milestone in the American theater. It was made into a musical by third-rate talents (her former husband Robert Nemiroff, composer Judd Woldin, lyricist Robert Brittain, and Charlotte Zatzberg) in 1973 and ran for three years on Broadway, and in 1988 it was revived for a new season of "American Playhouse" on television.10 It got into drama anthologies and up-to-the-minute college courses, becoming a mainstay of such new disciplines as Black Studies and Women's Studies.
Raisin immediately caused Variety and many others to rank Hansberry as the most promising playwright as the fifties ended. True, the structure of Raisin was conventional and the plotting clumsy. Why would Walter Younger give a partner in the liquor store deal all his share of the inheritance, $3,500, when only approximately a tenth of that was needed to bribe the venal (white) licensing authorities? And isn't the insurance money itself too obvious a "generating circumstance" to stir up the drama? Isn't the powerful and lovable Lena Younger just a copy of Hattie McDaniel or Ethel Waters? Doesn't the dialogue too often sound a little more New York Jewish than South Side Chicago black? (Did Nemiroff, with his own dreams derived from the English Department at New York University, do more than rescue his wife's pages from the wastepaper basket, encourage her to rewrite, abandon the other plays and the opera and the other projects she was toying with, and make a Broadway script for success?) Nonetheless, the play does deal with blacks—one critic complains they are "light-skinned" ones—and was a distinct advance on the few black playwrights who had been seen on Broadway in the thirty years after Wallace Thurman's forgotten Harlem (1929).
After 1929, New Yorkers had seen Garland Anderson's Appearances (1939), Hall Johnson's Run, Little Chillun (1933), Frank Wilson's Meek Mouse (1934), Langston Hughes's Mulatto (1935) and Simply Heavenly derived from his short stories (1957), Richard Wright's Native Son (1941) (better known as a novel), Theodore Ward's Our Lan' (1947), Louis Peterson's Take a Giant Step (1953), and Charles Sebree's Mrs. Patterson (1954).
Of these, Take a Giant Step, first presented at The Lyceum Theater on 24 September 1953, was probably the most important in terms of the reiterated theme of what Lindsay Patterson, in his anthology of Black Theater (1971), defined as "the specific moment when a black discovers he is a ‘nigger’ and his mentality shifts gears and begins that long, uphill climb to bring psychological order out of chaos."11 Hansberry had her own flawed but notable way of addressing that concern and reaching out to middle-class theatergoers, both black and white. Other black women (such as Arna Bontemps) had come before her, and other black women (such as Adrienne Kennedy) would come after, along with black men with messages reaching the mainstream (such as Ossie Davis) and others of great significance to emergent black theater (such as Ed Bullins and Douglas Turner Ward) and black radical thought (such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka). But Hansberry came at a crucial time and had an undeniable impact, making a historic contribution to what W. E. B. DuBois decades before had called for: black writers dedicated to presenting the black man to the world as both artist and a subject of art.12
Off-Broadway black writers had been successful: Langston Hughes at The Suitcase Theater with Don't You Want to Be Free? and Alice Childress at Club Baron with Just a Little Simple and at Greenwich Mews with Trouble in Mind were but two. It was Raisin, however, with a Jewish push from Nemiroff and his friends Burt D'Lugoff and Philip Rose, who recognized Hansberry as a champion of all the downtrodden regardless of race, that made Broadway and history.13
Next came The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1965), a direct attack on the bohemians of Greenwich Village. Sidney Brustein is a cynical and rather crass intellectual who can see through everyone's pretentions but his own. His unattractive wife Iris, who has more desire than talent to be an actress, has two sisters: Gloria (an expensive prostitute) and Mavis (a middle-class housewife). Alton Scales (a black activist in love with Gloria) and David Ragin (a gay playwright) create a very Village atmosphere. Perhaps it's a Village Voice atmosphere that prevails, because Scales wants Brustein to support the political reform candidate Wally O'Hara. The sign in the window gives the main message—"Vote Reform." Brustein discovers that the candidate he helped elect has sold out to the political bosses. Iris becomes an actress in commercials, Gloria decides to retire from "the profession" to marry Alton but commits suicide when he discovers her past, and Sidney and Iris reunite in the end. The good news (perhaps the bad news, because they are somewhat despicable types) is that they will somehow survive.
If this was to be a "play of ideas," the problem was that there were too many ideas and no firm idea of how to make a coherent drama out of them. Raisin had been described unkindly as soap opera with contrived climaxes and problems not of blacks but of people who just happened to be black. Brustein leaves black questions aside and jumps on the horse of social satire and rides off in several directions. Although Hansberry was never reliable with dialogue and her screenplay (nominated for an Oscar) for Raisin shows how bad she could get when she really worked at it with collaborators, Brustein has some effective lines, mostly what comedians call zingers, concise and cutting. What it lacks is a character as complex as Walter Lee Younger of Raisin, who is at least as fully conceived as Miller's Willy Loman.
Sidney Brustein proves the inadequacy of two polar opposite liberal views, fleeing from the crowd, dwelling with quietness (à la Thoreau), and losing himself in wild-eyed political activism. But we are never asked to feel with or for Sidney, as we do with and for Walter Lee even when he is most confused. Of course, dimwit Iris's idea of "live and let live, that's all" is a selfish and stupid lack of what later is deified as Involvement, but Sidney is simplistic in thought and contemptuous of others, just as Alton is brutal and Mavis is prejudiced. Sidney, unlike Lena in Raisin, may transcend stereotype, but the more we learn of him the more we legitimately despise him. Sidney is more engaged than engaging. He and Iris deserve each other, and they take up a lot of time that might have been devoted to minor characters such as David or Max (a sandaled bohemian).
Time also should have been spent conveying the message of this would-be intellectual play, which Harold Taubman reviewed in the New York Times as "uneven" and having charm and some good performances and "intelligence and ardor" but this basic fault:
Miss Hansberry has tried to cover too much ground and to touch on too many issues. There is the theme of the three sisters, daughters of an unusual, poetic Greek, who are haunted in different ways by the memory of their father. There is the theme of the intellectual who knows nearly everything and scoffs at most of it and who learns that he must make a commitment. There is a theme of the opportunist who uses the Reform movement in local politics to get ahead….
The principal themes do not coalesce comfortably, and the tangential ones, while occasionally amusing, stay the forward progress of the play.14
The reviews that Brustein received would have closed the play had it not been for a massive sympathy campaign by her friends. Since 1963, Hansberry had known she had cancer. She was dying when she attended opening night at the Longacre Theatre on 15 October 1964. Nemiroff and she had recently divorced, but this was kept secret, and he continued to act as her manager. He organized people who admired and loved Hansberry, and they all generously contributed the promotion, word of mouth, and hard cash that kept Brustein running for 101 performances on Broadway until Hansberry died on 12 January 1965. Although John Braine had greeted Brustein as "a great play," it wasn't one. But keeping it alive as long as its author was alive was a great gesture, and it became a cause that opened hearts and wallets.
