Hansberry, Lorraine: Title Commentary
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: TITLE COMMENTARYA Raisin in the Sun
SHERI PARKS (ESSAY DATE 1995)
SOURCE: Parks, Sheri. "In My Mother's House: Black Feminist Aesthetics, Television, and A Raisin in the Sun." In Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics, edited by Karen Laughlin and Catherine Schuler, pp. 200-28. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
In the following essay, Parks contends that the 1989 PBS television production of A Raisin in the Sun effectively underscores Hansberry's central feminist themes.
The Public Broadcasting Station's television production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun was first aired in 1989 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the play's Broadway opening. The television production, currently available on videotape, was an ambitious one, particularly by public television standards, and tested the network's ability to deliver demanding material to a large audience. The PBS presentation was also truer to Hansberry's original message, marking the first time that a professional production of the uncut script was made available to an audience. By closely following Hansberry's directions and reinserting information that was considered too controversial for American audiences in 1959, the directors placed the play back into the center of black women's concerns for the continuity of the culture and survival of self and family. By presenting the play to a mass audience, PBS recaptured Hansberry's original aim of art designed for large-scale social utility. The issues of black traditional female power that Hansberry presented in 1959 remain central to the lives of black women, perhaps providing evidence of the historical significance and intrinsic nature of those issues. The production also suggests that the medium has an ability to convey black feminist theatre to millions more viewers than can even the most successful stage production. A television production of the play provides a discussion of the lives of black women in a form that is aesthetically attractive and available to black women, many of whom do not have regular access to the more elite form of live stage theatre.
Culture and Consciousness
A Raisin in the Sun is a play already put to many cultural uses by both black and white audiences. Originally produced in 1959, it showed white American audiences the intimacies of black life and validated the daily existences of its black audiences. The play also heralded the arrival of the Black Arts Movement as well as the civil rights movement as a part of the national agenda but later, black male critics would use its fame to lambaste "integrationist" works. Meanwhile, the play was popular enough to warrant a film version, which won an award at Cannes, and a Broadway musical version, which won a Tony. Buried beneath all the racially related criticism was the fact that the author was a black feminist and the play bespoke a particular brand of feminism, that practiced by women within the family in traditional black culture. Hansberry biographer Anne Cheney writes that Hansberry was a feminist only in the most general sense,1 but if the play is put in the context of its time and place, Hansberry appears to be a feminist in a most specific sense, that of black women coping simultaneously with issues of race, caste, and gender.
Hansberry's cultural message was heavily influenced by the person and the works of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a frequent visitor to the Hansberry family home, and Lorraine later studied African culture and philosophy under him. Hansberry's husband, Robert Nemiroff, told Cheney that Lorraine was particularly influenced by Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, originally published in 1903. The influence of Du Bois is most evident in Raisin in the concepts of double and merged consciousness. Du Bois wrote that the consciousnesses of imprisoned people might take one of three main forms: a state of rebellion and revenge; a state of double consciousness, in which one tries to adopt the consciousness of the ruling people; and merged consciousness, in which one successfully mixes one's cultural history and one's present situation to achieve self-realization.2 Double consciousness is a result of trying to recontextualize oneself, to lose one's own history, which is impossible, and to adopt, wholecloth, someone else's history and culture without any opportunity for complete entry and privilege in that culture. It is, in a sense, cultural limbo:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others.…One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.3
Merged consciousness allows the person to reach a new equilibrium, bringing the past into one's journey through the present; it is described by Du Bois as a tool for an imprisoned people:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing … to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America.…He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism … He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.4
Culture is an important element of the black feminist message. Black women have always been concerned with the multidimensional character of their disenfranchisement. Angela Davis, historian Paula Giddings, and others provide evidence that black women have been hesitant to address issues of gender apart from issues of race. Giddings argues that if either had to come first for political reasons, race consistently emerged as the definitive issue. As a result, much of what might be considered prefeminist or feminist has been defined as black rather than feminist. A common theme in the writings of black women and, more recently, in black feminist criticism is that of cultural duality and double racial consciousness. Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison, among others, have written about black women in cultural limbo. Maude Martha, Brooks's protagonist in her autobiographical novel of the same name, sees herself through a white culture's gaze and proclaims herself ugly and worthless. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is the story of a black woman in cultural limbo. Morrison is also concerned with maintaining Afro-American heritage once relationships to the black rural South have been stretched thin over distance and time. Michael Awkward, Barbara Christian, Mary Helen Washington, and Susan Willis have all examined various aspects of double racial consciousness in the works of black women writers.5
Hansberry took the concept of double consciousness and feminized it to reflect the multifaceted roles of black women by expanding the concept into two other spheres of double consciousness. While various characters move from holding dichotomous and paradoxical conceptualizations of race, they also move from the dichotomy of individual identity versus group identity to the merged position of individual within a family group, and from the gender dichotomy of male versus female to the merged role of an adult. Hansberry's women encounter or experience all three forms of double consciousness: race, family, and gender.
Reconciliation of double consciousness is portrayed in form as well as content. In Raisin, Hansberry appears to use blues music as a background sound of merged consciousness. The blues are a culturally merged aesthetic form, an amalgam of African descendent, rural Southern black sound transported to the urban North to give voice to urban problems. The music evokes the emotionality of the black micro-experience, and the Youngers listen to it almost constantly. When one character temporarily rejects Hansberry's symbol of merged state, Hansberry makes clear in her notes that we are not to regard blues in the same way that Beneatha does. "(She promenades to the radio and, with an arrogant flourish, turns off the good loud blues that is playing.) Beneatha says, 'Enough of this assimilationist junk!'"6
Group identity with the culture and the family are historically significant tools of survival for black people. While assimilation is a cornerstone of American society, African Americans have never been allowed full access to mainstream institutions and remain largely alienated from the dominant culture. The adoption of mainstream American consciousness is emotional orphanage for a black American. However, failure to adapt somehow to current living conditions is to endanger one's physical survival. The reconciliation of cultural dichotomy is itself a tool of survival. Raisin is a story of family members in different stages of racial double consciousness moving toward cultural reconciliation. At the beginning of the play, Mama and Walter form the endpoints of a racial consciousness continuum. Walter, played byDanny Glover, exhibits the most extreme manifestations of double consciousness. He overvalues a capitalistic American dream of power and wealth, and his dream of money has led to his attempt to break with the cultural group and the history that he blames for his difficulties. He is bitter with frustration, seeing himself as trapped with "the world's most backward race of people" (26). Mama, played by Ester Rolle, recognizes Walter's ahistorical perspective:
You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too.…You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar—You my children but how different we done become.
