Questing after the American Dream: “A Raisin in the Sun”

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Photo of a scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun 1959
Photo of a scene from the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” 1959, at the Barrymore Theatre. Photographer: Friedman-Abeles, New York.

“Seems like God don't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.” A Raisin in the Sun  

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City on March 11, 1959. This premiere marked a milestone in the American theater and in our nation’s social history for it was the first play written by a black woman to debut on the Broadway stage. Later that year, Lorraine Hansberry would become the youngest female and first black woman honored with the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for “Best American Play.”

Centering upon the aspirations of an African American 1950s working-class family in Chicago as they try to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate, A Raisin in the Sun can be seen as an illustration of the quest for the elusive American Dream.

In so far as A Raisin in the Sun dramatizes the universal ambition to better one’s own life and that of one’s children, some believe the work transcends race, nationality, and location; Hansberry, however, would not agree. She did not construct the action of the play to represent the everyman. Hansberry was very clear that she wrote Raisin to speak specifically to the African American experience in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago at this pivotal point in time. As she clarified to radio-show host Studs Terkel: “I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that, in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific” (WFMT Radio, Chicago, Illinois, broadcast May 12, 1959).  

Teachers may access Studs Terkel’s fascinating conversation with Hansberry, a firsthand account of her intentions behind writing A Raisin in the Sun, as she articulates her broader artistic philosophy in “Make New Sounds: Studs Terkel Interviews Lorraine Hansberry.” After listening to the interview, ask students if they think Hansberry’s ideas are still relevant to American life over a half-century later?

Teaching A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun is widely taught in upper-level American literature and AP English literature classes, and it appears on the list of Common Core State Standards Grades 11–CCR text exemplars for Drama. (See Appendix B.)

EDSITEment lesson plan A Raisin in the Sun; The Quest for the American Dream assists literature teachers in raising two essential questions with students as they navigate the literary qualities and historical context of this classic drama set at the dawn of the civil rights movement:

  • How does the play A Raisin in the Sun mirror the social, educational, political, and economic climate of the 1950s?
  • How does the play illustrate the impact this climate had on African Americans’ quest for “The American Dream”?

By directly engaging your students with one or more of the six student activities in this lesson, they will be on their way to developing the range of interpretive skills required for Career and College Readiness.

Activity 1 opens with a question for students: What is the American Dream? Have them describe its magnetic power to attract people around the world, and the obstacles that American society might put in the way of its fulfillment for different groups. Then have students move on to Activity 2 to understand the playwright by analyzing sections of To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, adapted by Robert Nemiroff (1969), including a letter Hansberry wrote about how the play was partly autobiographical. They can trace how Raisin was inspired by her family’s own painful experiences fighting to reside in a white neighborhood in Chicago in the 1930s.

Next, explore the significance of Hansberry’s title drawn from Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem “Harlem”. Activity 3 guides students in an analysis of the poem to see how the poet packs into 11 potent lines some possible responses—frustration, anger, resignation—a minority community exhibits when treated with indifference, neglect, and cruelty at the hands of its wider society. Hughes asks us to consider: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Then dig even deeper through Activities 4 and 5 into the historical background of Raisin through a study of primary source documents dealing with the system of racial segregation known as “Jim Crow”. Students can read a variety of informational texts such as “The Black Laws” by B. W. Arnett and “Saving the Race” by Thurgood Marshall, which illustrate the severe legal, political, and cultural oppression under which Hansberry’s characters pursued their different interpretations of the American Dream.

Aligns with the following Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem evaluating how each version interprets the source text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Additional resources  

Chicago Public Library: A Raisin in the Sun

Voices & Visions: Spotlight on Langston Hughes

(Note: NEH has funded a comprehensive WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive currently being assembled into a new website to be released in 2017.)

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