It also became Nemiroff's charge to enhance the memory of his former wife after her death. He arranged for the publication of Brustein (1969), and he participated in a marathon memorial to her broadcast on radio station WBAI that he later made into the stage presentation To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969), This was a collage of bits of her plays, articles, public speeches, diaries, personal letters, and tape recordings billed as theatre. Gerald Weales in Commonweal was furious: "Whatever Nemiroff intended, the play made a mockery of Miss Hansberry's talents, destroyed everything that is good and subtle in her work." He added that "if Nemiroff's mosaic were taken at face value, it would be necessary to assume that Miss Hansberry was a gushy little girl, oohing and ahing in much the same voice of Wisconsin snow and ghetto courage, a dramatist who turned out clumsy genre pieces or broad comedy put-downs."15
To Be Young, Gifted and Black, however, became the show to be associated with to show one's idealism and liberalism, and it also became the off-Broadway hit of 1969 and later toured more than 200 college campuses. Hansberry's nonviolent black voice was eventually drowned out by louder and more angry cries for Black Power; it was, however, of political and artistic interest for a time and for a certain constituency.
Practically no one read her text in the book The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964), which also appeared in Britain under the title A Matter of Colour: Documentary of the Struggles for Racial Equality in the USA (1965). That was just as well, because she was a creative artist of the theater, not a clear theorist of the political arena. She had as little real talent for politics as she had for drawing or painting, although she had dabbled in radicalism and in pictorial art.
For some years before her death, Hansberry had been toying with an answer to Genet's Les Negres (1960), which she disliked very much. It was called Les Blancs, and, with characteristic hyperbole, Nemiroff described it as "the first major work by a black American playwright to focus on Africa and the struggle for black liberation."16 In 1970, Nemiroff "edited" the script and had it produced to very mixed reviews.
Hansberry had regarded it as her most important work, and Richard Watts in the New York Post immediately proclaimed it "the one first-rate new American play of the season."17 Clive Barnes in the Times said it was flawed but "on a vital subject.18 John Simon in New York damned it as "not only the worst new play on Broadway, of an amateurishness and crudity unrelieved by its sophomoric jabs at wit, it is also, more detestably, a play finished—or finished off—by white liberals that does its utmost to justify the slaughter of whites by blacks."19
I agree that it encourages the kind of black revolution that bloodied Africa soon after and, to some at the time, seemed to be "the fire next time" due to break out in America. It is gauche as much as leftist; it substitutes anger and artiness for articulateness and art. But if the label racist is to be put on it—as many people thought right—then it is as critical of black opportunists as it is of the white Establishment. It was more "controversial" than the ninety-minute television drama The Drinking Gourd (1960), which dealt with slavery and the Civil War and which, after telling Hansberry to make it "as frank as it needs to be," Dore Schary then dropped.20 (In 1965 Claudia McNeil, who had starred with Poitier in the film of Raisin, and Frederic Marc and Florence Eldridge tried to get it on the air, but by then it was no longer "contemporary," the Civil War centenary being over and the immense popularity of a program such as Roots not yet imagined.) However, whites were treated objectively in The Drinking Gourd, and in Les Blancs they were not.
Hansberry always had a number of ambitious projects in mind. Something on the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was one of them, but it never came to fruition. Another was a short play for television, What Use Are Flowers?, an optimistic view about the aftermath of nuclear war. (A seventy-eight-year-old English professor survives the holocaust and emerges into a destroyed world to try to give civilization back to a motley crew of nine children. He dies after he teaches them about the wheel and they destroy it in a quarrel. But as the play ends, they are cooperating to rebuild it.) NBC rejected that, so Hansberry revised it as a stage play.21 She had so much optimism that she hoped it would be a positive response to the negativity (as she saw it) of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and she had so little critical taste that she believed it was better.
A Raisin in the Sun was published in 1959, and, although the movie did not get the acclaim that greeted the play, her screenplay of it was published in 1961. The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window was published in 1965 and in Penguin's Three Negro Plays (1969). To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words was published in 1969 by Nemiroff, who also edited Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry (including Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? ) in 1972. Also in 1972, Nemiroff produced Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art and Black Revolution for Caedmon's Spoken Arts series, and Robert M. Fresco adapted To Be Young, Gifted and Black for National Educational Television. Since that time, there have been a special issue of Freedomways (with a bibliography, 1979), a biography (Catherine Scheader's They Found a Way: Lorraine Hansberry, for Children's Press, 1978), appearances in anthologies, and numerous mentions in literary studies. Most recently, her importance in the modern theater and in the raising of black consciousness has been less valued than it once was.
Her importance is minor but must not be ignored. Hansberry's last play, Les Blancs, may have lasted only forty-seven performances (opening at the Longacre Theatre on 15 November 1970), but A Raisin in the Sun had a long and well-deserved run in its time and assures her a place of respect in the history of the modern American theater.
Her papers (Nemiroff is her literary executor) contain a novel, a screenplay based on the Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew, and political articles and dramatic fragments, including The Arrival of Mr. Todog, a skit satirizing Waiting for Godot. She was always the outspoken enemy of anything she regarded as absurdist, pessimistic, or determinist, and of the problems of blacks and whites profoundly convinced that "We Shall Overcome."
"Miss Hansberry," wrote Professor Bigsby in Confrontation and Commitment, "weds an understanding of historical causality to a genuine belief in the possibility of change—a faith which necessarily rejects art formed out of despair and finding its genesis in individual suffering." She was able "to transcend parochialism and social bitterness"22 and to create at her best what Clive Barnes and other critics praised as effective theatrical scenes23 if not balanced and always carefully crafted dramas. She was not at her best with propaganda about plantation slavery or African revolution, any more than she was in her venture into philosophical drama in What Use Are Flowers? But with a nonagitprop and compassionate view of her fellow Americans from Chicago, she was powerful and memorable.24Raisin in the Sun is not a great play, but for various reasons it has an enduring place in American theater history, like The Contrast or The Fantasticks or other milestones. It will remain and draw interest to itself as a period piece and record-breaker, but it also will help our theater to remember what it was like to be a young, moderately gifted, more than usually successful black woman playwright at a time when that meant pioneering on two fronts at least. Hansberry did notably more in her work than Mrs. Scales, the black domestic mentioned in a strong speech in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, who brought home leftovers from the white family's table to feed her black children.