Mama's emotional survival is based upon culturally contextualized and reconciled strategies: religion and a sense of historical interrelatedness. Her spirituality is so strong as to be visible. "She has, we can see, wit and faith of a kind that keeps her eyes lit and full of interest and expectancy. She is in a word, a beautiful woman" (27). Her spirituality, while heavily laced with Christianity, also has a strong Afrocentric element of cultural and familial ancestry. The mother as link to cultural history is quickly established. "Her bearing is perhaps most like the women of the Hereros of Southwest Africa—rather as if she imagines that as she walks she still bears a basket or a vessel upon her head" (27). Mama remembers a cultural and familial past that the others do not. As she speaks of the early family history, she is "seeing back to times that only she can see," when furnishings "were selected with care and love and even hope—and brought to this apartment and arranged with taste and pride. That was a long time ago" (33). A significant part of Mama's memory of the past is her memory of Big Walter, her dead husband. Big Walter is still very present in the family. He and Mama shared the dream of a better home, and he literally worked himself to death for a house of the sort that the family is about to acquire. The television production makes Big Walter's spiritual presence very visible. There is a large, framed photograph of him, positioned strategically in the living room so that he is present for family discussions and events. Often characters are placed so that, just for a moment, Big Walter's face is actually between them. Mama is not dependent upon Big Walter or his memory; rather, his memory is one part of her past and a source of her strength. Hansberry was a student of African history and philosophy and probably was familiar with prominent cross-tribal conceptualizations of the past as part of the present and future and of the spiritual presence of dead ancestors.7
Her link to a pastoral Southern history is also a central spiritual theme for Mama. She has "a feeble little plant, growing doggedly in a small pot on the window sill." She worries that it does not get enough sun in the almost sunless apartment (27-28) as she remembers lusher gardens "down home" (41). Mama's plant expresses both her personality (191) and her dream of a place to garden, and her children give her gardening tools and a gardening hat before the family moves to the new house (11). The historical role of flower gardening in black women's creativity and spiritual survival has been deeply explored in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, in which Walker remembers her own mother's gardens.8
Mama's particular merging of Christianity with Afrocentric and pastoral spirituality depicts the spiritual reconciliation common in black America. James Evans suggests that in black culture, there is a lack of division between the secular and sacred in black life.9 God is politicized as the God of spiritual empowerment and of the liberation of the poor and disenfranchised. The God of black people is not a distant, angry God, but is a friendly, immediate source of strength. In black folktales, God smokes cigars, sits in a rocking chair, and often resembles one or several of the traditional African deities.10 In black traditional culture, spiritual life is an amalgam of Christianity and folk belief that is practiced in a less ritualized and fractionalized manner than "church" religion often is. God and spirituality have been popularized and reconstructed to meet the spiritual needs of black people, and so it is common to hear religious references on the street corner and in popular secular black music. Mama Younger's spirituality reflects a black merged religious experience.
Beneatha and Ruth are at different places on the continuum. Ruth's behavior suggests a double consciousness that is less extreme than Walter's. She is less concerned with cultural continuity than is either Mama or Beneatha and affects the polite distance of white, bourgeois manners with George Murchison and Karl Lindner. Beneatha is just beginning to have a merged consciousness, with a few traces of double consciousness remaining. She is an educated black woman with more access to the dominant cultural institutions than her mother, but she retains some cultural traits.
Her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family's insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside.
The potential poles of Beneatha's consciousness are represented by the men she dates. George Murchison is the son of a wealthy black businessman and is heavily invested in the consciousness of the white upper class. He believes that Beneatha's (and his) cultural heritage is best forgotten. He tells her, "Let's face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts" (68). She resists him, telling her family, "The only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people" (37).
In contrast to Mama, who is deeply invested in the recent cultural past, Beneatha is relearning her African past from another, more favored man. Asagai, a Yoruba from Nigeria, is deeply invested in his own culture. He brings Beneatha gifts of Yoruba music and robes. He teases her about looking for her identity and encourages her to make decisions and learn her own heart (50). Then, he presents her with the robes of a Nigerian woman, his sister (47), and questions the texture of her straightened hair. "Assimilationism is so popular in your country," he says, telling her that she really more closely resembles a queen of the Nile than a Hollywood queen (49). At first, Beneatha responds to the robes in a manner closer to romanticized Western feminine images than to actual African women. When she wears them for the first time, "She is coquettishly fanning herself with an ornate oriental fan, mistakenly more like Butterfly than any Nigerian that ever was" but she quickly "remembers" (63). In the robes, listening to the music, "a lovely Nigerian melody, she listens, enraptured, her eyes far away—'back to the past'" (64). In the 1989 television production, Beneatha sees the aesthetic inconsistency of her hair and the robes and has her hair cut into an Afro. When she eventually takes off the robes, the hairstyle remains and she appears as a merged, African American woman. When Mama meets Asagai, the African American past confronts and becomes comfortable with the African present. He is respectful of an elder. Mama smiles, repeats what Beneatha has told her about Africa and begins to mother him. Asagai is moved (51-52).
It is left to Beneatha to merge her own past with the present, but she has to confront and become comfortable with her personal past as well. Beneatha's education has cost her. She is having trouble finding her bearings, for she has come to distrust the spiritual anchors so useful to her mother. Beneatha thinks Ideas are Life, that life is simply a question of which ideas to incorporate, a spiritual betrayal which leads to a pivotal confrontation. Beneatha says she is "sick of hearing about God.…What has He got to do with anything? Does he pay tuition?" Mama warns her off. Ruth agrees that Beneatha has overstepped her limits, but Beneatha insists:
Mama, you don't understand. It's all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don't accept. It's not important. I am not going out and be immoral or even think about it. It's just that I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves though its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God—there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!
The conflict between Mama's spiritualism and Beneatha's humanism had been foreshadowed early in the play when Beneatha and her mother argue over her reciting scripture "in vain" (34). With this more serious transgression, Mama moves swiftly to reestablish her dominance of person and ideas.
(Mamaabsorbs this speech, studies her daughter and rises slowly and crosses to Beneathaand slaps her powerfully across the face. After, there is only silence and the daughter drops her eyes from her mother's face, and Mamais very tall before her.) Mama. Now—you say after me, in my mother's house there is still God. (There is a long pause and Beneathastares at the floor wordlessly. Mamarepeats the phrase with precision and cool emotion.) In my mother's house there is still God.
Beneatha. In my mother's house there is still God (A long pause.) [In the television production, Beneatha is looking into her mother's eyes with a mixture of hurt and respect as she says the words.]
Mama. (Walking away from Beneatha, too disturbed for triumphant posture. Stopping and turning back to her daughter.) There are some ideas we ain't going to have in this house. Not long as I am the head of this family.
Beneatha. Yes ma'am. (Mama walks out of the room.)
