Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun, grew up in an activist family. Her parents both engaged in the fight against racial discrimination and segregration. Many icons of the early African American Civil Rights Movement, e.g., Langston Hughes, visited the Hansberry home (Bryer 193). Thus, Lorraine Hansberry was confronted with strong personalities fighting for their rights and dreams from an early age. What she admired most was the power and strength of women engaging in the movement.
A Raisin in the Sun, written in 1959, was Hansberry’s first play. It is about the Youngers, an African American family, living in the South Side of Chicago and dreaming about a better life. Both black and white people were fascinated by the play which was a major success on Broadway. Hansberry presents the audience with characters who have different values and dreams. The Youngers as a heterogeneous family portray the wide range of all African American people.
Hansberry’s remarkable respect for strong women is clearly visible in this play. She introduces three powerful women: Mama Lena, her daughter Beneatha, and her daughter-in- law Ruth. These women do not resemble each other but are all unique characters. It was Hansberry’s goal not to present stereotyped, homogeneous African American women. Each one has her own, unique outlook on life, her own values and principles. As the Youngers represent the diverse, heterogeneous African American community, the Younger women represent the wide range of African American women. They portray various concepts of African American womanhood.
This paper will explore these different concepts by having a closer look at Mama Lena and her role as the matriarch. Furthermore, it will focus on Beneatha and her feminist values and on Ruth’s position within the range of African American women.
2. Lena Younger
2.1 The Old Generation
The character of Mama Lena is the oldest woman of the Younger household. She is a traditional woman who sticks to her values which are family, freedom, and faith. Mama is in her sixties and belongs to the old generation. When Mama appears on the stage for the first time, she is described as follows:
She is a woman in her early sixties, full-bodied and strong. She is one of those women of a certain grace and beauty . . . being a woman who has adjusted to many things in life and overcome many more, her face is full of strength (Hansberry 39).
In this small passage, the reader already learns that Mama has a strong character and that she had to struggle many times in life. She grew stronger by always fighting for herself.
For Mama, having a family is the most important thing in the world. She is a very caring person, and she cherishes her children and her grandson Travis (Cheney 62). When Travis gives Mama an awkward-looking gardening hat, she is the only one who does not laugh at Travis, because she does not want to hurt his feelings (Hansberry 124). Mama sees her children and her grandson as a link to her future. Mama tells her family, “You what supposed to be my beginning again. You - what supposed to be my harvest” (Hansberry 144). Her love for her family also shows in the fact that she does not want Ruth to have an abortion. Having lost a baby, she knows how much grief such an experience can cause (Hansberry 45). Mama strongly despises an abortion. Even though Mama’s marriage with Big Walter was not always happy (Cheney 62), she cherishes the life she shared with her husband. He was not a model husband, but he loved his children and “wanted them to have something - be something” (Hansberry 45). He worked very hard to provide for his family (Hansberry 129). In this point, Beneatha differs from her mother: She feels no need to get married, at least not for now (Hansberry 50).
In addition, freedom is of great importance for Mama. Being from the South of the US, she still thinks about the time when she had to be afraid of being lynched (Hansberry 74). Yet that lies in the past, and Mama is very thankful that her family does not have to experience this anymore. She once more notices that her opinion differs from that of her children: Walter’s opinion on life shocks her. Walter tells her that, to him, money is life, and Mama responds, “So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life - now it’s money” (Hansberry 74). Mama learns that values change.
Moreover, religion has an important role in Mama’s life. Mama believes in God. Beneatha once more opposes her mother’s opinion telling Mama that God is an idea she does not believe in (Hansberry 51). Mama clearly shows her authority by slapping Beneatha for this remark and by ordering her to say, “In my mother’s house there is still God” (Hansberry 51). In the introduction to the play, Robert Nemiroff points out that Mama “like millions of her counterparts, takes her Christianity to heart” (11). She is a very religious person.
Mama is troubled with her children’s modern ideas. She cannot really understand that Beneatha does not believe in God or that Walter struggles in life. She dreams about a secure home and freedom, whereas Walter is interested in making money in order to be someone.
Mama does neither allow yelling in her home (Hansberry 70) nor does she accept Beneatha’s atheist ideas (Hansberry 51). This makes it very clear that Mama is the head of the family. She takes all the decisions; she is the matriarch. This can be illustrated by her action to go out and buy a house on her own without telling anybody in advance. Mama’s role as the matriarch of the family will be explored in the next section.