1. Brooks Atkinson, "The Theater: A Raisin in the Sun," New York Times, 12 March 1959, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1959, p. 345.
3. Atkinson, "The Theater: A Raisin in the Sun," p. 345.
4. C. W. E. Bigsby, Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama 1959-1966 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969), p. 156.
5. See Peter L. Hays, "Raisin in the Sun and Juno and the Paycock," Phylon 33 (Summer 1972): 175-76.
6. Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son," in The Weary Blues (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), p. 107.
7. Langston Hughes, "Harlem," from Montage of a Dream Deferred, in Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 268.
8. Some other politically oriented essays by Hansberry include "Willy Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live," Village Voice, 12 August 1959, pp. 7-8; "This Complex of Womanhood," Ebony 15 (August 1960): 40; "Genet, Mailer, and the New Paternalism," Village Voice, 1 June 1961, pp. 10-15; "Images and Essences: 1961 Dialogue with an Uncolored Egghead Containing Wholesome Intentions and Some Sass," The Urbanite 1 (May 1961): 10-11, 36; "A Challenge to Artists," Freedomways 3, no. 1 (Winter 1963): 33-35; "Black Revolution and the White Backlash" (transcript of Town Hall Forum), National Guardian, 4 July 1964, pp. 5-9; "The Nation Needs Your Gifts," Negro Digest 13, 10 (August 1964): 26-29; "The Legacy of W. E. B. DuBois," Freedomways 5, no. 1 (Winter 1965): 19-20; "The Negro Writer and His Roots: Toward a New Romanticism," Black Scholar 12 (March/April 1981): 2-12; and "All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors," Village Voice, 16 August 1983, pp. 1, 11-16, 18-19.
9. Reviews of the 1961 Columbia Pictures film of Raisin in the Sun include America 105 (8 April 1961): 133-34; BFI/Monthly Film Bulletin 28 (July 1961): 95; Commonweal 74 (7 April 1961): 46; Ebony 16 (April 1961): 53-56; Film Daily, 29 March 1961, p. 6; Filmfacts 4 (5 May 1961): 77-79; Films in Review 7 (May 1961): 298; Alvin H. Marill, The Films of Sidney Poitier (Secaucus: Citadel, 1978), pp. 97-100; Daniel J. Lear, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), pp. 226-27; Life, 21 April 1961, p. 52D; Magill's Survey of Cinema, Series I, 3, pp. 1422-24; The New Republic, 20 March 1961, p. 19; New York Times, 30 March 1961, p. 24; New York Times, sec. 2, 17 July 1960, p. 5; New York Times, sec. 2, 2 April 1961, p. 1; The New Yorker, 8 April 1961, p. 164; Newsweek, 10 April 1961, p. 103; Saturday Review, 25 March 1961, p. 34; Time, 31 March 1961, p. 64.
10. The American Playhouse production, Robert Nemiroff/Jaki Brown/Toni Livingston/Josephine Abady Productions, was directed by Bill Duke; its cast included Danny Glover (Walter Lee Younger), Starletta DuPois (Ruth Younger), Kimble Joyner (Travis Younger), Kim Yancey (Beneatha Younger), Esther Rolle (Lena Younger), and Lou Ferguson (Joseph Asagai). For Black History Month in (February) 1988, Channel 13 New York (PBS) presented R. Tangney's (producer and director) "Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama" (1975), narrated by Claudia McNeill.
11. Lindsay Patterson, ed. Black Theater: A 20th Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights (New York: New American Library, 1971), p. ix.
12. Essays on Hansberry's contributions to black theater include Theophilus Lewis, "Social Protest in A Raisin in the Sun," Catholic World 190 (October 1959): 31-35; Harold R. Isaacs, "Five Writers and Their African Ancestors, Part II," Phylon 21, no. 4 (December 1960): 317-36; Ossie Davis, "The Significance of Lorraine Hansberry," Freedomways 5, no. 3 (Summer 1965): 396-402; Jordan Y. Miller, "Lorraine Hansberry," in The Black American Writer, Vol. 2: Poetry and Drama, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 157-70; Robert Willis, "Anger and Contemporary Black Theatre," Negro American Literature Forum 8 (Summer 1974), 213-15; Jeanne-Marie A. Miller, "Images of Black Women in Plays by Black Playwrights," CLA Journal 20 (June 1977): 498-500; Glenda Gill, "Techniques of Teaching Lorraine Hansberry: Liberation from Boredom," Negro American Literature Forum 9 (Summer 1987): 226-28. See also Gwendolyn S. Cherry, et al., Portraits in Color: The Lives of Colorful Negro Women (Paterson, N.J.: Pageant Books, 1962), pp. 149-52; Harold R. Isaacs, The New World of Negro Americans (New York: The John Day Company, 1963), pp. 277-87; Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: William Morrow, 1967), pp. 267-84; Loften Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967), pp. 180-82; Harold Clurman, "Theater: Les Blancs," The Nation 211, no. 18 (30 November 1970); Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), pp. 203-7; Tom Scanlan, Family, Drama, and American Dreams (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978), pp. 195-201. Hansberry herself speaks to the issue in Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (Princeton: Films for the Humanities, 1976) and Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art and the Black Revolution (Caedmon, 1972), both recordings.
13. See Gerald Weales, "Thoughts on A Raisin in the Sun," Commentary 27, no. 6 (June 1959): 527-30, and Lloyd W. Brown, "Lorraine Hansberry as an Ironist: A Reappraisal of A Raisin in the Sun," Journal of Black Studies 4 (March 1974): 237-47.
14. Harold Taubman, "Theater: Sidney Brustein's Window," New York Times, 16 October 1964, p. 32. See also Walter Kerr, "Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," New York Herald Tribune, 16 October 1964, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1964, pp. 192-93; Robert Nemiroff, "The One Hundred and One ‘Final’ Performances of Sidney Brustein: Portrait of a Play and Its Author," in A Raisin in the Sun / The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, by Lorraine Hansberry (New York: Signet/New American Library, 1966), pp. 138-85; Orley I. Holton, "Sidney Brustein and the Plight of the American Intellectual," Players 46 (June/July 1971): 222-25; Clive Barnes, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," New York Times, 27 January 1974, p. 44.
15. Gerald Weales, "Losing the Playwright," Commonweal 90 (5 September 1969): 542-43.
16. Robert Nemiroff, quoted in Michael Adams, Dictionary of Literary Biography 7, p. 252; see also Julius Lester, Introduction to Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Larraine Hansberry, ed. Robert Nemiroff (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), pp. 25-32.
17. Richard Watts, New York Post, 16 November 1970, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1970, p. 154.
18. Clive Barnes, New York Times, 16 November 1970, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1970, pp. 154-55.
