Acute racial-based social inequalities are one of the key topics raised by Hansberry in her play A Raisin in the Sun. In particular, the author focuses on housing issues and cites controversial situations reflecting the attitude of the US white population to the black community regarding a possible neighborhood and the acquisition of private property (Hansberry). Despite the fact that Hansberry was born later than the first racial and restrictive laws limiting the rights of African Americans at the federal level had been accepted, she survived similar events with those described in the play (Lorraine Hansberry Biography). As a result, the biographical facts of the author’s life became the factors that influenced the creation of A Raisin in the Sun. The events described in the play make it possible to assess the ambiguity of social practices that limited the rights of the African American population concerning property ownership and conclude that specific historical events had an impact on the change of certain social stereotypes and legislative constraints.
Hansberry, the “playwright and activist,” was born in 1930 and found a time when restraining measures against the African American population were significant (Lorraine Hansberry Biography). Despite her relatively favorable social background and the stable working position of her parents, the author of the play faced a biased attitude after “Hansberry’s family moved to a white neighborhood” in 1938 (Lorraine Hansberry Biography). A similar situation is described in the play when Walter Younger discusses a housing issue with Karl Lindner (Hansberry 569). The agent offers Walter and his family to buy their house, thereby clearing the white area of black residents (Hansberry 569). The play was written in 1959, after the end of World War II, which contributed to a shift in social beliefs and the mitigation of racial biases (Lorraine Hansberry Biography). However, Hansberry’s personal experience and her testimonies became the background for A Raisin in the Sun and allowed conveying the nature of “social rather than artistic” writing (Bernstein 21). Therefore, the play was an important contribution to the struggle against racial prejudices of the 20th century.
The history of individual events described in the play has real legislative grounds, in particular, official restrictions. The first racial restrictive document was signed in Minneapolis in 1910 and was associated with the sale of property when the transfer of real estate rights was prohibited to people of non-Caucasian origin (What Are Covenants?). Subsequently, these restrictions were supplemented, for instance, in 1919, when anti-Semitist regulations forbade citizens of Jewish descent to take ownership of property in white neighborhoods (What Are Covenants?). At the same time, such limitations are presented in the play differently. For instance, Joseph Asagai’s convictions are that the African American population should not show a desire for assimilation and need to adhere to its cultural background (548). In contrast to this argument, the position of George Murchison is given, a rich young man who, despite belonging to the black community, supports the idea of active assimilation, but, according to Walter’s sister, is “shallow” (Hansberry 542). As a result, the difference in these opinions forms a distinctive view on the issues of restrictions and restraints within the black community of Chicago and the United States as a whole.
For several decades, individual covenants promoted the idea of segregation through property ownership issues. In 1930, to maintain stability in white neighborhoods, housing administrators initiated a federal funding program that encouraged restrictive procedures at the federal level (What Are Covenants?). Hansberry herself was confronted with this initiative when her family was attacked in 1938 (Lorraine Hansberry Biography). At the same time, different characters of the play in question see this situation distinctly. Walter, as a person who strives for progress, understands the senselessness of efforts to move towards equality and characterizes the African American community as follows: “we all tied up in a race of people that don’t know how to do nothing but moan, pray and have babies” (Hansberry 559). George Murchison, a representative of the progressive generation of the city’s black population, sees opportunities for development and assimilation and explains why African Americans need education: “you read books – to learn facts – to set grades – to pass the course – to get a degree” (Hansberry 563). His position is understandable, but in the face of the existing social restrictions, it was not easy for everyone to realize these goals.
The prerequisites for a change in the regime of social inequality, in particular, issues, began on the eve of World War II. Although, by 1940, black communities were completely eradicated in white neighborhoods, in the same year, a campaign was launched by civil activists to terminate federal covenants (What Are Covenants?). However, according to Matthews, in post-war Chicago, mass protests of the white population against African-Americans were common, and one of the reasons for the discontent was the reluctance to settle next to racial minorities (556). Gradually, black activists’ unwillingness to put up with the existing order intensified, and in 1948, during one of the trials, the covenants were declared null and void (What Are Covenants?). Despite positive tendencies, the controversial aspects of the legislation continued for about twenty years. As Bernstein notes, Hansberry’s release of the play in 1959 was well received by critics, and the work became one of the drivers for improving the life of the country’s black community (16). As a result, the nuances of real estate law became an aspect of a larger movement for the equality of racial minorities.