2.2 A Struggling Matriarch
Mama is the head of the family, the leading person who takes all the decisions. You can define Mama as the matriarch of the family. According to Mary Louise Anderson’s article about black matriarchy, there are certain traits that define a matriarch:
The Black matriarch
1. regards the Black male as undependable and is frequently responsible for his emasculation,
2. is often very religious,
3. regards mothering as one of the most important things in her life,
4. attempts to shield her children from and to prepare them to accept the prejudices of the white world (93).
All these things are true for Mama. She would love to see her son Walter as the head of the family. Yet she keeps him from it: She does not really rely on him and on his opinion as he wants to open a liquor shop. This is something Mama does not approve. She saw what influence alcohol can have on men. For Mama, such a job is not desirable. Mama does not believe that Walter can be the head of the family as long as he has such ideas and behaves immaturely. Thus, Mama helps to deprive Walter of his masculinity. She “has contributed to his emasculation” (Anderson 93). Walter cannot be the provider as long as Mama does not let it happen. After talking to Ruth, Mama realizes that she is reliable for Walter’s miserable and desperate situation. She finally tells him to be the head of the family and gives him the money to invest in his dream (Hansberry 106 ff.). By losing all the money, Walter loses faith in himself again. But in the end, Mama helps him to eventually embrace his manhood. With the memory of the late Big Walter, a man who died over working for his family, she teaches him how to be a man. Mama is very proud of Walter and tells Ruth, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?” (Hansberry 151).
As shown in the previous section, “religion is an integral part of [Mama’s] life” (Anderson 93). Mama gets her strength from believing in God (Anderson 93). Yet it is ”her blessing as well as her curse” (Andrews 484). On the one hand, her faith helps her to bear her way of living, but on the other hand, it is the trigger of conflicts in the family (Andrews 484).
In addition, Mama shows the third trait of the typical matriarch: She is a very familial person, and she loves to care for her family. Her “dreams, her reasons for existence, are her family” (Anderson 93).
The plant that Lena nurtures and cares for over the course of the whole play is a symbol for the Younger family and for Lena’s dream. It represents the sufferings the family experienced living in the small apartment. They faced a lack of space and privacy, and the plant lacked sunlight. Lena nurtures the plant and her family as best as she can. In the new house, the plant can flourish anew just like the Youngers. On top of that, the plant symbolizes Lena’s dream of a house with a nice garden which she can work in. The plant “is an everpresent reminder of [Mama’s] matriarchal qualities” (Anderson 93).
Mama’s strong sense of being the head of the family can be ascribed to the times of slavery:
Under slavery the Negro family was largely at the mercy of the slave owners . . . The Negro husband and father was not the provider because wife and children worked too. It was difficult for the Negro man in these conditions to play the role we consider proper for a middle class husband and father (Schwartz 18).
Back then, black men were not in charge of their families. They were unable to be the patriarch, because they were unfree men working for their masters. In addition, families were separated, and fathers and husbands could not do anything against it. Men were emasculated, deprived of their strength, and abandoned women had to take the lead and be strong for their families. Mama has to assume this position in the family, because Big Walter is no longer around, and because “Walter has yet to grow into [this role]” (Abbotson 123). Mama clearly is the matriarch of the family.
3.1 The New Generation
Whereas Mama portrays the traditional woman, Beneatha depicts more modern and secular ideas. Beneatha is very different from Mama. Her values are education and independence. Beneatha does not believe in God, nor does she see the necessity to marry. On top of that she plans to become a doctor and she tries different ways of self-expression.
Unlike her mother, Beneatha does not believe in God. This leads to a big quarrel between mother and daughter. Mama is the ‘winner’ as she slaps Beneatha and forces her to acknowledge God’s existence (Hansberry 51). Mother and daughter believe in distinct things, because they come from different generations. Mama finds her strength in God, whereas Beneatha thinks that man is responsible for what he achieves (Cheney 61).