20. The information on Dore Schary and The Drinking Gourd is from Dictionary of Literary Biography 7, p. 252. Schary called it "a powerful, marvelous script … that says something about the peculiar institution of slavery." CBS claimed it was "not contemporary enough" and no television executives could see that the topic was box office (as it proved to be in Roots). Hansberry's script was racist (although she presents whites favorably), but it was trash, not treasure. See also Bertie J. Powell, "The Black Experience in Margaret Walker's Jubilee and Lorraine Hansberry's The Drinking Gourd," CLA Journal 21, no. 2 (December 1977): 304-11.
21.The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers? published separately by Random House in 1972, are included in Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, ed. Robert Nemiroff, pp. 217-310, 323-70.
22. Bigsby, Confrontation and Commitment, pp. 168-69, 172.
23. Barnes, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
24. Two interviews of interest are "Playwright," The New Yorker, 9 May 1959, pp. 33-34, containing information on Hansberry's early life; and Studs Terkel, "An Interview with Lorraine Hansberry," WFMT Chicago Fine Arts Guide 10, no. 4 (April 1961): 8-14. Primary and secondary materials are listed in Ernest Kaiser and Robert Nemiroff, "A Lorraine Hansberry Bibliography," Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 285-304 [special Hansberry issue]. The latest study of Hansberry is by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1988). It is written from a feminist perspective, while this present article, without ignoring her feminine or black interests, attempts to place Hansberry in the mainstream of the American popular theater and to stake her historical claim, along with successful plays as different as Lightnin' and Abie's Irish Rose, for an enduring if minor place in the pantheon of Broadway.
Robin Bernstein (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Bernstein, Robin. "Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun." Modern Drama 42 (1999): 16-27.
[In the following essay, Bernstein examines the relationship between the specific and the universal in Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, demonstrating that while the play successfully expresses both universal and particular concerns, the existence of both universal and specifically black elements was, at the time of the play's debut, identified as a paradox by white theater critics.]
When Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, the vast majority of white critics praised the play's "universality." One re- viewer wrote, "A Negro wrote this show. It is played, with one exception, by Negroes. Half the audiences here are Negroes. Even so, it isn't written for Negroes…. It's a show about people, white or colored…. I see A Raisin in the Sun as part of the general culture of the U.S."1 The phrase "happens to be" appeared with remarkable frequency among reviews: the play was "about human beings, who happen to be Negroes"2 (or "a family that happens to be colored"3); Sidney Poitier played "the angry young man who happens to be a Negro."4
Other white reviewers, however, praised the play not for its universality, but for its particularity. "The play is honest," wrote Brooks Atkinson, critic for the New York Times. "[Hansberry] has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the southside of Chicago at the present time."5 "This Negro play," wrote another reviewer, "celebrates with slow impressiveness a triumph of racial pride."6
How can a play be simultaneously specific and universal? This apparent paradox is easily resolved with the assertion that African-Americans are precisely as human—and African-American cultures just as universal or particular—as members of any other group. Hansberry herself pointed out the non-existence of the paradox:
Interviewer: The question, I'm sure, is asked you many times—you must be tired of it—someone comes up to you and says: "This is not really a Negro play; why, this could be about anybody! It's a play about people!" What is your reaction? What do you say?
Hansberry: Well[,] I hadn't noticed the contradiction because I'd always been under the impression that Negroes are people…. One of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.7
Hansberry's solution to the apparent paradox did not go unnoticed or unremarked. Novelist John Oliver Killens and historian and editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., for example, both noted Hansberry's ability to be "universal in her particularity."8
The paradox, then, is that a paradox was perceived at all, or that it continued to be perceived after Hansberry (and, later, Killens, Bennett, and others9) had publicly resolved it. Why did critics persistently categorize Raisin as either universal or specifically black? Why, when critics noted the fact that the play successfully communicated both universal and particular concerns, did they remark on this fact as a paradox or contradiction? In other words, why was the appearance of a paradox created and maintained?
This essay attempts to tease out some of the meanings fueling and produced by the creation and maintenance of the apparent contradiction between universality and particularity. Although the focus, obviously, is on A Raisin in the Sun, the same apparent paradox is constructed for many other artistic works from the past and present. This essay, then, (a) lays groundwork to analyze the apparently contradictory claims that a piece (any piece) is both "universal" and "specific" to a minority experience and (b) helps illuminate the reasons for a cultural need for the appearance of the paradox.
The claim that the play's characters are universal "people" without specific ties to African-American culture appears simply racist ("This is a well-written play; white people can relate to it; therefore it cannot be a black play"). Conversely, the assertion that the play is not universal but exclusively specific to African-Americans—that is, that the characters exist outside the category of "human"—seems equally racist. Upon closer examination, however, it is possible to discern both racist and anti-racist impulses in each claim.
The "particularizing" assertion can be separated into several different strands. In the most racist form, critics in this mode refused to acknowledge any difference between Hansberry's characters and stereotyped images of blacks. A few months after the play opened, Hansberry noted "some of the prior attitudes which were brought into the theatre from the world outside. For in the minds of many, [the character of] Walter remains, despite the play, despite performance, what American racial traditions wish him to be: an exotic."10 If audiences went to the theatre to see "the simple, lovable, and glandular ‘Negro,’"11 they would find him, regardless of what actually occurred on stage. Hansberry wrote,
My colleagues and I were reduced to mirth and tears by that gentleman writing his review of our play in a Connecticut paper who remarked of his pleasure at seeing how "our dusky brethren" could "come up with a song and hum their troubles away." It did not disturb the writer in the least that there is no such implication in the entire three acts. He did not need it in the play; he had it in his head.12
Similarly, Elliot Norton wrote for the Boston Record that Hansberry's characters "have been endowed with the light-hearted humor which seems to be inherent to their race."13
Such blatant racism is related to the more subtle "people's culture" approach Eric Lott attacked in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American WorkingClass. Lott defined the "people's culture" position as one that views minstrelsy as a more-or-less accurate reflection or aspect of "authentic" Negro culture. Lott's attack on this approach's ahistoricity and inaccuracy might seem inapplicable to Raisin, which was obviously and deliberately locatable in black culture. However, the "people's culture" stance resembled that of some of the reviewers in that both approaches sought—or demanded—access to "authentic" black culture, as evidenced in critics' repeated praising of Raisin as "honest drama" with "vigor as well as veracity."14 In other words, the "people's culture" approach and that of some of Raisin 's critics shared a common impulse to access perceived authentic black culture. And in doing so, of course, these approaches re-asserted whiteness as the norm.
