A Raisin in the Sun

  • Trudier Harris


I begin my detailed commentary on literary portraits of strong black female characters with Lorraine Hansberry’s Mama Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1959) because of the pivotal position that play holds in the development of African American drama. Hansberry scholar Steven R. Carter, for example, lists it “among the finest dramas of this century” and names it “the cornerstone of the black theater movement.”2 Critics and cultural historians tout the play as the moment in the development of the literature when the black female character received its most realistic portrait. Perhaps that could be modified to read when the black working-class female character received its most realistic portrait. Audiences identified with Mama Lena and her family because they recognized themselves in her or in members of her household. Her family’s struggles to improve its lot in a racist society coincided with similar struggles of segments of the audiences viewing the play. Domestic workers were familiar to those black viewing audiences, as were chauffeurs. And Beneatha’s first-generation college positioning in the play placed her in the company of many young black people in the 1950s whose family hopes rested on their potential educational successes. Perhaps James Baldwin put it most vividly when, after viewing the play with Hansberry in a pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia, he commented on it as well as on what happened afterward:

What is relevant here is that I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.


Black Woman Black People Moral Imperative Racist Society Moral Strength 
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  1. 3.
    James Baldwin, “Introduction,” in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, ed. Robert Nemiroff (New York: Signet, 1969), pp. xii–xiii.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Ossie Davis, “The Significance of Lorraine Hansberry,” Freedomways 5:3 (1965): 399, 400.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Quoted in Steven R. Carter, Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 52–53.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Doris E. Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre 1925–1959 (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 254. Less generous in his assessment of characters and play is Harold Cruse, who dubbed Raisin a “glorified soap opera” in which Hansberry forcibly ascribes middle-class values to a lower-working-class family to make them acceptable as integrationists. See The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: Morrow, 1967), pp. 267–284.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Signet, 1966), p. 27, my emphasis. Notice that, although Hansberry emphasizes Mama Lena’s beauty as much as she does her strength (in the sentences quoted and those immediately following), Mama Lena’s beauty is never a factor in the play, while her physical and moral strength undergird most of the action.Google Scholar
  6. 22.
    In Raymond Andrews’ Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), the title character earns the appellation “the Momma” because of a comparable ability to meddle in everybody’s business even as she cares for and nurtures them.Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    Particularly informative in this context are Sidney Poitier’s comments on his discussions with Hansberry and Lloyd Richards about how the Walter Lee character should be played. Claudia McNeil was so strong as Mama, Poitier asserted, that unless the Walter Lee character were allowed to play directly against her, the play ran the risk of making “a negative comment on the black male”—presumably because he would appear weak. Poitier argued—and lost—that the play should unfold from Walter Lee’s point of view, not Mamas. See Poitier, This Life (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1980), Chapter 17, “A Raisin in the Sun.”Google Scholar

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© Trudier Harris 2001

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  • Trudier Harris

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