Beneatha appears to her mother to be tossing aside the tools of her emotional survival. Beneatha is experimenting with many ideas, and her "flitting" from idea to idea has heretofore been tolerated by her family. This time she has, perhaps, ventured too far into European relativism, and her mother must act to curb the potentially dangerous wandering. Given Hansberry's extensive knowledge of African life and philosophy, the importance of this scene may go well beyond Christianity and childish rebellion. Hansberry was fond of puns and there are several different interpretations of "In my mother's house there is still God." Mama did not say, "God is alive," or "There is a God." She said that in her house there is God. In African spiritualism, the gods are literally with you, in your house, and for them to leave is a very unusual and dangerous thing. The spirits of the dead are also with you; a person is not really dead as long as somebody remembers him or her. God could be the abstracted Christian God, the African deities, or the soul of Big Walter. The line may be interpreted in one of the several ways or, in keeping with reconciliation of culture, in a mixture of the three.
Differences of caste and race force a wide gap between the concerns of black women and those of elite, white feminism. I use the term caste rather than class to capture the permanence of blacks' marginalization in the United States. Class membership is perceived as relatively fluid and subject to individual initiative. Class mobility is at the heart of American mythology. All of the Youngers are trying to change their class status. However, for blacks, caste membership is assigned at birth and does not change in the face of class mobility. Although Hansberry was raised in affluence, she realized that affluence does not change caste membership, that her family's relative wealth did not bring privilege or protection. She was born in a ghetto because of racial housing covenants and soon learned that her race made her more vulnerable to sexual harassment by white men. She wrote in the autobiographical play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, "The white boys in the streets, they look at me and think of sex.… Baby, you could be Jesus in drag—but if you're brown they're sure you're selling."11
Raisin is set "somewhere between World War II and the present," a relatively affluent period in U.S. history, but it is immediately established that the Youngers have not shared in the nation's affluence (11). Their home is a poor one, showing the ravages of "too many people for too many years" (11). A previously deleted bit of material reemphasizes the amalgam of race, caste, and gender issues that are of concern to black women. The original stage production, which deemphasized the issue of the Youngers' poverty, excluded a short speech by Travis in which he describes seeing a rat as large as a small dog in the street. Witnessing this small but graphic detail of daily urban poverty lends new urgency to the family's move to a healthier neighborhood and adds new context to statements such as Beneatha's "We've all got acute ghettoitis" (47).
Previous productions also downplayed the danger of the move and the warnings of the potential for white racial violence in the new white neighborhood. Another previously deleted scene makes it clear that the Youngers (and the audience) know the chance they are taking. Mrs. Johnson, a neighbor with whom the Youngers are on cordial, but not intimate terms, warns of racial violence by showing them a black newspaper account of violence directed toward another black family who moved into a white neighborhood. The Younger family had not known of the violence, which adds further concern regarding their own move. The reintroduction of the speech changes the ending of the play, in which the family happily moves to their new home, to an emotionally charged and ambiguous one. Staying with the original script, the television production did not include additions written by Hansberry for the 1961 movie, which added a safe arrival at the new home and so diffused some of the original dramatic tension of the play.
While Raisin was not autobiographical, Hansberry did draw from figures and events in her own life. The wealth of Hansberry's father, Carl, was accrued through real estate investments, and the family lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods where she and her family experienced racial violence in the forms of vandalism and physical threat. When Carl Hansberry purchased a house in a particularly hostile neighborhood, an angry crowd gathered outside the home and someone threw a brick, narrowly missing eight-year-old Lorraine's head. Racially restrictive covenants kept them out of some neighborhoods altogether, but Carl Hansberry fought and eventually won a celebrated United States Supreme Court case against covenants.
Hansberry seemed aware that class mobility was a precarious step for members of a lower caste, who might never gain full membership into the dominant society. Mrs. Johnson, the Youngers' neighbor, also warns of the dangers of class mobility and education, of leaving that which one knows for an uncertain future. "Education has spoiled many a good plowhand," she quotes, and she attributes the line to Booker T. Washington. Hansberry's intellectual mentor W. E. B. Du Bois was an intellectual and political adversary of Washington and wrote that "Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission."12 Mama Younger responds to Mrs. Johnson by calling Washington a fool. It is significant that Mama, a lover of the pastoral past and so, one might think, a potential admirer of Washington, should call him a fool, but Mama is particularly interested in education and upward mobility for her children.
The Younger family has invested its collective dreams of upward mobility in the daughter rather than the son, a dramatic portrayal which has a certain verisimilitude. Education, rather than commerce, has historically been a common class mobility strategy for blacks. It has also been historically common for families to give priority to educating their girls, since boys could earn as much money through skilled labor as they might have through college related job fields. Black families have traditionally sent more women than men to college and continue to do so.13 Mama Younger is determined that nothing will stand in the way of Beneatha's education (32), while nothing is said about the elder male child's education. Education, however, does not bring about a change in family members' status. Although Mama is uneducated, she retains her status as head of the family and will act to reinforce her status if necessary.
Traditional Black Female Power and Family Consciousness
Mama Younger is a Black Mother, an example of a prominent traditional black feminist role. A very strong and pervasive female culture has survived within black communities, but its role has been disguised by negative "matriarchy" arguments of white and black men. While black, middle-class, male critics continue to decry the "mammy" as a negative black stereotype, the Black Mother continues to be a strong, historically based symbol of black feminism for working-class black women. The Black Mother situates black feminism in the place where it is ordinarily and traditionally practiced by black women, in the home. While part of the mainstream, academic feminist agenda has deemphasized mothering as an important part of women's lives, to do so with black women would be to dismiss a traditional locus of black female power. The two older Younger women are the backbone of the family, as interested in the long-term emotional survival of their family as they are in its short-term physical survival. Their caretaking as well as their income enable the Younger family to survive. As a result of their position vis-à-vis men and the family, black women shoulder much responsibility for day-to-day family life. The black-traditional definition of the family means that children, and often extended family, are of primary concern to black women. Having a child in the black community is a rite of passage to womanhood; it connotes status that a permanent relationship to a man does not. The definition of motherhood and the black mother's relationship to her children are black feminist issues.
The Younger women cannot depend upon Walter to keep the family intact. While Walter has dreams that are consistent with American capitalism, the women make him go to work so they can pay the rent. The women work to keep the family alive. Because the structural relationships between African American men and women are fundamentally different from those intergender relationships in the dominant culture, any feminism that professes to represent black women must confront those differences. Black men have never been in a position to completely disenfranchise black women; theirs is an equality of powerlessness in relation to the dominant culture.