The play's ability to appear to encapsulate "Negro experience" in the readily knowable, digestible, and non-threatening form of theatrical realism arguably satisfied this impulse and thus constituted the primary reason for the play's success among white audiences. In other words, the play's realism satisfied its white viewers in much the same way that minstrelsy satisfied its viewers by providing them with easy access to consumable, perceived "Negro culture." A Raisin in the Sun, then, by making black experiences appear understandable to and consumable by white audiences, simultaneously made those experiences collectable. The bourgeois white viewer could display his or her new-found knowledge much as one might display a collection of "primitive" art; as James Clifford argues, "cultural description [can be] presented as a form of collecting."15
Collecting is a performance of power. To collect is to construct, limit, contain, display, and define. As Clifford observed, collections (even nonmaterial ones such as collected experiences of theatregoing) are necessarily organized taxonomically and hierarchically; thus collectors assert power over their possessions (which serve as metonyms for cultures).16 The impulse for the white theatregoer to collect knowledge of "authentic" black experiences—through minstrelsy or through Raisin 's realism—is therefore an impulse to perform (and thus actualize) white power.
Collecting is closely related to conservation, another performance of power to which Clifford devoted some attention: "Collecting—at least in the West, where time is generally thought to be linear and irreversible—implies a rescue of phenomena from inevitable historical decay or loss."17 Clifford described the collecting of "primitive" visual art and the anthropological collecting of nonmaterial knowledge as similarly conservative projects: "Both discourses assume a primitive world in need of preservation, redemption, and representation."18 White audiences' nonmaterial collecting of minority experiences through theatre attendance, then, could involve a similar conservative impulse. And, as Clifford's colleague Donna Haraway noted, conservation is always intertwined with subjugation: "Once domination is complete, conservation is urgent."19
Finally, the assertion that A Raisin in the Sun was specifically and exclusively black effectively erased from the play Hansberry's class analysis. Many African-American critics and scholars have noticed and commented on this aspect of the play, but almost no white commentators have. Hansberry complained,
Some writers have been astonishingly incapable of discussing [the character of Walter's] purely class aspirations and have persistently confounded them with what they consider to be an exotic being's longing to "wheel and deal" in what they consider to be (and what Walter never can) "the white man's world."20
The erasure of Hansberry's class analysis suggests white critics' unwillingness to engage with a black writer's intellect. In other words, white audiences who came to the theatre to see (and collect the experiences of) the "simple, lovable, and glandular ‘Negro’"21 (and who encountered, to their disappointment, non-stereotyped characters22) could have preserved their mission by willfully ignoring anything that did not contribute to that project. Even the FBI, which investigated Lorraine Hansberry as a possible "danger to the Republic," labeled the play "not propagandistic."23 This description, regarded as flattering by the FBI, revealed an unwillingness to engage with—or even recognize—the politics of the play.
By ignoring Hansberry's politics and recognizing only the play's specificity to black culture, white critics erased Hansberry's authority to speak about anything but herself. This action positioned blacks as if in a fishbowl: they could look at each other, but not at anything beyond their immediate context. This fishbowl could sit comfortably, decoratively, on a shelf in a white household; white people could peer through the glass (which contained and controlled the exotics and simultaneously kept the white spectator safely separated from the creatures) and enjoy their collection. In other words, erasing Hansberry's authority to speak about anything but her (white-defined) culture created a "glass" barrier that separated white audiences from the play's black creators and characters and rendered the subaltern collectable—and thus produced white power.
Furthermore, this "fishbowl" dynamic created a unidirectional gaze; that is to say, it positioned blacks as the object of both blacks' and whites' gazes, and simultaneously positioned whites as the empowered, invisible inspector. This action reified blacks' lives and experiences as collectable and simultaneously precluded the possibility of blacks inverting the dynamic and collecting (and thus disempowering) whites and their experiences. The fish cannot collect the humans outside the bowl.
The interpretation of Raisin as specifically black (and distinctly not universal), however, also had non-racist, or even anti-racist, aspects, most of which originated from African-American writers.
Hansberry wrote the play in response to a racist performance:
One night, after seeing a play I won't mention, I suddenly became disgusted with a whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or hip-swinging musicals from exotic sources.24
The critic from Connecticut, then, was not entirely wrong when he read racist stereotypes into Hansberry's play: these stereotypes were diegetically present.
Black audiences apparently also read the play in the context of racist stereotypes. According to James Baldwin, the play drew unprecedented numbers of African-Americans to the theatre because "never before in American theater history had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on stage."25 Overlap occurred, then, between the racist impulse to collect black experiences and the anti-racist impulse to see one's own experience reflected on stage (and to see stereotypes extirpated): both impulses hinged on the highly suspect notion of authenticity. The fact that two opposing impulses could exist in the same space contributed to the appearance of a paradox.
The play itself emphasized particularity within particularity through the character of Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian. According to Alex Haley, Hansberry achieved two goals through the character of Asagai. First, she
helped to dispel the myth of the ‘cannibal’ with a bone in his hair. Her educated African character … was certainly the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress. It must also have been the first time a mass audience had ever seen a black woman gracefully don African robes or wear an "afro" hairstyle.26
Asagai, then, continued Hansberry's project of creating individual, specifically black characters who testified against stereotypes. Second, as Haley noted, A Raisin in the Sun was the first artistic work to popularize (on a large scale) the concept of a relationship between African-Americans and Africans.27 By teasing out this relationship that specifically separated African-Americans from all other Americans, Hansberry again employed the particularizing approach—but to antiracist ends.
As several critics—and Hansberry herself—have noted, however, Hansberry's particularism funneled into her universalism. Margaret B. Wilkerson posited that Hansberry's simultaneous particularism and universalism enabled Raisin to function as a bridge:
Hansberry … [insists] upon a thorough probing of the individual within the specifics of culture, ethnicity and gender. In the midst of her expansiveness, she refuses to diminish the pain, suffering or truths of any one group in order to benefit another, a factor which makes her plays particularly rich and her characters thoroughly complex. Hence, she can write authentically about a black family in A Raisin in the Sun and yet produce, in the same instance, a play which appeals to both Blacks and whites, bridging for a moment the historical and cultural gaps between them.
Her universalism, which redefines that much abused term, grows out of a deep, complex encounter with the specific terms of human experience as it occurs for Blacks, women, whites and many other groups of people. Her universalism is not facile, nor does it gloss over the things that divide people. She engages those issues, works through them, to find whatever may be, a priori, the human commonality that lies beneath.28
Obviously, there was an anti-racist project inherent to the demand that white audiences see themselves (i.e., the "universal") in black characters. And audiences responded to this demand: scholars such as Lerone Bennett, Jr., commented on the "curious identification some elements of the non-black community felt toward the play."29 However, within this dynamic—which Hansberry deliberately created from an anti-racist politic—racist interpretations abounded.
