Literature SpotLight: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

The Play, The Poem, and Black Women

A Raisin in the Sun is a play, set in Chicago during the 1950’s focusing on the life and challenges of a black family. However before examining the content and purpose of the play, we must first analyze the title. The title of this play was inspired by Langston Hughes and his poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


After reading the poem we see that the title of the play is embedded within the verse, but the question is what about Hughes’ work inspired Hansberry? The answer is found after reading (or watching) the play the most prevalent motif, is of course dreams. The emphasis on dreams--having them, achieving them, or not reaching them at all. As you engage the play the first line of the poem “What happens to a dream deferred?” Echoes throughout the performance in both the characters and the performance. In acknowledging that the inspiration of the this play is derived from Hughes’ poem, Hansberry’s play could also be seen as a sort of writing back to Hughes’ to answer the question what happens to a dream deferred.

Although this play is dynamic in the portrayal of the black family and the condition of black people in America it is crucial to recognize the significance of dreams, without acknowledging the importance of dreams-- aspirations, the play lacks a motivating force that drives the characters and the plot.  The motif of dreams in this play that is set in the 1950’s parallels the American Dream or rather the White American Dream. I say that because when examining the American Dream it is apparent that it was made for and by white people to uphold a system of patriarchy and white supremacy—leaving black people and other minorities with an intangible goal; as white people achieve, black people are struggling.

Black men then and arguably now, exhaust themselves trying to establish themselves by mimicking the practice and attitudes of white men, which poses a problem because this a society that both overtly and covertly disregard the plight of the black men in most aspects  (except sports). In the Black man's efforts to measure up,to be ambitions through business endeavors and vocational training—in competition with white men, he is emasculated. Black men being emasculated is also significant in the context of American society and in the black family structure. As the connections between American society, the black family, and dreams are emphasized it is imperative to recognize that Hansberry's work is more than a play, but works as a critique of society.

Portrait of African American poet and author Lorraine Hansberry holding a cigarette, 1960.  (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Portrait of African American poet and author Lorraine Hansberry holding a cigarette, 1960.

(Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

This play does not only focus on class, family, employment and race, but also includes an analysis of gender dynamics between black men and women. The gender dynamic in this play is a critique of black men and black women as well as an opportunity to introduce the multiplicity of black women. The parallels between black men and women in this play are rooted in the inter-generational attitudes that are taught and reinforced in contrast to the adopted attitudes consistent with new way of thinking. The characters in the play work to demonstrate the realities of being black, regardless of gender in this era.

In analyzing the black women in this play, I first have to introduce you to the three main black women characters Lena “Mama” Younger, Ruth Younger, and Beneatha Younger — women who make up the family, but mirror the black female figures in society. These women highlight the different identities of black women outside the Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes.

As this play works as a black feminist critique it also provides social commentary about the marginalization black women feel and the emasculation black men feel. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun forces the audience to acknowledge the multiplicity and agency of black women. She breaks the gender role binaries in black women and presents a foundation for black women identity outside the context of slavery and set societal roles. This play and other works by black authors suggest that black people must work to create their own standards of success and prosperity as they define their own definition of what blackness is, to finally be considered as citizens, and to enter into the category of the human.

A Raisin in the Sun. Front cover of the first edition

A Raisin in the Sun. Front cover of the first edition

Staying Power & Universality

This play premiered on stage in 1959—a time when racial tensions were high and America was changing. This play has transcended time—generations, social, and political movements. A fact that reinforces the special quality of this play, that has allowed it to thrive for this long. Today Hansberry's work can be experienced in different media platforms including: film, a musical, TV, and a recent (last year) Broadway revival with Denzel Washington. It is apparent that this play won't be forgotten anytime soon, but...

What is it about this play that keeps people interested?

Is it the juxtaposition between dreams and reality? The exposure of the bourgeois standards? The gender analysis in context of black people and families? The development of both personal and social identity? Examining the condition of African Americans in America? The realities of black womanhood? Or all these aspects combined. With this Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun becomes a universal text, breaking down the human experience when dreams are deferred, more so the African-American experience in America. For this play to make such an impact in  1959 with a black cast with white attendees in the audience, this work had to exhibit something that connected what they were seeing and feeling. A Raisin in the Sun, isn't solely about race, but also discusses ambition, capitalism/labor, womanhood, manhood, and of course dreams deferred. The sense of relatability that is experienced throughout the play is what reinforces Hansberry a timeless playwright and her work still relevant today. A Raisin in the Sun is a social commentary about black life and black experiences that enlighten the collective consciousness of the audience and white America as a whole.

Q: Do you know the effects of a dream Deferred?  Can you think of any other universal authors?

Felicia taliaferro