I can’t quite believe that it has been 50 years since A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. Like many people, my first encounter with Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play was through the 1961 film, acted by the original Broadway cast. Because I first saw the film during the black power era, my initial fascination was with Beneatha, the aspiring medical student who—to the horror of her family and probably to my parents—begins to embrace her African heritage.   

Still, while Beneatha’s story line remains a powerful and resonant one for me all these years later, what grabs me most about Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece is not its nascent appeal for black cultural nationalism. No, the gravitational force behind the play is its dominant central theme: the need for the black community to ground itself in the essence of our tradition, an unbending belief in the future against the greatest odds, because the future of our people absolutely depends upon it.

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What is striking to me now is how very contemporary Raisin’s message is for African Americans in the early 21st century. For, ultimately, A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on March 11, 1959, is about deferred gratification, its merits and its necessity if black America is ever going to catch up economically to the rest of the country and take our rightful place in the larger American middle class. Why talk about an old play in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Depression? Because this is precisely the time for us to do some very hard thinking about how the downturn is going to reshape the class structure of black America, and what we—within the race—can do about it. And Raisin holds clues.

Think of Walter Lee as the antecedent of hip-hop culture and the larger American material culture. He is the Man of Bling, Mister Instant Gratification. He wants to take all the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy and buy a liquor store in the neighborhood. Think of Mama as the voice of the black tradition. She wants to use part of the money for a down payment on a home in a white suburb, use another portion for her daughter’s medical school tuition, invest the rest and demand that the four adults in the household pool their meager lower working class wages to cover the $125-a-month mortgage payment. Plan wisely and 50 years later, she reasons, ka-ching!

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The tension between Walter’s anxious yearning and Mama’s careful planning sums up the crisis among our people today. The uncanny thing is that Lorraine Hansberry figured all of this out, and put it center stage in her compelling play, in the tension between the characters (played on stage and screen by Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil, who had their own battles about whose play this really was). Brash Mr. Bling versus Wise Mother Tradition. It is a struggle as relevant today, in this time of economic turmoil, as it was half a century ago. The principal difference is that this debate is unfolding today within a Black America defined by two ever-widening economic nations within our own community.

Consider this exchange at the heart of the play’s central drama, the crux of its action—by what values will the “New Negro” (as one of the characters puts it) define herself and himself?

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Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change.

Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.

Mama: No … something has changed. … You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched. 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.

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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.”  

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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.

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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.