The universalist interpretation of the play was used to deny and erase the particularity on which Hansberry insisted. In this way, universalism functioned much like the collecting instinct of the "people's culture" approach: the latter sought black culture in order to acquire and preserve it—and thus assert power over it; the former denied and erased black culture in order to control and assert power over it. Once again, opposing projects overlapped and contributed to the appearance of a paradox.
Furthermore, critics' lauding of Raisin for its "universal" appeal must be read in the context of the critics' more typical dismissal of black theatre "as social rather than artistic, as parochial rather than universal."30 The interpretation of Raisin as artistic (i.e., apolitical) and universal, then, in addition to erasing crucial components of the play, denigrated all other black theatre. The elevation of Raisin to the status of universal made the play a token.
More subtly, the universalist impulse among white critics functioned to absorb the particular into the white/universal or to reduce the particular other to a reflection of the white self—both of which had the effect of inflating the white/universal.31 In an essay on an exhibit of "primitive" art at the Museum of Modern Art, Clifford described a "disquieting quality of modernism: its taste for appropriating or redeeming otherness, for constructing non-Western arts in its own image, for discovering universal, ahistorical ‘human’ capabilities."32 The point is not that Hansberry's work was modernist or non-Western, but rather that white critics, thinking in the modernist mode, treated Raisin as an exotic "other" and therefore sought "universal" qualities within it. Again, nuances of the apparent paradox are revealed: universalism flows into particularism, which in turn flows back into universalism.
What should be clear from this discussion is the fluidity, overlap, and mutual permeability of the categories of "universal" and "particular." Fluidity, overlap, and mutual permeability do not, however, constitute a paradox (which would require the simultaneous existence of two or more mutually exclusive trajectories). The appearance of a paradox depends on the assumption that universality and particularity are static.
The introduction of the idea of motion not only resolves the apparent paradox (as Hansberry did in 1959 with her assertion that universality flows out of particularity), but also illuminates the reasons for the illusion of—and the cultural need for—the paradox: to view the "universal" and the "particular" as a dialectic rather than a pair of static opposites frozen in a paradox is to destabilize the "universal," that is, whiteness.
All the white critics' categorizations of the play—as particular, as distinctly not particular but universal, as apolitical, as a tokenized masterpiece—constructed black experiences as collectable. The unidirectionality of collecting (the fish cannot collect the humans outside the bowl) stabilizes whiteness and thus reifies white power. Hansberry's solution to the apparent paradox—that particularity and universality are not static, contradictory opposites—suggested that the fishbowl's glass does not exist (or at least that the glass is an unstable illusion), that blacks are not inherently collectable, that whites are not necessarily immune from being collected. Hansberry's resolution of the paradox, then, was anti-racist both in its content ("I'd always been under the impression that Negroes are people"33) and in its destabilization of the static categories of "universal" and "particular," "collector" and "collected"—categories on whose stability white power depends. White critics, then, maintained the illusion of the paradox—despite the availability of a simple solution—in order to stabilize both whiteness and the segregation of Negroes and whites, and thus to produce and enhance white power.
The level of desperation to maintain the paradox and thus stabilize whiteness is best appreciated through an examination of a misquotation in the New York Times that reversed Hansberry's fluid belief in universalism-through-particularity. The progression of the misquotation, as described by Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry's ex-husband and literary executor, is worth quoting at length:
[Hansberry] is … "quoted" as follows: "I told them this wasn't a ‘Negro play.’ It was a play about honest-to-God, believable, many-sided people who happened to be Negroes."
In her scrapbook, beside a clipping of this interview, Lorraine wrote these words: "Never said NO such thing. Miss Robertson [the interviewer] goofed—letter sent post-haste—Tune in next week…." But she need not have waited. The letter of correction was never printed. A month later, in a second profile ("Her Dream Came True" 4/9/59), presumably by another writer, the alleged statement was repeated. And from there it spread like a prairie fire. In short order, a second "quote" was mysteriously appended to the first to complete the equation: "I'm not a Negro writer—but a writer who happens to be a Negro." And now nothing could stop it, for it seemed to solve the problem for white Americans—how to classify the author of "The Best Play of the Year" while, at the same time, avoid honoring the special qualities that made her what she was. By the time Lorraine died, the phrase had undergone, in the New York Times obituary, a further metamorphosis: "The work was described not as a Negro play but one about people who happen to be Negroes. And its au- thor, too, insisted throughout her short lifetime that she was not a Negro playwright, but…." etc.
Thus, the words Lorraine never spoke became in effect her credo as an artist, as if it were the driving passion of her life.34
The persistence and expansion of the misquotation (which can still be found in many scholarly texts) demonstrates the urgency and effort with which the paradox was maintained. The misquotation located Hansberry squarely within the universalist stance—but reacting to the particularist interpretation (in other words, it invoked the particularist interpretation as much as it did the universalist). The misquotation thus maintained the illusion of two mutually exclusive interpretations locked in battle with each other. It appeared to resolve the paradox (by using Hansberry's authority as the writer and as a "Negro" to "prove" the universalist interpretation and "discredit" the particularist position), but in fact it merely maintained it by erasing the possibility of a fluid relationship between the universal and the particular.