Black women often assume or share primary responsibility for their own survival and that of their families regardless of class. A reconstruction of the role of women in the black community may find that the artificially easy dichotomy between male and female is even more problematic here than it is in the dominant culture. A dominant historical and theoretical theme in mainstream American feminism is the modern dichotomization of private and public life. The privatization of the American home marks the point at which the popular feminine ideal became that of a nonproductive consumer whose daily work produced no capital and came to be undervalued. It is also at this point that a poignant difference between black women and white women emerged. All American homes were not privatized. Like Mama and Ruth Younger, the vast majority of black women never stopped producing capital. Although the same is true of poor women of all races, black women in the middle class continued to work and still do. Many black households also have "side hustles," the postmodern equivalent of Ruth's laundry service, operated out of the home. The home as a locus of capital production has continued to be an economic reality for black America. The black home and the black community are not easily dichotomized for other social reasons; like Mrs. Johnson, community members who are not blood kin are likely to be somewhat more active in black homes than in white homes.
The entire play occurs in the domestic arena, so that all of the interaction is under the leadership of Mama. Domestic stories are prevalent among black female writers, perhaps as a commentary upon the centrality of black mothers. More than a blind following of tradition, domestic story lines are a commentary upon the importance of family to the political orientation of black women since outside events are filtered through their effect upon the family. So it is with the Youngers. Information about racial violence, of interest to the larger black community, is filtered through its immediate meaning for the family. The information is delivered to the home in a way that dictates this application; a relationship with a neighbor woman, based upon the borrowing of domestic supplies and the serving of pie and coffee, becomes the entry point of the politically charged information and reframes it as information pertinent to the survival of the family. The "women's room" in this family is the kitchen; it is literally the source of the light, a small, determined light: "The sole natural light the family may enjoy in the course of a day is only that which fights its way though this little window" (12). The women wage war on the ravages of poverty but "weariness, has in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used scrubbed too often" (11-12). The fight to stay in touch with the hopeful past has been a feminine one—cleaning is mentioned more often than use, indicating the sheer energy needed for survival. The audience sees only the women participating in domestic labor. Hansberry captured the symbolic importance of cleanliness in poor black homes, where women have fought the ravages of poverty and stereotypes by cleaning. Hansberry wrote in To Be Young, Gifted and Black :
I think you could find the tempo of my people on their back porches. The honesty of their living is there in the shabbiness. Scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes scrubbed so well, waving in the dirty wind of the city. My people are poor. And they are tired. And they are determined to live.14
(National marketers have already traced related consumer trends and identified black women as a ripe market for cleaning products—they tend to use more cleaning products per household than do white families.)15 The women work hard in this family and they know that it is for their family that they work. Mama tells Walter that although he has never understood it, she "ain't got nothing, don't own nothing, ain't never really wanted nothing that wasn't for you" (86). When Mama tells Walter about Ruth's planned abortion, Walter objects that Ruth would not have an abortion. Mama instructs him, "When the world gets ugly enough—a woman will do anything for her family. The part that's already living" (Hansberry's emphasis, 61-62). Illegal abortion becomes an act of family survival perpetuated by women for women; the fact that the doctor is a "she" makes Mama "immediately suspicious."
The Youngers are a whole family and Mama is the head of it. Despite all the current discussion of the crisis in the black family, black people, particularly working-class black people, have long considered a female-headed home to be a family. Niara Sudarkasa has produced a body of anthropological work which presents the female-centered household as the Afrocentrically traditional form.16 The physical absence of a black father does not mean that the family has been destroyed. Given the arrival of the insurance money, Mama must be a fairly recent widow, yet there is no sense of this. She does not seem the helpless widow new to heading her family. Despite the cries of middle-class black men and well-meaning but culturally ignorant whites, the traditional form of black family is female oriented. Clearly then, the gender-based definition of the black family and of black family leadership are feminist issues.
The cultural message is that the children are more central to the definition of the woman than is the traditional husband. Children are the focus of the Younger family. Ruth's pregnancy and possible abortion sparks a running theme of the value of children. The dialogue is arranged so that the audience hears Mama remember the death of one of her infant children before Ruth actually says she is pregnant. Ruth says, in sympathy for Mama and perhaps for herself, "Ain't nothin' can tear at you like losing your baby" (33). Despite the obvious emotional and financial difficulties, Mama expresses "grandmotherly enthusiasm" at the news of Ruth's pregnancy, hoping for a girl, because Travis needs a sister (45). Indeed, Ruth must fight Mama to be Travis's primary mother (28, 76). Mama includes Ruth when she refers to "my children" (31), often calling her "child." Ruth in turn often calls the older Mrs. Younger "Mama." The primacy of Ruth as the biological mother is asserted by Ruth but not always allowed by Mama. Mama nurtures everybody and keeps tabs on most of the activity in the apartment, even that of Travis, who has another mother, and the resistant Beneatha and Walter. She has a habit of "listening vigorously" to others' conversations. (44). Mama is the economic and ideological head of the family, and she controls the ideas and the actions within it. Her children deviate from her teaching only with her benign permission and risk her anger if they stray too far; twice she strikes her children when she thinks they are pursuing courses that endanger their own or the family's physical or emotional survival. Yet Mama's strength and the power which it garners within her family are usually carried with gentleness. "Her speech … is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not as much quiet as simply soft" (27). This is not a romantic caricature of the old black mammy with her little black brood. Both biological children are trying desperately, each in his or her own way, to break away from Mama and the familial-cultural collective history that she represents even as each acknowledges his or her continuing dependency. Mama compares them to the little plant in the kitchen window; neither has had enough sunshine or anything else—they have spirit but are twisted.
