The American Dream of the mid-Twentieth Century gave Americans the opportunity for self-improvement and a higher social status through religious freedom and political and economic independence. This idea was composed of numerous beliefs and social values that also shaped the characters in the drama A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. These proved to have both negative and positive outcomes. Three of the most influential goals of American society in the drama were racial inequality, increased need for individuality, and growing interest in the economy.
Racial inequality and segregation were a negative part of American society tor a lengthy period of time and placed numerous restrictions on the black population, especially before the Civil Rights Movement. Despite Amendments to the Constitution concerning African Americans, white citizens viewed themselves superior to colored people. They believed their only purpose was to work like animals and that black Americans were not intelligent enough to obtain an education. This belief placed blacks very low on the social ladder and prevented them from having access to the rights they deserved as people. After all, one of the main beliefs of life in America was that every man was created equal. Beneatha and Walter Younger are examples of the effect of the “New World” and its views of their race. Beneatha is able to attend a college where she wants to study medicine and become a doctor, despite Walter’s taunts. Her response is that she will “be a doctor and everybody around here better understand that”(Hansberry 50). Aside from the fact that Beneatha is discouraged by even her family, her perseverance is the result of a society that refuses to allow her race to take on such a complex, high-ranking title. As a character, Beneatha is headstrong and not afraid to say exactly what she thinks.
This shows how she will stand up to what other people think to prove herself an accomplished, hardworking American like everybody else. Walter, on the other hand, struggles with a more economic social barrier. He is enthusiastic about starting an investment in a liquor store because, in his opinion, “colored people ain’t never going to start getting ahead till they start gambling on some different kinds of things in the world” (Hansberry 42). Walter fully recognizes the resentment people around him have because of his ethnicity, but here he stands firm in his belief that life will go on this way unless somebody starts making a change for the better He later tells his son Travis that once his business is finished they will have enough money to do almost anything and reach the ideal future they have always wanted. Both Walter and Beneatha’s dreams are spurred on by the rejection American society thrusts at them because of the racial inequality of those times.
Assimilationism is often referred to in the story because of black Americans abandoning their personal identity to merge into an American society that refused to tolerate their culture. Beneatha does not agree with this practice and chooses to develop her individuality as she learns about the heritage her people are giving up. Joseph Asagai, a friend from Nigeria, brings Beneatha authentic Nigerian robes and a headdress. Her family considers the outfit ridiculous, but Beneatha boldly exclaims, “You are looking at what a well-dressed Nigerian woman wears .., Isn’t it beautiful? [..] Enough of this assimilationist junk! […] OcOMOGOSIAY” (Hansberry 76). Beneatha shows admiration for the apparel by showing it off and marveling at its beauty and the Nigerian expression she yells out supports her pride. She is almost bragging about the things she knows of her culture and emphasizing the fact that nobody else can understand the meaning behind it. This ultimately makes Beneatha feel like a true individual with a unique personality that no one can take from her. Despite her strong character Beneatha must face another person who has given in to assimilationism, George Murchinson. He does not approve of her fascination and accuses her of trying to be eccentric, then insults the African tribes.
Beneatha becomes furious and retorts, “See there… you are standing there in your splendid ignorance talking about people who were the first to smelt iron on the face of the earth!” (81). At the same time that Beneatha is telling George he is ignorant, she throws in a fact just to show that she knows more than he does on the subject, almost to try to put him to shame. She is also proving that she will not let anyone get away with rude remarks about something they have never studied or cared for. Mrs. Johnson, a woman living in the Younger’s apartment building, is another individual that considers it more sensible to accept the dominant culture’s expectations. In her opinion Beneatha’s education shows how stuck-up she is and wastes the time she could spend working at home like other black women. Beneatha ignores this accusation and continues in her efforts to become her own person. Beneatha defends herself against numerous attacks by assimilationists and displays her knowledge and understanding of African culture, making herself a positive consequence of America and its beliefs.
The typical American man’s main concern in the fifties was to work and earn money to care for his family due to the growing importance of the economy. This catches Walter Lee’s attention and he soon becomes absorbed in the country’s monetary interests. That goal was obviously challenged by discrimination of Walter’s race, but he believed “don’t nothing happen for you in this world ‘less you pay somebody off!” (Hansberry 33). Walter follows the give-and- take system where someone works to do something for another and is rewarded, in this case, with something of monetary value. He doesn’t care that people will try to stop him; he just wants the satisfaction of proving himself useful and gaining something valuable from his efforts. However, there is also a negative side to his ambition for business. Walter’s mother, Lena, uses some of the insurance money from her deceased husband’s work to buy a house and make her family happy. Instead of being grateful, Walter is bitter about the money being used for something other than his intentions and says, “It was your money and you did what you wanted with it. […] So you butchered up a dream of mine– you – who was always talking ’bout your children’s dreams…” (Hansberry 95).
Not only is Walter possibly offending his mother, but he is letting money take over his life and the things that make those close to him happy. He is also suggesting that nobody cares about what he wants and the only way to raise himself up socially and economically is to do everything himself. If Walter hadn’t been forced to be self-reliant he would not have made such a big deal of starting a business because of the wider range of occupations that would have been available. Again, the result of America’s society tries to place itself in the way of his success. This obsession is always the first thing that shows when Walter talks. As s0on as he comes home from wherever he has been he starts telling his family about his plans and how wonderful it will be to have more money and feel like he’s worth something. These feelings are understandable, but Lena complains that he does not even stop to greet his family before going into his usual discussions. The chance Walter had to feel equal to the white businessmen went straight to his head and overwhelmed his mind with the goal to achieve what he had been dreaming of for so long. While American strengthened Beneatha Younger’s independence, it almost tore her and Walter’s family apart and made him think the world revolved around business and money.
A Raisin in the Sun positively and negatively portrays some of the effects American society had on black Americans during the 1950s, especially through Beneatha and Walter Younger. Both are examples of “what the New World hath finally wrought” as they confront numerous beliefs including racism, discovering identity, and the ways of the economic world.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.