Fluidity was also frozen (and thus the paradox was maintained and whiteness stabilized) through critics' re-invention of Raisin as a "timeless classic." Upon the play's opening, the question of whether the play was timely or timeless arose as immediately as the question of whether it was universal or specific to black culture. "We do not know if Miss Hansberry has written a timeless play," wrote a reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, "but she certainly has written a timely one."35 George Murray noted in the Chicago American that the play "couldn't be better timed for box office success. Its advent coincides with a rising wave of general interest in the Negro. The wave began as a groundswell after World War II. It is visible in the South's integration fight, in high court decisions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's muscle-flexing."36 With the benefit of twenty years' hindsight, Bennett observed, "the timing [of the play's opening] was perfect. Remember, this was 1959, five years after the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, four years after Montgomery, the eve of the sit-ins. The time was ripe for Lorraine Hansberry. She was a kind of herald, a person announcing the coming of something. It was in the air, I think, and whites felt it as well as Blacks."37
Before long, the votes swung overwhelmingly in the direction of dubbing A Raisin in the Sun "timeless," that is, a masterpiece. Upon the play's revival in 1983, Lloyd Richards, director of the original production, called the play "a timeless piece."38 As Wilkerson observed, A Raisin in the Sun is one of the only black plays ever to have been "accorded the status of a classic."39
The process by which classics or masterpieces are so labeled is politically charged, to say the least. When the artistic work slides along the dialectic of universality and particularity (i.e., when the work is labeled "ethnic"), however, the political ramifications become even more acute. As Clifford observed, some collectable "ethnographic specimens" (as the particularists viewed Raisin ) are recognized as artistic masterpieces because they fit so-called "universal" aesthetics.40 To label an "ethnically specific" play a "masterpiece," then, is to label it exceptional, to separate it from its ethnic tradition. It was impossible in 1959—and it is arguably still impossible today—to label the work of a minority artist a "masterpiece" without simultaneously asserting its universality. In other words, the process of labeling a "minority" play a masterpiece necessarily invoked and engaged with the apparent paradox of universality versus particularity. The creation and maintenance of the illusion of the paradox enables some "exceptional" works by minorities to be declared masterpieces and simultaneously facilitates the relegation to the back of the bus of artistic works labeled "non-masterpieces." The "paradox," in other words, acts as a gate to separate (or stabilize the separation of) "masterpieces" from "non-masterpieces," white from black, collector from collected, "universal" from "particular," "timeless" from "timely." And as the "paradox" acts as a gate, those with the power to maintain the illusion of the paradox (e.g., white critics) invent themselves as gatekeepers.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., was correct when he called Hansberry "a kind of herald, a person announcing the coming of something," as when he described a nameless something "in the air … and whites felt it as well as Blacks."41 Perhaps that subconsciously anticipated "something"—so feared by the creators and maintainers of the paradox—was a postmodern, globalized culture in which boundaries between universal and particular, white and nonwhite, collector and collected, are unstable. A world in which the sub-altern speaks back; in which culture flows not only from the "top-down," but in all chaotic directions; a world, in the words of Arjun Appadurai, in which "the United States [and by extension, whiteness] is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images, but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes."42 Through the desperate creation and maintenance of the appearance of the paradox—which in turn created and maintained a static boundary between universal and particular, white and black—white people created the illusion that they could collect minority experiences without being collected themselves.
1. George Murray, "‘Raisin in Sun’ Terrific Theater," Chicago American (27 February 1959), 19.
2. Sydney J. Harris, "Sydney Harris Reviews: ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’" Chicago Daily News (11 February 1959), 39.
3. George Oppenheimer, "On Stage," newspaper unknown (25 March 1959), in file, "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
4. Claudia Cassidy, "On the Aisle: Warm Heart, Backbone, Funnybone in Blackstone Play and Cast," Chicago Daily Tribune (12 February 1959), F1.
6. "A Simple Story: Triumph of Negro Pride," London Times (5 August 1959), n.p., in file, "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
7. Lorraine Hansberry [assembled and edited by Robert Nemiroff], To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (New York, 1970), 128.
8. Lerone Bennett, Jr., and Margaret G. Burroughs, "A Lorraine Hansberry Rap," Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement, 19 (1979): 232.
9. I have chosen not to attempt to create any chronology of criticism. In other words, I have not traced the ways in which the play's critical reception changed over time, nor have I foregrounded time as an important factor in this study. My purpose in this paper is not to write a history of the play's critical reception, but rather to unpack the ideas that have swirled around the play from 1959 until today. Also because I am not foregrounding any chronology, I use the words "African-American" and "black" interchangeably when I refer to people of a non-specified time; I use "Negro" only when I refer specifically to blacks prior to the early 1960s.
10. Lorraine Hansberry, "Willie Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live," The Village Voice (12 August 1959), 7, 8 (original emphasis). In this article, the word "racial" was misprinted as "radical"; however, on 19 August, the Voice corrected it to "racial." I have corrected the quote for case in reading.
11. Ibid., 8.
13. Elliot Norton, "‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Bristles with Power," Boston Record (13 September 1960), C74.
14. Frank Ashton and Brooks Atkinson, respectively, quoted in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York, 1966), back cover.
15. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA, 1988), 215.
16. Ibid., 218.
17. Ibid., 231.
18. Ibid., 200.
19. Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York, 1989), 34.
20. Hansberry, "Willie Loman," 8 (original emphasis). See note 10.
21. Ibid., 8.
22. The assertion that the characters are not stereotyped is not without controversy. Many critics, both black and white, have noted that the play "abounds with types: Mama is a tyrannical but good-natured matriarch; Walter, a frustrated young man surrounded by too many women; Beneatha, a free-thinking college student; the African Asagai, a poetic revolutionary; and the one white man, a cliché-ridden suburbanite" (Doris E. Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959 [New York, 1967], 254). In particular, the character of Mama was "charged by critics" with being "a reactionary black ‘mammy’" (Adrienne Rich, "The Problem with Lorraine Hansberry," Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement, 19 , 252)—a characterization vociferously contradicted by black writers such as Amiri Baraka and Margaret B. Wilkerson (Amiri Baraka, "‘Raisin in the Sun's’ Enduring Passion," The Washington Post [16 November 1986], n.p. in file. "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Margaret B. Wilkerson, "A Raisin in the Sun: Anniversary of an American Classic," in Performing Feminism: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case [Baltimore, 1990], 122, 125, 128). The point is not that the play was necessarily devoid of stereotypes, but rather that any stereotypes it may have contained were certainly far less pronounced and racist than those of minstrelsy.
23. Wilkerson, "Anniversary," 122. See note 22.
24. Lorraine Hansberry, quoted in Nan Robertson, "Dramatist Against Odds," New York Times (8 March 1959), in file, "A Raisin in the Sun," Schomburg Collection, New York Public Library; quoted in Abramson, 240.
25. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (Westport, CT, 1988), 34.
27. Ibid, 278-79.
28. Margaret B. Wilkerson, "Lorraine Hansberry: The Complete Feminist," Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement, 19 (1979), 237.
29. Bennett and Burroughs, 230. See note 8.
31. In an interesting variation, some critics argued that Hansberry's characters were universal minorities. For example, the characters "could belong to almost any minority race or sect": Raisin "could be a play by Clifford Odets about Jews in the Bronx" or "could just as easily be about Jews or Communists" (Oppenheimer, 19; Milton Shulman, "I Fear We've Heard this Note Before," Evening Standard [5 August 1959], n.p., in file, "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Don Cook, "‘Raisin in the Sun’ vs. London Critics, New York Herald Tribune [30 August 1959], n.p., in file, "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts). The reviewers thus used Raisin simultaneously to erase differences among minority cultures, to segregate and marginalize all such cultures from the white majority, and thus to center and empower white gentiles.
32. Clifford, 193. See note 15.
33. Hansberry, To Be Young, 128. See note 7.
34. Robert Nemiroff, "A Lorraine Hansberry Bibliography," Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement, 19 (1979), 286-87.
