The Art of Social Criticism:

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun




Historical Context










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Historical Context

On the surface, A Raisin in the Sun is about an African American family's struggle to get out of the ghetto on Chicago's Southside. However, Hansberry utilizes numerous themes and complex characters that require multiple levels of analysis beyond the primary issues that drive the plot. The beauty of the play is that it explores the African American identity, social status, and racial challenges in conjunction with the intricacies of universal human nature. Throughout Hansberry's brief life, she took every chance to be revolutionary not only in her actions in everyday life but also through her literary works. The fact that she could "tell painful truths to a society unaccustomed to rigorous self-criticism and still receive its praise" is a testimony to her skill both as a writer and a student of life [3].

In many ways, Hansberry's early life contributed to the manifestation of her first work. Although she was born into middle class comfort on the Southside of Chicago, Hansberry witnessed the injustices plaguing American society firsthand. Despite her family's material comfort, they were still restricted to the black ghettos so Lorraine grew up alongside a number of lower class friends and neighbors who taught her about their harsh reality [4]. Surprisingly, her privilege still did not insulate her from the struggles and anger of racial minorities and the lower classes. At one point, her father waged a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, Hansberry v. Lee, that dealt with their right to purchase a home in a previously all-white neighborhood [5]. The battle was won, but the war was far from over as Hansberry's family was subjected to vicious physical attacks once they moved in. Although her work is not autobiographical, it is undeniable that hints of her childhood surface throughout her writing and influence her thoughts and beliefs.

Raisin was initially relegated to the outdated category because it emerged prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. However, this view neglects to acknowledge the insights and warnings regarding the cataclysmic results of civil unrest and inequality inherent in Raisin. Also, prior to the manuscript's completion in 1957, a number of important events occurred that undoubtedly affected Hansberry's writing. Among others, the Supreme Court ruled against local covenants that perpetuated segregated neighborhoods in 1949 and determined in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" school segregation is unconstitutional [6]. In many ways, Hansberry anticipated the need and called for minority empowerment against inequality and discrimination. One of her major thematic criticisms was the "gap between the American dream and the Black American reality" [7]. The ability to have a dream and the chance to fulfill it was and unfortunately still is different depending upon social status and racial makeup. The Younger family is portrayed in such a proud and honorable light to emphasize the injustice and to call for policy and societal changes.

Hansberry is largely responsible for redefining the term universality in art. For a long time, the term was monadic in its conception and application. It had been developed and applied to mean whiteness rather than including the diversity of modern-day society. Another contributing factor to the inaccurate conceptualization of the term was that black art continued to separate itself from the mainstream by isolating discussions of social problems from racial issues. Instead, Hansberry sought to concurrently consider "social significance and racial consciousness" [8]. Her attention to details opened the door for white audiences into an understanding of black experiences that made those experiences understandable and relevant. In the words of James Baldwin, the play received such acclaim from the African American community because "'never before in American theater history has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on stage'" [9]. The inclusion of the black experience within the framework of the human experience forced a redefinition that opened the term universality to include the minority voice [10]. This change may often go unnoted, but is an important illustration of one way Hansberry unintentionally changed the landscape of society through art. In fact, Hansberry herself believes "'the question is not whether one will make a social statement in one's work - but only what the statement will say'" [11]. All art makes a statement; some are simply more controversial than others.

The cruel reality and irony of the play is that despite the realization of the family's dream to move to the new house, the newspaper stories about black homes being bombed, the attacks upon black families mentioned by Mrs. Johnson, and the crudeness of the new neighborhood's welcoming committee promises that their struggles are far from over. Herein lies the mastery of Hansberry's work. She is able to deal with issues of racism and discrimination while maintaining a thoughtful story about a family, race aside, struggling against poverty. Although initially underrecognized as a timeless work, historical context reveals Raisin's significance as a lasting literary social criticism.


1961 Film