The power held by black women in the family makes the domestic role fundamentally different from the more passive, ideal mother-wife in mainstream American society, whose life is consumed by a family in which she has little power. The responsibility that black women traditionally hold in the family suggests that the family is a traditional locus of black female power which demands a particular leadership style. Rather than a traditional leader, what Antonio Gramsci calls an inorganic leader who assumes power through heredity, wealth, or military might, black mothers are organic leaders who naturally emerge to facilitate group survival and gain power though responsibility and history. An organic leader knows and cares for the concerns of the group.17
Through the characterizations of the Youngers, Hansberry demonstrates levels of family group consciousness that are analogous to Du Bois's states of racial consciousness. One state, demonstrated by Walter and Beneatha, is that of individual consciousness, in which a person is concerned only with him or herself to the detriment of the group. The second state, demonstrated by Ruth, is that of total family consciousness, in which one is focused upon the concerns of the group to the detriment of the self. The third state, that of the individual with group consciousness, is a reconciliation of the first two states and facilitates survival of the self and the family. The third state is best demonstrated by Mama. Although the racial messages of the play took precedence in earlier interpretations of the work, the timing and emphasis of the television play allow as much attention to be paid to the lives of the black women who are central to the Younger family and to the black feminist ideas contained within the work itself. Mama Younger is the family's and the play's central character. As if to make her more regal, she is introduced last. Her presence provides a stark contrast to the unrest of the adult children. Although Ruth bears the closest resemblance to Mama, Ruth shows that biological motherhood alone does not make a viable Black Mother. While much older than Ruth, Mama has none of Ruth's weariness of spirit. Loosely based upon Hansberry's own mother, she is "full bodied and strong. She is one of those women of a certain grace and beauty who wear it so unobtrusively that it takes a while to notice.… Being a woman who has adjusted to many things in life and overcome many more, her face is full of strength" (27). In a more general sense she is based upon the archetypical Black Mother, whom Hansberry, quoting Langston Hughes's poem "Washerwoman," described as the "the black matriarch incarnate … who scrubs floors of a nation in order to create black diplomats and university professors."18
Her children help to define Mama and she considers distance from one's family to be the luxury of others. Ruth suggests that Mama travel alone, not worrying about her family, like rich white women do. In the television production, Mama laughs at this suggestion before she says, "Something always told me I wasn't no rich white woman" (32). Mama's dreams as well as her actions are all oriented to a better life for her children. She does not buy a new house in a white suburb for artificially politicized reasons, but to get the best house for her family for the money she has. Houses in areas for blacks are further out and much more expensive (78). Mama is also interested in her own survival and in growth for her sake and for her family's sake. In the face of widespread poverty and disenfranchisement, survival of the body and spirit are central individual concerns for black women. Although the emotional support of one's family is central to the individual's emotional survival, the black woman's role in the physical survival of her family dictates that she find multiple ways to stay physically and emotionally functional in the face of adversity. She must find her personal strength if she and her family are to survive. A lack of strength can be devastating to the woman and, eventually, to the family.
Ruth, the "good" and long-suffering wife who is not as strong or as spiritually supported as Mama, most closely approximates the role of the completely family oriented wife-mother who tries to get through life without a sense of self. About thirty, she "was a pretty girl, even exceptionally so.…Now disappointment has already begun to hang in her face" (12). Hansberry notes that in a few years she will be a "settled woman," which on its surface, simply means a married, middle-aged woman. But here marriage and middle age also carry a weariness and disappointment that comes with settling for less than one had hoped. Ruth is so tired of this life that she wakes up sleepy. Hansberry's notes direct the actress to play the role of Ruth with a strong undertone of weariness. She speaks "like someone disinterested and old" (25). While Hansberry describes Ruth's weariness, she also immediately shows her dogged determination and pained energy with her son and her anger at her husband as she tries to jump-start them for the day.
Ruth constantly thinks in terms of family. What is Ruth's personal dream? Where does her rage go? We never know. She seems to live for her family and, unlike Mama, through her family. (Mama does not fear Walter's disapproval or change her actions to the point that all her plans are lost.) Although Ruth has a job, she is the only character who seems to almost never leave home, the exception being her preliminary visit to the abortionist. Her only creations are two children, and she almost loses both. Travis is quickly gaining a life of his own and is testing the limits of his autonomy, and she comes close to aborting the baby, despite her own wishes. Involvement without power or personal strength is an emotionally draining experience. Although Ruth is capable of gentleness and motherly humor with Travis and with Walter, her moods also change rapidly, from humor to brusqueness, perhaps because she is struggling to maintain the appearance of emotional equilibrium without the supports that are useful to her mother-in-law (18). She speaks of her life as a burdensome one, "I got too much on me this morning" (16).
When Mama remembers her life in the South with its gardens and different life, she asks Ruth to sing "No Ways Tired." Ruth collapses (41). The title and lyrics of the spiritual which Ruth never gets to sing and are not included in the script would not be lost on a black audience:
I don't feel no ways tired.
I've come too far from where I started from.
No body tole me that the road would be easy.
I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.
The lyrics speak of surviving an arduous journey by the ability to draw strength from religious belief. Mama has the ability and is the stronger for it. Ruth does not and suffers for it.
Beneatha, Mama's daughter, is based upon a younger Lorraine Hansberry; the name is a pun, for there was a time in Hansberry's life when she felt superior to all things.19 Nevertheless, Hansberry describes Beneatha as less beautiful than Ruth or Mama, perhaps because of her youth and lack of wisdom. Beneatha is really a woman-child, and the name may actually be a double pun—she is beneath her mother. Although twenty years old, she is seen by the other women as a "fresh" child (34), as a little girl (36), and as childish (40). She is self-centered, more individualistic than the other women, and an unreliable source of strength.
Walter, Mama's son and Ruth's husband, is still a man-child, a "lean, intense young man," as opposed to Ruth, who is actually younger but seems older and more tired (13). He behaves in almost stereotypically shifty ways, "inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits" (13). Walter loves to pontificate in a distracted philosophical style, giving vent to long romantic speeches, full of "hysterical promise" (89). He is childish and lacks group survival skills. Ruth's humor is motherly; Walter's is boyish (27). Since he is played by Danny Glover in the television version, this Walter is in striking contrast to Sidney Poitier's characterization in the original stage production and film. While Poitier was lean and skittish so that the childishness was almost fitting, Glover is big and powerful so that the childishness is an aberration.
Because he is the male lead, directors may have assumed that Walter is the central character of the play, that it is his dream deferred that had dried up, but there are many dreams in this play and they are all at one point deferred or dead. Walter is an artificial center of attention in a female-headed household. Like a child, he commands an enormous amount of attention with his louder-than-life actions and temper tantrums that other family members try to rein in, but his "acting out" is destructive to the family and himself. Walter actually adds little to the family. He appears to be a drain—emotionally and, after he stops going to work and gets conned by a close associate, financially. If he were gone, the family would be calmer and steadier.
Walter is childish because he is selfish. Mama and Ruth are still trying to raise him, emotionally, morally, financially, and familially. Ruth is trying to teach him to spend money wisely, to go to work, to stop drinking so much, to stop trusting conmen, to get off the furniture, to be polite to guests. Mama tries to teach him how to handle large sums of money, to set up his own bank account (with Mama's money), and to stop yelling at his wife. Walter's selfishness and lack of group identification manifests itself in an extreme lack of cooperation with, or sympathy for, family members. He is alone and blames everyone else—the family, the race, the family as race—for his life situation; "always in his voice there is a quality of indictment" (13). He gives only to those who give to him, joins only those who join him first. When Ruth asks him, "Oh, Walter—ain't you with nobody!" Walter answers "violently," "No! 'Cause ain't nobody with me! Not even my own mother!" (71). (It is important to note here that he expects the greatest amount of support from his mother while in a mainstream American play, the wife would have been the expected selfless supporter.) As part of the "raising" process, Mama and Ruth continually try to encourage Walter's family participation but he, just as constantly, resists. Walter's hunger for money causes him to dream in ways that are inappropriate and dangerous to his family. They cannot afford to lose big, but Walter declares, "I mean think big, like he does. Big. Invest big, gamble big, hell lose big if you have to" (Hansberry's emphasis, 70).