35. Henry T. Murdock, "Poitier in Timely Play on Trials of Negroes," Philadelphia Inquirer (27 January 1959), n.p., in file, "A Raisin in the Sun: Clippings," Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
36. Murray, 19. See note 1.
37. Bennett and Burroughs, 229.
38. Samuel G. Freedman, "Yale Marking 25th Anniversary of Raisin in Sun," New York Times (1 November 1983), C13, quoted in Wilkerson, "Anniversary," 119.
39. Wilkerson, "Anniversary," 119.
40. Clifford, 206.
41. Bennett and Burroughs, 229.
42. Arjun Appadurai, "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy," in The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis, 1993), 273.
Frank Ardolino (essay date spring 2005)
SOURCE: Ardolino, Frank. "Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun." Explicator 63, no. 3 (spring 2005): 181-83.
[In the essay that follows, Ardolino studies the multifaceted theme of generation in Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, explaining that the theme is explored in terms of personal growth as well as family lineage, and that Hansberry draws on the biblical Book of Ruth in her usage of generation as theme and motif within the play.]
The major theme in A Raisin in the Sun concerns generation in two senses—personal growth despite harsh social and economic opposition and family lineage. The title comes from Langston Hughes's poem, which compares a dream deferred too long to a raisin rotting in the sun. The Youngers are tired from the struggle to survive, but a promise of growth is inherent in the family name and in recurring plant and birth images. Mama's prize possession is a scraggly, little plant that gets fitful sunlight from the only window in the apartment. Just as she regularly tends its growth, so too she tries to nurture her family and raise them to be mature adults. Lena is happy about the new house because it has an area for a garden, and her family gives her gardening tools and a sun hat betokening her role as the family nurturer (103). The plant is the last thing she takes with her when they move.
Birth imagery is also essential to the generation theme. Lena and Walter Sr. lost a baby earlier, and, now that Ruth has decided to abort her pregnancy, Lena is in mourning because the Youngers love their children and do not want to lose another to poverty (33, 62). After Walter decides to accept the white association's offer to pay them not to move into the neighborhood, Lena demands that he make his capitulation in front of his son, Travis. However, instead of accepting the money, Walter declares his pride in the six generations of his family that have lived in America (127). Moreover, Ruth has decided to have the child, who will represent the family's seventh generation. As the Youngers get ready to move at the end, Lena applauds Walter's coming of age: "He finally come into his manhood today, [… k]ind of like a rainbow after the rain" (130). The family has roots and will grow in the new neighborhood.
Underlying the generation theme and motifs is Hansberry's deft and allusive use of the Book of Ruth, which adds a simple, abiding stature to the story of the Younger family striving to leave their poverty and achieve a better life. The Book of Ruth emphasizes the value of having a home and family, of being devoted to the earth and one's religion, and it contains the controlling metaphor of fecundity as the sign of divine reward. Above all, it celebrates an obscure domestic woman who becomes linked with the mainstream of Old Testament salvation history and the lineage of Christ.
As Gourdine has noted, the character of Ruth resembles the biblical Ruth in her devotion to her mother-in-law (541). A famine caused Naomi and her husband to emigrate from Bethlehem to Moab, where he and her two sons eventually died, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Oprah. Oprah stayed in Moab, but out of loyalty, Ruth returns with Naomi to Bethlehem during the harvest of the barley. Naomi's relative, Boaz, owns the field where the barley is being reaped. She tells Ruth to work there diligently to gain his attention, and he is duly impressed by her work ethic and her devotion to her mother-in-law. Ruth becomes his wife, and, at the end of the narrative, she gives birth to their son, Obed, who "shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you […] has borne him" (4:15). Obed, the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, is an essential branch of the tree of Jesse, the generational representation of the lineage of Christ.1
In the Jewish calendar, the Book of Ruth is read on Shovuos, the festival of weeks, or Pentecost, which celebrates the end of the grain harvest.2 During this feast, the home and synagogue are decked in green, betokening its connection with fecundity. The holiday achieved great spiritual importance after it was connected with the festival of the giving of the Torah by God on Mt. Sinai. In the Reform tradition, it is also the day of confirmation for both boys and girls, and an ode is recited that traces the lineage of Christ from David and foretells the day that the Messiah will welcome the faithful to their heavenly home.
Hansberry draws on the generational imagery of the biblical narrative and the festivals connected with it to inform Lena's successful nurturing of her family. Further, Ruth's coming child is invested with biblical import through the parallel to the birth of Obed. The Youngers have chosen vitality and growth, and on the day that Walter has come of age, they have had their humanity, maturity, and familial endurance confirmed.
1. The tree of Jesse is derived from Isaiah 11.1: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." In Romans 15.12, Paul associates Isaiah's prophecy with Jesus (A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition 780-81).
2. For the information on the feast of Shovuos, I am indebted to Schauss 86-91.
A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Ed. David Lyle Jeffrey. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
Gourdine, Angeletta. "The Drama of Lynching in Two Blackwomen's Drama, or Relating Grimké's Rachel to Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun." Modern Drama 41 (1998): 533-45.
The Holy Bible, The Revised Standard Version. New York: Nelson, 1953.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: New American Lib., 1958.
Schauss, Hayyim. The Jewish Festivals: History and Observance. Trans. Samuel Jaffe. New York: Schocken, 1938.
Abell, Joy L. "African/American: Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs and the American Civil Rights Movement." African American Review 35, no. 3 (2001): 459-70.
Argues that Hansberry's play Les Blancs may be read both as a commentary on the issue of colonialism in Africa and as a study of American race relations in the early 1960s.
Gruesser, John. "Lies That Kill: Lorraine Hansberry's Answer to Heart of Darkness in Les Blancs." American Drama (spring 1992): 1-14.
Asserts that through her writings, Hansberry seeks to recreate the image of Africa and Africans; Gruesser finds in Les Blancs an attempt to depict Africa from a "non-Africanist" standpoint.
Kodat, Catherine Gunther. "Confusion in a Dream Deferred: Context and Culture in Teaching A Raisin in the Sun." Studies in Literary Imagination 31, no. 1 (spring 1998): 149-64.
Explores the way Hansberry's presentation of the themes of racism and class conflict in A Raisin in the Sun is received by students in a classroom setting and discusses the possibility of using more recent, cinematic productions that touch on similar issues as a means of studying Hansberry's ideas.
Additional coverage of Hansberry's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African-American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 1941-1968; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 17, 62; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 38; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors, and Multicultural Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; Drama for Students, Vol. 2; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:6; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twayne's United States Authors.