As already mentioned, Mama belongs to the old generation. Beneatha, though, is a woman of the new generation. She grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and ‘50s, whereas her mother comes from the American South and was brought up 40 years earlier. Beneatha had a rather ‘carefree’ childhood in the North compared to Mama’s life in a former slave holding state where the practice of lynching existed. The difference in age and upbringing leads to generation gaps which are likely to arise in any family. This is also a reason for the play’s enormous success. Everyone can relate to generational problems.
Beneatha is an independent and educated woman. She delays marriage, because a profession of her own is of much bigger importance for her. Beneatha does not want to be dependent on a man. She does not want to get a baby right away, stay at home, and do the housework. She wants to become a doctor and help people (Hansberry 132). Beneatha wants to make something of herself. This is her dream, but Walter does not understand it, because he is very different. Walter “limits her by her gender” (Abbotson 122), and he thinks that Beneatha “should be satisfied with being a nurse or a wife” (Abbotson 122).
Furthermore, Beneatha loves to test things. She has guitar lessons, and in the past, she acted and went riding. For her, it is a way to experiment. She does all these things to see what she really likes and what distinguishes her from the rest. This is a “necessary process of finding and expressing oneself” (Abbotson 125).
Beneatha is a refined woman. This is clearly mentioned when Beneatha has her first appearance on stage:
. . . her lean, almost intellectual face has a handsomeness of its own . . . Her speech is . . . different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English (Hansberry 35).
Beneatha is introduced as an intellectual woman, and her English is more accurate than her family’s. In addition, she is intelligent and the first to understand Karl Lindner’s hypocrisy (Hansberry 115). The following section will have a closer look at the concept Beneatha represents.
3.2 An Early Womanist
As already said, Beneatha is very different from her mother. She is a modern woman with new ideals.
Robert Nemiroff names among the topics of the play “the outspoken (if then yet unnamed) feminism of the daughter” (6). Beneatha, more precisely, belongs to womanism. This term was defined by Alice Walker, an African American author, in 1983 as follows:
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color . . . Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behaviour. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one . . . (Floyd-Thomas xviii)
As the play was written in 1959, Beneatha was ahead of her time. She is an early representative of womanism because of various things.
Firstly, she wants to have a profession. All women of the Younger family work, but Mama and Ruth work in the service sector. Beneatha’s goal is to become a doctor. She wants a real job which she can help people with. She does not want to be a maid, because that will not lead to a promising future. Beneatha does not only want an honorable profession, but she also longs for a profession that was mainly executed by men at this time.
Secondly, Beneatha is on her own. Surely, she still lives with her family, but she does not have a husband, and she is not thinking about getting married for a while. She wants to be independent and not bound to the role of a wife and mother. She wants to see what is in life for her. She does not want someone who could slow her down.
Another important aspect is that Beneatha does not simply accept the status quo of black people in the US. She despises the way blacks assimilate. Beneatha hates her friend’s George Murchison’s behaviour, because he acts as if he was a white person. In addition, George looks down on Walter, because the Youngers do not belong to the black bourgeoisie (Hansberry 85 ff.). Beneatha declares that she “hate[s] assimimationist Negroes”, and she thinks that George gives up his own origin (Hansberry 81). Through a remark of her friend Asagai, a Nigerian, she understands that she assimilated in a way, too. Later on she has her formerly straightened hair cut short, so that everyone can see her real Afro. She is proud of her African heritage. Beneatha does not want to give up the African culture she believes to be truly hers (Hansberry 81). From this point, she adopts a very strong anti-assimilationism.
Beneatha’s bond to Africa has to be seen critically. On the one hand, she is interested in Africa and thinks about going to Nigeria with Asagai. She is proud of her culture and origins. She dreams about helping African countries by working there as a doctor. On the other hand, this is a very naive idea. Beneatha does not know the reality of Africa. She idealizes life there without knowing what it is really like. Beneatha does not know anybody who is from Africa except Asagai. On top of that, she makes the fifth generation of her family in the United States. How strongly tied can she feel to a country or continent she has never been to?
The notion of Beneatha’s African origin serves for two things: Firstly, it is another way for her to find her identity. But she ”will not find her identity solely in Africa, because she is also American” (Abbotson 125). Beneatha needs to realize that putting on a Nigerian robe and wearing an Afro does not make her a Nigerian (Abbotson 125). Secondly, dreaming about Africa distinguishes Beneatha from other black people. Thus, for her, it is also a means to show her anti-assimilationism.
