‘What Hath the New World Wrought?’
A Raisin in the Sun is, at its core, a play about hard choices: Will Walter Lee Younger Jr., a demoralized chauffeur (Hansberry’s riff on Bigger Thomas, the trapped and desperate protagonist of Richard Wright’s famous novel Native Son), invest his father’s money wisely or throw it away by trusting an associate to help him buy into his own version of the American dream, a liquor store license? Will Walter’s pregnant wife, Ruth, a domestic, keep their baby? Will Beneatha accept Asagai’s marriage proposal? Will Beneatha and Walter’s 60-year-old mother, Lena, also a domestic but with still-vivid memories of sharecroppers and former slaves, use her late husband’s money to buy the family a home or suffer in the same cramped apartment as the gulf between her and children widens? And, at the drama’s climax, will they, despite the weight of history, manage to escape their plight, or will Walter Lee Jr. accept the offer of the not-so-welcoming “Welcome Committee” and clear out of their new, all-white neighborhood?
Here is what we know: In 1959, enough African-American families courageously chose dignity and resistance in the face of racism, creating the conditions that led to the unparalleled sit-ins and marches that characterized the second phase of the heroic civil rights movement and reaching an apex with the March on Washington in 1963 and the Pettus Bridge Incident in 1965. During that period, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, ending Jim Crow segregation in America (another play now up the street on Broadway, All the Way with Bryan Cranston, tells that remarkable story), with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 right behind it.
At the same time, young women like Beneatha Younger (the play’s closest character in spirit to Lorraine Hansberry) emerged as agents of change, as I wrote in this column in November, not only going “natural” with their hair (perhaps propelled by the extraordinary folk singer Odetta, one of the first black female performers to adopt an Afro), but also with their talents. Today, Hansberry can be seen as a pioneering role model for the many successes of African-American women since the 1960s. “Black women currently earn about two-thirds of all African-American bachelor’s degree awards, 70 percent of all master’s degrees and more than 60 percent of all doctorates,” according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which adds, “Black women also hold a majority of all African-American enrollments in law, medical and dental schools.”
The success of the play itself answers the question of the nature and pace of racial progress. Despite Raisin’s numerous rejections by financiers, after it finally launched on Broadway in March 1959, it became the first Broadway play by an African-American writer about an African-American family to attract African-American theatergoers in droves. At age 29, Hansberry went on to become the youngest and first black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play. Two years later, a film version directed by Daniel Petrie (though not with Hansberry’s alternate screenplay) won an award at Cannes. Like the play, the movie helped to burnish the reputation of a young Sidney Poitier, who was the first actor to play Walter Lee Jr. in both media. A Tony-winning musical version of Raisin emerged in 1973, and successful revivals followed through the decades with the likes of Danny Glover, Sean Combs and now Denzel Washington, in the starring role.
Today, A Raisin in the Sun is easily the most famous of black plays, without question part of the American literary canon, and required reading in many high schools and colleges. For many, seeing it interpreted onstage by Washington, the great LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo is a redemptive act, as it was for my graduate students studying “The African American Literary Experience” with me at Harvard. For those in my generation especially, I should add that it is a point of pride to see the heir of Poitier giving us his star turn as Walter Lee Jr. and proving night after night that 59 is indeed the new 35.
“What hath the New World wrought?” Asagai asks Beneatha in that penultimate scene. The answer: A lot!
The Circular March
Yet look more closely and you’ll begin to see cracks in the foundation. As we know all too well, African-American families like the Youngers haven’t had quite the happy ending hoped for in the play. Take the closest measure on point: black home ownership. After rising from 35 percent in 1950 to 44 percent in 1980, as of 2012, black home ownership is down to 42.5 percent, with more than half of African Americans still renting. And as of 2007, black businesses like the ones Walter Lee Jr. dreamed of still accounted for only 7 percent of all U.S. companies.
Most disturbing of all: poverty. Although since 1959 we have seen explosive growth in the black upper-middle class, it has been offset by the large percentage of the poorest among us still trapped in underfunded, dangerous, crumbling schools and disproportionately represented in crowded prisons and blighted inner cities. In fact, the poverty rate among African-American children is, as it was in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, hovering above 30 percent.