Black America’s First Mortgage Crisis

Fifty years ago, 'A Raisin in the Sun' captured our struggle for the American Dream. With our home equity up in smoke and our savings depleted, Hansberry's play perfectly captures our modern war between instant gratification and common sense.


Someone—I think it was Langston Hughes (whose poetry inspired the name of Hansberry’s play) —once wrote that the reason black people weren’t as surprised by the Depression as white people is that the Depression hit them a decade earlier. I am not sure that this is true, but the larger point is well taken: The current economic “downturn” represents a double crisis for black America. As the black middle class struggles to hold on to its place, what will happen to the Walter Lee Youngers of the world, the working-class black people trying to make their way up the economic ladder?

Of course, in the play, Walter Lee comes to see the error of his ways. He embraces his mother’s dream of a home and a garden with enough sunlight to nurture her potted plant that is a leitmotif of the play. And he turns down the bribe (bling!) proffered by their soon-to-be white neighbors to let them repurchase the Youngers’ house at a very handsome profit. Walter Lee comes to his senses only after suffering the humiliation of seeing his business buddy, Willie Harris, abscond with the family’s $6,500, and only after Mama drops straight on his chest the full weight of the eternal verities of the family’s “five generations of people.”  

What will coming to our senses look like today? Purchasing fine homes in white neighborhoods has not proved to be an answer. Neither has lurching toward quick riches. In the original play, there was a struggle behind the scenes for the soul of the production. Sidney Poitier believed that the central character was Walter, and that the story was grounded in a black man’s coming of age. Claudia McNeil believed Mama was the central figure. The dramatic wrestling match between the two resulted in a fiercely honest and gripping work of art that may have conveyed more truth about the ongoing struggles we face—as black people, as American people—than even Lorraine Hansberry, in her brilliant mind, intended.

Raisin compels us to ask today how to confront the Walter Lee in all of us—how to balance the human urge to accrue fast wealth with the groundedness in the essential values that have defined the best of the black tradition and have enabled us to endure, hope against hope, against the greatest odds.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.

Read the rest of The Root’s Raisin @ 50 coverage: Ruby Dee reflects on the original Broadway production.  Kai Wright uncovers  Lorraine Hansberry’s gay politics. Brian Gilmore on the housing integration court case behind the art.