Although Walter wants what his mother and wife cannot give him, he does not accept that which they can give him. He asks Ruth, "Why you always trying to give me something to eat?" Ruth "(Standing and looking at him helplessly)" responds, "What else can I give you, Walter Lee Younger?" (74). Even when Walter speaks of family concerns, he sees them from an idiosyncratic point of view. He thinks that only he suffers when the women have to work to provide for the family; he complains, "Everytime we need a new pair of curtains and I have to watch you go out and work in somebody's kitchen" (58). More often, his selfishness leads him away from family relationships. He has left the family, betraying the group dream in his "quest." He sees no benefit in his relationship with Ruth since it brings him no financial reward. When Mama warns Walter about his treatment of Ruth, he asks, "Why—what she do for me?" Mama answers, "She loves you." Walter responds by leaving the house to be alone, but not before Mama suggests that it is dangerous for a man to go outside his home to look for peace (59-60).
Concern for family is an intercultural commonality among women, and Hansberry initially posits group consciousness with women. Concern for the group is also held to be a traditionally desirable trait for blacks, regardless of gender. While a Eurocentric reading might define Walter in terms of his quest for manhood through materialistic gain and masculine assumption of inorganic power, in an Afrocentric reading he would become a good man by reconciling the group's needs with his own. Walter is not a good man fighting against racist forces for the good of the group. Racist forces have already literally turned him inside out. Before Walter can reach adulthood in his cultural context, he will have to take on a stereotypically feminine trait and merge it with his masculinity. Hansberry has taken the concept of double consciousness and applied it also to gender, so that the characters are struggling with gender double consciousness.
For Walter, male adulthood is defined in outside, extracultural terms, in the taking over and running the world, in the bossing of secretaries, and he is frustrated that he cannot have the sort of power which he assumes will guarantee his manhood (70, 89). A black man's adoption of the mainstream culture's traditional gender dichotomy is depicted by George Murchison who, assuming women to be best seen and not heard, instructs Beneatha to "drop the atmosphere" since she is "a good looking girl … all over" and that men will "go for what they see" (82). As the son of a wealthy businessman, George has adopted many mainstream attitudes and because of his relative privilege, he may play at that game for a while. Walter does not have the luxury of the game. Although he values an externally powerful "man's" life, he is still largely dependent upon the mother figures in the family, and he hates them for it. His double racial consciousness interacts with his gender consciousness when he projects the perceived faults of his self-despised race upon the black women upon whom he is dependent—the black race becomes feminized for Walter. When he complains of "the world's most backward race of people," he is referring to the black women in his family (26). He despises the very pragmatism that keeps the rent paid and groceries on the table.
Walter's argument is shot full of contradiction and irony. Extradomestic "manhood" would be obtained in the extradomestic world, but Walter thinks that if the black woman would only spend her efforts supporting her man, he would also become a man in the eyes of the outside world. He suggests that women of other races know how to do that, "That is just what is wrong with the colored woman in this world.…Don't under stand about building their men up and making 'em feel like they somebody. Like they can do something.…Wea group of men tied to a race of women with small minds" (22-23). Meanwhile Ruth shows the irony of his speech as she begins to iron a "huge pile" of laundry. It is unclear whether the laundry belongs to the family or whether she is taking in laundry but, either way, she is working for her family's benefit while Walter complains.
Walter wants Ruth to be on his side, to use her relationship with Mama toward his end: "A man needs a woman to back him up. Mama would listen to you. You know she listen to you more than she do me and Bennie. She think more of you" (20). If the ideal of manhood is something that is assumed or taken, if the main arena is the nondomestic world, it is a contradiction of the European masculine ideal when black men demand that black women help them to be men. Walter's viewpoint is an illogical collision of two cultures: one assuming that his manhood rests on the support of women even at the expense of the family and the other that in order to be a man in the extracultural world, black women must move over, give up their position of family power, and dedicate precious family resources to his ascension into power.
Although Walter has his own ideas, it is Mama who is ultimately in a position powerful enough to define Younger manhood; according to her, a good man is a man who loves his children and makes them central to his own life. Mama's definition of a good man is much like her definition of a good woman: an individual who holds responsibility and concern for the group. It is a merged position. Big Walter is the standard with whom Walter is compared, but Big Walter was a good father rather than a good husband. He was "hard-headed, mean, kind of wild with women—plenty wrong with him. But he sure loved his children," (33) and Mama loves him for that. Big Walter's dreams of a better place to live and education for his children were family oriented in nature but he "couldn't catch up with his dreams" (34). "He sure loved his children and wanted them to have something—be something.…Big Walter used to say, he'd get right wet in the eyes sometimes, lean his head back with the water standing in his eyes and say, 'Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams worth while'" (33). Walter Lee's dream is a skewed version of his father's dream, gone rotten and illegitimate with selfishness and greed. His is a quick and dirty scheme rather than the kind one works hard and long to achieve, like Mama's and Big Walter's house or Beneatha's medical degree. Big Walter's love for his children indirectly killed him through overwork; it is the resultant insurance money, "made of his flesh," that is finally making the larger family dream come true. The memory of Big Walter and his dream-legacy become a presence in the Younger family interaction, particularly so in the PBS production, in which Big Walter's portrait is a silent character.
Walter achieves his adulthood in very domestic terms through the family issues of financial crisis and abortion. The type of adult he becomes is in keeping with the kind Mama and Ruth value—cooperative, sensitive to the effects of his actions upon the family, and aware of his historical context. The instruments of his transformation are twofold. One is the threatened logical extreme of a family with a diseased member, that of the desperate drama of his wife willing to risk a back alley abortion to insure the family's survival in the face of an irresponsible, terminally angry husband. The other is the temporary and artificial patriarchal restructuring of the family through which he is shown that the dominant culture's traditional patriarchal system and extrafamilial orientation will not work in this family—because of the type of man, the type of women, and the world in which they and all African Americans live. Mama tells Walter to persuade Ruth to keep the baby that Ruth would abort so the rest of the family might survive more easily. Mama invokes the memory of the past and of Walter's father and of Walter's position as her son. She is waiting for him to be a strong adult, like his father and mother, and begins to instruct him in manhood.
Mama. I'm waiting to hear how you be your father's son. Be the man he was.… (Pause.) Your wife say she is going to destroy your child. And I'm waiting to hear you talk like him and say we a people who give children life, not who destroys them—(She rises.) I'm waiting to see you stand up and look like your daddy and say we done give up one baby to poverty and that we ain't going to give up nary another one.…I'm waiting.… If you a son of mine, tell her! (Walter turns, looks at her and can say nothing. She continues, bitterly.) You … you are a disgrace to your father's memory. Somebody get me my hat.
