Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 77: Which pioneering play introduced mainstream American audiences to the dynamics undergirding the civil rights movement?
The sheer star power, including Denzel Washington in the lead role, lighting up the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, 55 years after its original run at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, would no doubt delight Hansberry, and the play’s first director, legendary black Canadian Lloyd Richards. Yet beyond its mega-watt casting, the tale of a black Chicago family divided by money and competing dreams about how to spend it resonates on multiple levels for black America, remaining just as relevant for our community today as when it opened.
The play, which debuted just a year before the great year of African independence when no fewer than 17 former African colonies gained their independence, leaves no doubt about which character makes the better argument in the penultimate scene, during a debate over the degree of racial progress black people have made since slavery and what the future bodes for people throughout the African diaspora.
Were our people merely doomed to march in “one large circle, around and around,” as 20-year-old aspiring doctor Beneatha Younger bemoans upon learning that her big brother, Walter Lee Jr., has just thrown away their share of their late father’s life-insurance policy? Or was black history “a long line … that reaches into infinity,” as Beneatha’s Nigerian suitor, Joseph Asagai, counters, hoping to inspire her to marry him, move to the continent and take part in the decolonization movement then lifting the grip of European colonial rule in the late 1950s?
Hansberry clearly sympathized with Beneatha, but she gave Asagai the better of the argument. Their relationship curiously foreshadowed another one: that of the son of another African exchange student born two years later, named Barack Hussein Obama, and his marriage to another African-American woman, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, a native of Hansberry’s Chicago. The president and first lady caused quite a stir earlier this month when they took in the Raisin revival. As Michael Schulman of the New Yorker blogged April 13: “Act Two was sprinkled with unspoken moments of meta-theatre. When Walter asks his son, Travis, what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy says, ‘Bus driver.’ His father urges him to dream bigger, and the words ‘President of the United States’ seemed to waft in the air momentarily.”
Like Asagai, President Obama is fond of describing the march of history as a long arc, but one that inevitably bends toward justice, as Dr. King did at the high point of the civil rights movement. In fact, the president cited it again at the National Action Network convention on April 11, the day after attending Raisin: “The story of America is a story of progress. No matter how often or how intensely that progress has been challenged, ultimately this nation has moved forward. As Dr. King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, [but] it bends toward justice.’ We move forward on civil rights and we move forward on workers’ rights, and we move forward on women’s rights and disability rights and gay rights.”
We tend to forget how politically important this play was in its time, written and debuting in 1959, five years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court school desegregation case, four years after the Montgomery bus boycott, two years after the showdown between the federal government and racist segregationists at Central High School in Little Rock, four years before the civil rights movement reached its zenith during the great March on Washington, and exactly when free, decolonized African nations were being born. 1959 was a pivotal year in the movement’s history, and A Raisin in the Sun—keenly aware of this larger political context—was its literary fulcrum, posing questions in miniature about the costs of anti-black racism and the small but crucial ways individual choices affected the larger course of historical change.