Closer Readings Commentary

Analyzing the American Dream for Common Core: "A Raisin in the Sun"

Never before had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen onstage.—James Baldwin

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959, was as much a milestone in the nation’s social history as it was in American theater. The first play written by a black woman to debut on Broadway, it was also the first Broadway play directed by a black man, Lloyd Richards. Centering upon the aspirations of a working-class African American family in one of Chicago’s south side neighborhoods as they try to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate, it is a play about the American Dream, about the ambition to better one’s own life and that of one’s children.

For all of these reasons, and more, the Common Core English Language Arts lists A Raisin in the Sun as an exemplary text for Grade 11, illustrating Range, Quality, and Complexity.

What Are the Resources?

EDSITEment has put together a rich array of resources for this work centered on the EDSITEment lesson, A Raisin in the Sun: The Quest for the American Dream, to help teachers of ELA as well as Social Studies navigate the literary qualities and historical context of the play in American life at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

For a quick overview and an easy way to send these assets to your colleagues, go to EDSITEment’s Prezi on Raisin to learn how this lesson meets the demands of the Common Core. The activities and assessments are broken down in detail. Teachers will find instructions, primary sources, and resources to help students chart their learning.

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

Digging Deeper: How to Navigate A Raisin in the Sun

It all begins with a question. Ask your students to define the meaning of the American Dream, its magnetic power to attract people around the world, and the obstacles that American society might put in the way of its fulfillment. Let them read and analyze a letter Hansberry wrote about how the play originated in her family’s painful experiences in Chicago in the thirties. Then let students explore the significance of the play’s title through an analysis of Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem “Harlem.” They will discover that the title of Hansberry’s play stems from the poem. In a brief 11 lines, the poet represents several different manifestations of the anger and frustration of the members of the community faced when confronted by the indifference, neglect, and cruelty of the larger society:

What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

To dig deeper into the all-important historical background of Raisin, teachers can supplement their close reading and analysis of the play with the contextualizing primary source documents that explain the system of racial segregation called Jim Crow within which the action of the play takes place. Using informational texts such as “The Black Laws” by B.W. Arnett and “Saving the Race” by Thurgood Marshall, students will begin to comprehend the severe legal, political, and cultural constraints and oppression under which Hansberry’ characters pursued their differing understandings of the American Dream.

After teaching the lesson, you can also use the variety of worksheets included with these activities to assess students’ ability to perform a close reading of the play as they practice analyses of character, dramatic elements, plot, and symbols.

As a roundup exercise, have students listen to a 24-minute contemporary interview with Ms. Hansberry, discovered in the WNYC Radio Archive, in which she discusses the meaning of the play and her broader artistic philosophy. Do they think her ideas are still relevant over a half-century later?