He fails and she is disgusted. He may never be the adult that his mother is or that his father was. His father was more of a man precisely because he loved and valued children. It is clear that if Walter becomes a man, he will be initiated into it by a superior woman. The conflict flares when Mama buys the house despite Walter's wishes. The conflict is between Walter's world view, which is consistent with the European male world view, or Mama's, Ruth's, and by this time, Beneatha's, which is consistent with traditional black feminism. He claims that Mama "butchered up a dream of mine," but his dreams are dependent upon her money (80). Mama wants Walter to see she did the right thing by buying the family a house, but what he thinks will not change the doing of it and he knows it. Walter declares what has already been made clear, "What you need me to say you done right for? You the head of this family" (80, Hansberry's emphasis).
Mama recognizes the conflict and, like Ruth, is willing to sacrifice to save her family. She fights for her family by doing a very unwarlike thing, by appearing to capitulate. She says that although he never understood that she "ain't got nothing, don't own nothing, ain't never really wanted nothing that wasn't for you," that perhaps she has also "been doing to him what the rest of the world has done to him" (86-87). Although she appears to be relinquishing power, her power is still there. She gives him sixty-five hundred dollars and the responsibility to deposit Beneatha's college money into an account, taking the risk that he will keep the money safe over the weekend. However, she gives him explicit instructions and tells him to be the head of the family. When she says, "I'm telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be," (87) she is voicing the contradiction. In Walter's version of manhood, a man takes control, but here he has to be given it by a woman, and instructed what to do with it. Superficially, Mama's move seems to work because Walter becomes a pleasant person who speaks "sweetly, more sweetly than we have ever known him." He begins to treat Ruth better, taking her to the movies, holding hands and dancing. When Mr. Linder, a representative of a thinly veiled effort to keep the Youngers out of a white neighborhood, attempts to buy out their mortgage, Walter kicks the white man out of "his" house (a very "manly" thing to do), forsaking the money that he previously valued so much and will come to value again (99). He takes on a new, important role and the attitude that comes with it, that of "Man of the House," which seems almost a pun—HouseMan—an artificial man who is a man nowhere else but where the women make him so (89). But we know enough about Walter and Mama to know that he is not really the head nor, even in 1959, are we to assume that he is the natural head of this household. It is of little surprise when he very shortly exhibits gross lack of responsibility by trusting the untrustworthy and losing the family money to con men.
When Bob, Walter's "business partner," comes to tell him that Willy has absconded with the family's money, Ruth senses that something is amiss before Walter does (105). (Big Walter's picture is very prominent here.) When Mama hears, she hits Walter and Walter accepts it. (In one of the television production's few deviations from the playscript, which calls for Mama to beat Walter in the face, Mama hits Walter's back as he has fallen on the floor.) Beneatha stops her (109), but when Beneatha voices her own disgust for Walter by saying there was nothing left to love, Mama delivers a speech which could summarize the black woman's relation to the black man, even in the 1990s.
There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing. (Looking at her.) Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him; what he been through and what it done to him. 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 his-self '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.
Walter's brief exercise in Eurocentric manhood is over; Mama calls him a boy now and he has even less status than before. He has endangered their brief economic stability and their dreams, including Beneatha's education and the new house. Mama assumes that it is now impossible to move to the new house. Ironically, the threat of losing the new house awakens the dream in Ruth, who originally had no dream of her own. It is she who now fights to go forward to the new house, simultaneously taking on some concern for herself and bucking Mama's authority for a better life for the family. Once she came to visualize one, she will not let it go. Walter commits one last "mannish" act. He takes it upon himself to speak for the family and to offer what is left of the family dignity, but here lies his true rite of passage in adulthood. (The portrait of Big Walter is prominently featured and very much a character here.) When Mama challenges him to take the money from Mr. Linder in front of Travis, Walter finds his strength. He stands up to Mr. Linder and says the family will move into the white neighborhood despite the danger. He even manages to express that the family is very proud of Beneatha and her plans to become a doctor.
Despite Walter's passage into adulthood, it is clear that the family is not restructured because of it. Mama has to validate his words to Mr. Lindner (128). As an adult he will share power with Mama, Ruth, and Beneatha and is positioned, not as a would-be-patriarch, but as one adult among several in the family. His double gender consciousness is resolved. Mama and Ruth share a proud moment, for his "coming into his manhood" (130). His double racial consciousness is also resolved: he becomes a person-with-history. He has looked back to the past, both culturally and familially, and has contextualized himself. His consciousness of race, group, and gender is reconciled. In the PBS production, the audience last sees Walter as he proudly takes Big Walter's portrait from the wall to move it to the new home. One of the last shots of the play is the wallpaper where Big Walter's portrait hung.
Black Feminism and Television
The potential of television as a beneficial black feminist forum is particularly significant since the form can reach women who are the backbone of a traditional, popularist black feminism that operates in the black family and community, away from the more privileged centers of feminism. Many of the most successful feminist works are fine art—museum and stage art—forms that are less accessible and perhaps less attractive to the larger potential audience for black feminist works. The majority of black women in this country are not like middle-class, college-educated white women, and there is little reason to assume that their concerns or the forms and arenas of their discourse would be similar. Black women are still rare within the academy and the halls of "fine" art. The form of any black feminism that is to be accepted by the majority of black women is not that of the academy. Black culture is not a print-based culture; the majority of African Americans consume most of their mass mediated information from inside and outside the culture through electronic media, in accordance with the tradition of an oral culture. Black feminism must use the forms which black women use.
The television production of Raisin makes use of the audience's familiarity with electronic media actors and their personae. Ester Rolle is most familiar as the strong mother of the television show Good Times (1974-1979). Danny Glover was the brutal husband in The Color Purple (1985). Helen Martin, who played the gossipy neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, played a similar role in the black-cast television show 227 (1984-1989), and Joseph C. Phillips, who played George Murchison, has portrayed middle-class "nerd" types in a series of movies and television shows, including a regular character during the later years of The Cosby Show (1984-1992).
The adaptation of this play for television emphasizes the potential of the play and of television as mediums of a black feminist aesthetic. Two aesthetic formal features of television, closeness and sound reproduction, are shown to their best advantage in Raisin. Subtle, nonverbal expression is important both to Hansberry in particular and to female and black communication in general.20 Hansberry's stage directions give information about the expression in a character's eyes, shared glances, and physical twitches that give the audience interpretive cues. While some of the information could be communicated by an excellent stage actor, the form of television, with its inherent ability for extreme close-ups, can transmit the most subtle nuances of feeling. Hansberry writes stage directions as if for television or film, with subtle cues that are best conveyed through close-ups, rather than the distance of live stage theatre, and the television production was able to be consistent with her intentions. Sound reproductive qualities of television also become useful. Blues songs are an important element of the cultural message of the play, and Hansberry uses music to convey emotional tone; but despite her extensive stage notes, Hansberry rarely prescribes which blues songs are to be used. Since the sound reproduction of television is superior to all but the most acoustically sophisticated theatre houses, the presence of blues lyrics as well as a particular sound can be easily heard and the aural message made more explicit.