Social movements aimed to promote equality became an important part of American history after World War II. Many activists, including such prominent figures as Martin Luther King, demanded greater social freedom for the country’s black community. One of the first steps towards a democratic regulation of these issues was the adoption of the Civil Rights Act signed in 1964 by President Johnson (What Are Covenants?). The events of the Hansberry’s play take place before these changes since as Mr. Lindner offers to buy out the house of Walter and his family and refers to social inequality between them and the white population of their neighborhood (571). At the same time, the agent does not seek to avoid the topic of racial segregation and is sincerely surprised by the family’s unwillingness to understand his intentions: “I don’t understand why you people are reacting this way” (Hansberry 571). This proves that during the creation of the play, there were no significant changes in the social worldview concerning equality among people. Therefore, despite the upcoming changes in the mass consciousness, racial segregation in the period immediately after the war was expressed explicitly.
After the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the movement to end racial inequality became even larger. The confrontation between Walter and Mr. Lindner in Hansberry’s play can be seen as an allusion to the contradictions in the society of that era where the latter followed discriminatory practices. The agent states: “people can get awful worked up when they feel their whole way of life and everything they’ve ever worked for is threatened,” and with this remark, he justifies the fears of the white community in the neighborhood with African Americans (Hansberry 571). Despite legislative changes, the existing covenants associated with property restrictions continued until 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was signed and abolished all the previous limitations for minorities (What Are Covenants?). Matthews draws an analogy between the rallying of Walter’s family in countering the illegal grounds for refusing to move with mass independence movements in the United States when a large number of African Americans realized the importance of the struggle for equality (567). As a result, crucial changes began, and the assassination of Martin Luther King did not stop the process that he had launched.
When analyzing the events of the play, one can note a positive tendency to overcome the racial barrier that was in the consciousness of individual characters. For instance, in his final answer to Mr. Lindner, Walter states: “we don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes – but we will try to be good neighbors” (Hansberry 585). This argument indicates that African Americans were not ready to put up with the existing inequality and, at the same time, wanted to live in a civilized society. Attempts to influence public opinion bore fruit because, in 1968, additions to the existing Civil Rights Act were made by President Johnson, and any discrimination in obtaining housing and renting property on racial, religious, or any other grounds was prohibited at the federal level (History of Fair Housing). Bernstein remarks that the anti-racist context of Hansberry’s play was one of the significant impetus that influenced the shift in public opinion regarding equality among people (21). Therefore, the events that followed the release of this work may be considered a logical outcome of the author’s attempt to make an impact through writing.
The document of 1968 marked the beginning of a change in the country’s social life. Starting from 1969, the tradition of celebrating the signing of the corresponding act began to spread, indicating significant success in addressing housing problems for the black community and anti-racism issues in general (History of Fair Housing). Hansberry’s play ends with the description of Walter’s family moving, despite Mr. Lindner’s warnings, which may be compared to the country’s black people struggling with the obstacles they faced to achieve equality (586). As Matthews states, due to the participation of Hansberry and other social activists, the African American community overcame years of difficulties, in particular, “the cyclical nature of black women’s oppression” (561). Therefore, the playwright’s work was a significant element in the struggle against racism.
Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun is a unique work that embodies a bias towards African Americans regarding housing and anticipates events in American history related to the struggle for the rights and freedoms of black people. While paying attention to the official legislative background and the author’s biography, one can note that the changes began after World War II. Prior to this, the US black community faced a number of restrictions and covenants, some of which are reflected in the play. The analysis of A Raisin in the Sun demonstrates the similarity of the author’s ideas with those promoted by social activists and confirms the importance of addressing this topic.
Bernstein, Robin. “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” Modern Drama, vol. 42, no. 1, 1999, pp. 16-27.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, 1959.
“History of Fair Housing.” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Web.
“Lorraine Hansberry Biography.” Biography, 2020, Web.
Matthews, Kristin L. “The Politics of “Home” in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” Modern Drama, vol. 51, no. 4, 2008, pp. 556-578.
“What Are Covenants?” Mapping Prejudice, 2020. Web.