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Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo in the "Raisin" revival
YouTube screenshot (Original photo by Bridgette Lacombe)
Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo in the "Raisin" revival
YouTube screenshot (Original photo by Bridgette Lacombe)

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.

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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.  

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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.”

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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.

‘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?  

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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.”  

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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.

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“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.  

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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.

“Ghetto-itis” to quote Beneatha, is still “acute” in the United States, a reality for too many families that complicates collective feelings of euphoria in observing the civil rights anniversaries. Despite the very real gains of the movement, 50 years on our first African-American president remains a target of racist verbal attacks, as if the welcome committee in Hansberry’s play is trying to force him to give up what he has justifiably earned, while teenage boys like Trayvon Martin (the Youngers’ son is Travis) are still at deadly risk while walking in our nation’s neighborhoods.  

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This persistent tension between concurrent endings, happy and unsure, is similar to the one lingering between dreams fulfilled and deferred in Raisin. As Mama Younger says early on, “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 seem worth while.” Mama’s reflection on dreams was echoed by Dr. King four years later at the Lincoln Memorial. His dream, King said, was “deeply rooted in the American Dream … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Yet too many children today, I fear, are still doing their best to dream in schools that are legally but not actually integrated.

But, really, A Raisin in the Sun was never a play about integration, as Mama Younger makes clear when she tells the family that she first tried to buy a house in a black neighborhood but that the prices there were twice as high (even though it was much farther out of town). Nor is Hansberry’s ending the all-too-easy one of triumph over despair, the stuff of romance or melodrama. In fact, Raisin is about getting out of trapped, claustrophobic lives, and if the facts I cited above are any indication, that struggle is far from won.

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The Role of the Artist in an Afflicted World: Honesty

In the face of despair, what can an artist do? This is the very question that consumed Lorraine Hansberry as a child of middle-class parents who believed their people’s ultimate salvation was to come—had to come—from those struggling for survival in the working and lower classes. As James Baldwin said about his “sweet Lorraine” in the introduction to Hansberry’s posthumous collection, To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969), “Lorraine made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, and that its purpose was action: that it contained the ‘energy which could change things.’ ” And that energy is palpable throughout her play.  

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What shone through the play was Hansberry’s artistic and political honesty. And more than 50 years later, its honesty remains, especially about the diversity and divisions within black families and how African Americans speak to each other when white people aren’t around. For example, Walter, in his exasperation, says, “ ’Cause we all tied up in a race of people that don’t know how to do nothing but moan, pray and have babies!” And, at another point, “I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room—(Very, very quietly)—and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live.” At another moment, Walter mimes the black-face minstrel and rages at what he perceives as his tyrannical mother. Beneatha, too, questions the existence of God, which earns a well-deserved slap from that same mother. 

With lines and stage directions like those, Hansberry lifted a curtain onto a world “behind the veil,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it famously in 1903, a world that Zora Neale Hurston had so meticulously revealed a generation earlier in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a self-contained black world that we also glimpsed in Lee Daniels’ The Butler last year. Honesty is, Brooke Atkinson wrote in his review of Raisin for the New York Times in 1959, “Miss Hansberry’s personal contribution to an explosive situation in which simple honesty is the most difficult thing in the world. And also the most illuminating.”

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Hansberry’s honesty was part of the broader naturalistic movement among writers of the 1940s and ’50s, a style and approach made famous in the most popular black novel of that era, Richard Wright’s 1940 Native Son. Hansberry, like Wright, presented an unsentimental view of the hard asphalt of urban life in Chicago after the Great Migration, when parents suffered structural hardships and their children slept on couches in living rooms fending off roaches and rats. White audiences, seduced by Hansberry’s formula of a seemingly straightforward morality tale, thus developed an empathy for the Youngers, only to realize that when the white representative of the “Welcome Committee” arrives later in the play, it is too late to turn away from the reality of the society they helped create.

In terms of its place in American literary history, A Raisin in the Sun is clearly a rewriting of Wright’s naturalistic Native Son, self-consciously echoing scenes and characters in that great novel—from its opening in a tenement apartment on Chicago’s South Side when an alarm clock shatters a night of fitful slumber, and the shared profession of both protagonists as a chauffeur of a rich white businessman—and including references to a “toothless rat,” among many other repetitions. But Hansberry, rejecting Wright’s bleak assessment of the possibilities of progress for the American Negro under an unyieldingly racist capitalist economy circa 1940, asks us to contemplate another set of life choices for a working-class black man, who initially feels trapped like a rat in a world that allows him to glimpse the possibilities of life yet denies him any way to realize those possibilities, thus (in Wright's case) leading him to despair. Hansberry rejects despair, and she does so with convincing dramatic power.

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From Caricature to Continent and Power

Hansberry’s play also opened the eyes of white and black Americans to Africa as an emerging continent, from presenting authentic styles of hair (Broadway’s first Afro!), dress, music and dance, to illuminating what even for many African Americans of the day was still a dark and nebulous place replete with mud huts and pagan savages, a la Tarzan. This ignorance of the proverbial motherland was something of which Hansberry was well aware, growing up with an uncle, William Leo Hansberry, who was a highly respected professor of African studies and who actually taught the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, at Howard University. She also was aware of it as a student herself of the father of pan-Africanism, W.E.B. Du Bois, at the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York.  