Hansberry intended that her play provide a microcosm of the issues facing black women in one discrete, aesthetically attractive piece; she contended that all art does and should serve propagandistic purposes. In 1959 she told the First Conference of Negro Writers that "All art is ultimately social."21 She felt that black writers needed to be particularly aware of the potential for aesthetic propaganda, and she worked to make use of her play's propagandistic potential. The communication strategy for propaganda is as important as the content, and television may provide a particularly effective medium for black women. The television production of A Raisin in the Sun, as well as other works such as The Women of Brewster Place and the television premiere of The Color Purple, demands that television presentation of black feminist pieces be carefully examined and considered.
In order to be effective, the aesthetic form must be present in the social reality of the audience. Television, unlike the stage play, is already present in the social reality of black women. Television is an ordinary medium that plays a huge part in the aesthetic lives of ordinary people. I am using "ordinary" in the sense of "most frequently occurring." The usage is not intended to be derogatory, indeed, I hope to promote the reevaluation of elitist feminist aesthetics that undervalues the aesthetic lives of the vast majority of people in this country, white or black. Only 12 percent of the U.S. population over eighteen years old saw a nonmusical play in 1985, the last year for which statistics are available, and only 17 percent saw a musical play once. College graduates make up the majority of audiences in both categories.22 Unlike live stage theatre, which even members of the middle class rarely attend, television is part of the daily lives of most American families. Ninety-nine percent of American families own at least one television, and the average household has the set on seven hours a day.23 The messages of television are the primary aesthetically cased messages of Americans and this is particularly so for black Americans, who consume more television and embrace the meaning more than do their white counterparts.24 Black feminism, in particular, cannot ignore popularist media. Black feminist discourse that will reach ordinary black women must use the mediums that black women use. (A similar argument may be made for Hispanic women or poor white women, who also watch large amounts of television.)25
Popularly accepted aesthetic forms can become powerful vehicles for emotional survival and political change. Herbert Marcuse writes that it is the attractiveness of the aesthetic form and the safety that comes from the inherent abstraction of art that allows it to be a useful ideological tool, especially in the face of lessened direct control over one's physical and social environment. Art provides a counterconsciousness, a socially safe place to examine and discuss the social situation and to arrive at coping mechanisms or, at a higher level of social enlightenment, social solutions to the problem. The attractiveness of art, meanwhile provides an affirmative environment, an alternative and emotionally pleasant haven to escape to, to rest in, that helps to insure emotional survival within the social reality. Art becomes a hospital for the wounded soul.26
Hans Robert Jauss further develops the argument of aesthetic form as mechanism of emotional survival and social change. The same distance that allows aesthetic enjoyment also allows the audience member to examine his or her social situation, perhaps even enjoying a portrayal that would be painful or dangerous in reality. Life is dressed in art. Art becomes a safe place to discuss what could not otherwise be discussed as lightly, if at all. The better vantage point encourages the discovery of otherwise unconsidered characteristics present in the social reality as well as the potential for change. Jauss argues that the realistic popular media are particularly effective in doing this.27
The concept of television as medium of a feminist aesthetics has not been popular with academic feminists, on the assumption that the medium is antifeminist. While many studies have shown that commercial, network television programming has not been kind to feminist perspectives,28 there may be nothing inherently antifeminist in the form of television. Cable television programming can be many things to many people, and the opportunity for feminist programming can begin to open up now that a majority of the population is cabled.29 Public television programmers have already shown a willingness to address feminist issues. Although public television content is not always aesthetically appealing to black women across class, it is accessible. The appeal of television to black women, however, suggests the medium bears examination as a potential vehicle for feminist communication. The PBS production of A Raisin in the Sun lends more evidence that the form of television has the potential to communicate successfully the themes, issues, and communication strategies which Hansberry originally wrote into her script and to deliver them into the homes of ordinary black women.
Lorraine Hansberry would have approved.
- Anne Cheney, Lorraine Hansberry (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 17.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk (Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus-Thomson, 1973), 1-2.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- See Michael Awkward, Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision and Afro-American Women's Novels (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (New York: Pergamon, 1985); Mary Helen Washington, "Taming All That Anger Down: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha, "in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Methuen, 1984), 249-62; Susan Willis, "Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison," in Black Literature and Literary Theory, 263-322.
- Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Signet, 1966), 63. All subsequent quotations are cited parenthetically within the text.
- See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1970).
- See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983).
- See James H. Evans, Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1987).
- Julius Lester, "How God Made Butterflies," in Black Folktales (New York: Grove, 1978), 15-20.
- Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, ed. Robert Nemiroff (New York: New American Library, 1970), 78.
- Du Bois, Souls, 50.
- See Bart Landry, The New Black Middle Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
- Hansberry, Young, Gifted, and Black, 17.
- Simmons Market Research Bureau, Study of Media Markets: Household Cleaners, Room Deodorizers, Pest Control and Pet Food (New York: Simmons Market Research Bureau, 1989), 0002, 0030, 0068, 0088, 0108, 0104.
- See Niara Sudarkasa, "African and Afro-American Family Structure: A Comparison," The Black Scholar 11.8 (November-December 1980): 37-60.
- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari, ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 133.
- Cheney, Lorraine Hansberry, 60-61.
- Ibid., 60.
- See Thomas Kochman, Black and White Styles in Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Judy Pearson, Gender and Communication (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1985); Geneva Smitherman, Talking and Testifyin': The Language of Black America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986).
- Lorraine Hansberry, quoted in Anne Cheney, "The Negro Writer and His Roots: Towards a New Romanticism," Black Scholar 12.2 (March-April 1981), 136.
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989), 231.
- Census, 544.
- George Comstock, Steven Chaffee, Nathan Katzman, Maxwell McCombs, and Donald Roberts, Television and Human Behavior (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 295.
- See Ronald W. Lopez and Darryl D. Enos, "The Role and Functions of Spanish-language-only Television in Los Angeles," Aztlan 4.2 (1973), 283-313; T. C. O'Guinn, T. P. Meyer and R. J. Faber, "Ethnic Segmentation and Spanish-language Television," Journal of Advertising 14.3 (1985), 63-66; Comstock, 296.
- Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston: Beacon, 1978).
- Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).
- F. L. Geis, V. Brown, and J. Jennings, "Sex vs. Status in Sex-associated Stereotypes," Sex Roles 11 (1984), 711-85; Gaye Tuchman, "Women's Depiction by the Mass Media: Review Essay," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4 (1979), 528-42.
- Census, 444.