A Raisin in the Sun was one of the first truly crossover films that appealed as much to white audiences as to black ones. First as a stage play and then as a movie, it marked the beginning of Sidney Poitier’s distinguished career, and launched a decade of films that explored not just racial tolerance but interracial acceptance.
Several black stars have taken on the role of Walter Lee Younger, including Danny Glover, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, and Denzel Washington. I’ve seen them all. No one understood Walter Lee’s character the way Poitier did. Glover portrayed him as a sniveling, blubbering loser. Combs was too enamored by playing the iconic role to lose himself in the character. And Denzel was Denzel. But Poitier was magnificent, bringing a dignity to the character that transcended the poor choices he sometimes makes. He isn’t just a man who wants to own a liquor store; he’s a man who wants to provide for his family, and he realizes that owning a business is the only path to success for a man with his background.
Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest American, the fifth woman, and the first black writer to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award when the show opened on Broadway in 1959. She came from an educated upper middle class family in Chicago. Her father was a real estate broker who bought a home in a mostly white neighborhood and then challenged the neighborhood’s restrictive covenants all the way to the Supreme Court decision in Hansberry v. Lee. Lorraine Hansberry used this experience as a foundation for her play.
He’s a man who wants to provide for his family, and he realizes that owning a business is the only path to success for a man with his background.
That is important to the point of this article, which I will get to in just a moment.
The Hansberrys were often visited by prominent black artists, one of whom was poet Langston Hughes. Hansberry borrowed the title of her play from Hughes’s poem “Harlem, or a Dream Deferred,” which goes like this:
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?
I have studied this play and this poem with my students for many years, and I’ve observed that each simile represents a different character in the play. Mama Lena’s dream is the raisin. For 40 years she has dreamed of owning a home. The dream has dried up, but it’s still edible, still good. Walter Lee’s dream is the festering sore. He wants so much to be a businessman that he’s about to explode with frustration. Walter’s younger sister and Hansberry’s alter ego has sweet dreams. She is attending college and is able to try out many interests, including horseback riding, photography, guitar lessons, and her African roots on her way to “expressing me!” Walter’s wife Ruth also longs for a real house, but her dreams “sag” under the heavy load of childbearing and motherhood.
And then there’s Mr. Lindner, who visits the Younger family representing the homeowners’ association at Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood where Mama Lena has put a down payment on a house because homes are cheaper there. His neighbors have authorized him to offer a check with the intent of buying them out before they move in. Here’s what he says when he arrives in Act 3:
Well — you see, our community is made up of people who’ve worked hard as the dickens for years to build up that little community. They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working honest people who don’t really have much but those little homes and a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in. Now I don’t say we are perfect and there is a lot wrong in some of the things they want. But you’ve got to admit that a man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way. And at the moment the overwhelming majority of our people out there feel that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community, when they share a common background. I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.
His words are shocking, offensive, and disgusting. My students always react with an intake of breath and an exhale of disbelief. By this point in the play the audience gets it, and they’re rooting for the Youngers, regardless of their color. As one critic wrote, “The white press applauded the play for not being only a ‘Negro play’ but one that was a universal drama. This implied that the story would be the same if the black characters were replaced with white ones. In part, Hansberry agreed, saying, ‘I don’t think there is anything more universal in the world than man’s oppression to man’” (“Background and Criticism of A Raisin in the Sun,” Chicago Public Library.)
There is no question that Lindner’s dream “stinks like rotten meat.” And while dried-up raisins can be eaten, festering sores can be disinfected, sagging loads can be lifted up, and syrupy sweets can be replaced by more nutritious foods, stinking meat is good for nothing. It must be thrown away.
That was the message of A Raisin in the Sun. Hearing Lindner’s offensive words spoken to a family they had come to know and like and even identify with, audiences began to understand the evil of segregation. The Civil Rights movement confirmed it. Segregation ended, white communities began embracing their new black neighbors, and guess what? Property values did not plummet. White flight had caused its own deflation, but when whites stayed put, property prices held firm.
While dried-up raisins can be eaten, stinking meat is good for nothing. It must be thrown away.
But here we are in 2021, 70 years after A Raisin in the Sun premiered in local cinema houses, and I am chilled by what I’m seeing on college campuses around the country. I am disheartened by the demand for segregated housing, segregated graduation ceremonies, segregated orientation programs. And the reasoning? According to a National Review article, “The students claim segregation will make [college] a ‘more welcoming, supportive and safe community for minoritized students.’”
“More welcoming, supportive, and safe community for minoritized students.” How is this different from Mr. Lindner declaring, “The overwhelming majority of our people out there feel that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community, when they share a common background . . . our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”
I can understand having affinity clubs and organizations within the larger community of a campus. I see nothing wrong with having a German Club, a Christian organization, an LGBTQ social group, and yes, a Black Students organization. But to segregate housing, orientation, graduation, and dining halls is to take a giant step backward toward Jim Crow and forced segregation. It is the opposite of the new push for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on campuses. I foresee a time in the not-so-distant future when we will forget that this was a choice. When it will have become, again, a tradition codified in force and steeped in prejudice.
That is a stinking, rotten dream indeed.
Jo Ann: EXCELLENT review! You make good points about the play and about the degeneration of racial attitudes of today. Thank you.
I’ve never seen the play onstage, but I’ve seen the film. Poitier never disappoints. As I hear more and more about racial resegregation and the adjustment of school curricula for “racial differences,” I see black people back in “their” neighborhoods living in squalor once again, never having learned what we all need to know to function in a modern society.