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Roots author Alex Haley said this of Raisin’s role in changing American perceptions of Africa: “Merely by the force of A Raisin in the Sun’s success, she [Hansberry] helped to dispel the myth of the ‘cannibal’ African with a bone in his hair. Her educated African character, Asagai, was certainly the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and as being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress.” Hansberry’s pan-Africanism was linked to the nascent black power struggle that was to bloom fully with Stokely Carmichael’s speech in Mississippi in October 1966. (Carmichael also is undergoing a revival today, thanks to Peniel Joseph’s watershed new biography, Stokely: A Life.)  

Hansberry’s play and Dr. King’s speech may have been the two greatest expositions of the American dream for African Americans of the mid-20th century, but Hansberry herself was no devotee of King’s SCLC-style nonviolence. She felt rage, and spoke to it through her character of Walter Lee Jr. For as child in the late 1930s, Hansberry herself had experienced violence when her family tried to integrate a white neighborhood in Chicago. She saw own mother wield a gun inside the house to protect the family and was nearly hit by a brick thrown through their window (her parents challenged the restrictive real estate covenants, with her father taking the case to the Supreme Court and winning). And, as a young woman, Hansberry had edited the Freedom newspaper published by Paul Robeson and lived among white and black revolutionaries as a denizen of Greenwich Village.

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“I think that Dr. King increasingly will have to face a forthcoming generation of Negroes who question even the restraints of his militant and, currently, progressive ideas and concepts,” Hansberry wrote in a letter to Kenneth Merryman on April 27, 1962. “The pressure rears up everywhere; I think the daily press lulls the white community falsely in dismissing the rising temper of the ghetto and what will come of it.” She went on: “In the twentieth century men everywhere like to breathe; and the Negro citizen still cannot, you see, breathe. And, thus far, the intensity of our resentment has not yet permeated white society which remains, in spite of the headlines, convinced it is our problem.”

Her advice: “I think, then, that Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent. That they must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”

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Perhaps it was not so coincidental that Hansberry shared a birthday (May 19) with Malcolm X, as Lawrence Jacobs reminds us in his 2011 book, The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960. And Malcolm attended Hansberry’s funeral weeks before his own death in New York. There were to be no happy endings for them: Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in January 1965 (she was only 34), and Malcolm from an assassin’s bullet in the weeks leading up to the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.

Breathe

Perhaps this is Raisin’s universal and enduring appeal: Like Hansberry’s characters, as a nation we are still trying to breathe. “Mama,” Hansberry wrote her mother upon finishing her work, “it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are—and just as mixed up—but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks—people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you very proud.” (From Anthony Barthelemy’s essay “Teachers of Many Dignity and Pride” in the 2001 book Readings on A Raisin in the Sun, edited by Lawrence Kappel. I highly recommend all of the essays in this volume).

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Hansberry’s play has made all of us proud. But, as she herself portended, there will be struggles beyond the climax of her drama, despite the bags packed at the door. No, the Youngers will not have an easy time moving into Clybourne Park, you can be sure. And neither should we feel too comfortable in saying goodbye to them at play’s end. “The acceptance of our condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children,” Hansberry wrote in 1962. For good reason: If anything, the gap between the Walter Lee Jrs. and Beneathas of the world within and among families is greater than ever.

And this was a challenge for Hansberry, too, after the success of Raisin: “Do I remain a revolutionary?” she wrote in 1964. “Intellectually—without a doubt.  But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?” The same could be asked of those of us able to afford the ticket price to today’s revival.  

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Should this be the black artist’s role? And does this have to be the point of going to the theater? Of course not—seeing Denzel Washington is a rewarding experience in and of itself. But it is worth pondering the fact that today, $10,000, the equivalent of the life-insurance payout at stake in the play, doesn’t buy much. Back then, it could have been a down payment on a house. Today, it can buy only 50 average-priced tickets to see Raisin on Broadway, or it might represent the property taxes a black family is unable to pay at the risk of foreclosure. Back then, it was about the dream of getting out. Today, many who have lived in tenement apartments for generations are being priced out of neighborhoods like Harlem and parts of Brooklyn as a result of hyper-gentrification.

So the question remains at the end of the play as it does over the entire 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement: Have we achieved our dreams as a people, or have they been deferred for the majority of the Walter Lee Jrs. out there growing up at time when nearly 1 million black men are incarcerated? Is our march circular or a long line that reaches to infinity?  

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‘Omen’

Twenty years after Raisin’s premiere on Broadway, the gifted African-American dramatist and director Douglass Turner Warner said of it: “Most of the 1959 audience, encountering this anger within such a prevalent type, felt threatened.” Walter Lee Younger Jr. “was, in his energy, an omen. That energy was soon to erupt into American reality with a vengeance.” Turner, of course, was speaking about what followed the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and ’70s. But one could ask the same of today’s revival: What is its omen for the future? Television series like The Wire and movies like Fruitvale Station show there is still a place for these kinds of stories. Especially on Broadway.  

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Just after the premiere, Hansberry herself wrote that she was afraid the public wouldn’t understand her play: “I had finished a play; a play I had no reason to think or not think would ever be done; a play that I was sure no one would quite understand.” Her friend James Baldwin (who would be 90 this year) was not sure when it would be either: “I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty and constricted people than the present-day Americans to be able to assess it at all; as an historical achievement, anyway, no one can gainsay its importance.”  

Today, the record of African-American progress since 1959 cannot be gainsaid either, yet, like the ending of the play, the future remains uncertain. “The thing I tried to show was the many gradations even in one Negro family, the clash of the old and new, but most of all the unbelievable courage of the Negro People,” Hansberry wrote of her creation.  

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I would add that courage is not just applauding our cherished stars with a well-deserved standing ovation, but also helping real people like the Younger family step through the door of possibilities and progress, hard-earned, when the curtains fall.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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