4. Ruth - Caught in the Middle
You can clearly see that Mama belongs to the old, traditional generation and Beneatha is a representative of the modern and even feminist generation. Ruth is ten years older than Beneatha and about thirty years younger than Mama. This shows that Ruth’s position is somewhere in between. She does neither really belong to the old nor to the new generation.
Ruth has to fulfil different roles within the family: Besides being Walter’s wife, and Travis’s mother, she is a sister for Beneatha, and a daughter for Mama. She has to fulfil many expectations and is often a sort of mediator between the whole family and especially between the two extremes - Mama and Beneatha. For example, Ruth wants to mediate between Mama and Beneatha after their fight about God, and she tries to soothe Mama (Hansberry 52).
Even though Mama and Ruth separate 30 years, they have a close bond. Ruth understands Mama, as they share the same dream. Ruth would love to leave the dirty apartment behind and move to a new house with a bright future ahead of them. Ruth thanks both Mama and God for the new house (Hansberry 91). Mama and Ruth share their faith in God. In addition, both work in order to support their family.
Ruth tends more to Mama’s values than to Beneatha’s, possibly because she had no other choice than being a wife and a maid. She had to pick this life over expressing herself like Beneatha. On top of that Ruth begins to show traits of a matriarch, too (Anderson 93). Ruth “shares Mama’s basic distrust of Walter’s plans” (Anderson 93). She helps to emasculate him and to keep him from being the head of the family by not supporting him (Anderson 93). Her rejection of Walter’s dream becomes evident in the first scene, when Walter wants to talk to Ruth about it, and she only tells him to eat breakfast (Hansberry 34).
The character’s name, Ruth, is a reference to the bible (Cheney 61). The Book of Ruth contains a story in which Noomi, Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law, sends the widowed Ruth back to her parents. However, Ruth cannot leave her beloved mother-in-law and stays with her (Gute Nachricht Bibel, Rut 1.1-22). This even intensifies the strong connection between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law with reference to the play.
Yet Ruth also has new ideas, e.g., she plans to have an abortion, because a new baby would only add to the family’s precare financial situation (Cheney 61). Mama strongly disagrees with Ruth’s plan as killing an innocent baby is morally wrong and not Christian (Hansberry 75). Having an abortion is a sign of self-determination. Ruth does not want to put another burden on the family. She does not even talk properly with Walter about this situation. Maybe she would not have told him about her pregnancy if it were not for Mama who tells her son about the news (Hansberry 74 ff.). Unlike Mama, who sees the pregnancy as a sacred thing, Ruth sees this situation more pragmatic and employs new ideas.
During the whole play, Ruth feels worn out (Cheney 70). It is hard for her to work at the same time as learning about her pregnancy and having problems with Walter (Cheney 70). Walter needs her to listen to him; he needs support in his desperation (Hansberry 32). But Ruth cannot be the support he wishes. She “has heard [his dreams] too often, seen too little done to achieve them” (Abbotson 123). Walter expects more from life than driving people around. His job as a chauffeur is senseless for him (Hansberry 73). Walter’s problem has two sides. On the one hand, he feels powerless in his job and “within the black community” (Cheney 69), on the other hand, he feels impotent at home, because he is not the head of the family (Cheney 69).
Later Ruth asks Mama to give Walter the money to fulfil his dream (Hansberry 42), because she begins to understand Walter’s dream (Cheney 70). Even though Ruth’s dream is of a different kind, she supports her husband. The marriage of Walter and Ruth is happier than before. He feels better after doing something for his dream, and he even starts to go out with Ruth again.
As already mentioned, the three women represent the wide range of African American women and their values. This heterogeneity is represented by Mama as the traditional matriarch and by Beneatha as the modern woman with feminist ideas. These two opposites bear great potential for conflicts. Ruth completes the women of the Younger family by portraying the transition, but she has a stronger tendency to Mama’s values at same time.
These changes in conceptualizations of black womanhood can be ascribed to changes in society in the late 1950s and the early 1960s in the US. The differences between Mama and Beneatha can be explained by a shift of ideology. Views and values of black women changed.
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- hansberry raisin younger matriarchy womanism lorraine lena younger beneatha younger ruth younger black womanhood south side chicago civil rights conceptualization civil rights