Harlem street scene in the 1950s
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory
People of all backgrounds live in America and come to America dreaming of social, educational, economical opportunities as well as political and religious freedoms. Consequently, the notion of "The American Dream" has appeal and meaning to most of your students. Ask them to define "The American Dream" and you will probably become engaged in a lively discussion.
Read the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry with your students and you can enhance your discussion of "The American Dream" even while you and your students explore how the social, educational, economical and political climate of the 1950s affected African Americans' quest for "The American Dream."
In this lesson, the critical reading and analysis of the play is complemented with a close examination of biographical and historical documents that students use as the basis for creating speeches, essays and scripts.
This lesson can be taught as part of a unit on American Literature and the Civil Rights Movement. It works especially well as an introduction to the EDSITEment lessons "Let Freedom Ring: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King," "Dr. King's Dream," and "Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement."
How does the play A Raisin in the Sun mirror the social, educational, political, and economical climate of the 1950s and how does the play illustrate the impact this climate had on African Americans' quest for "The American Dream?"
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Review the following websites which will be used to provide contextual background to the African American experience depicted in the play:
Read the excerpts of To Be Young Gifted and Black, the autobiographical work by Lorraine Hansberry, and make copies of the chapter titled "To Be Young Gifted and Black"(about 6 pages) to distribute to the class.
Download and review the following items:
Each of the following documents are located on the same page of African American Odyssey:The Civil Rights Era from American Memory Collection
Worksheets for this lesson (downloadable as PDFs)
Teachers may access this radio interview with iconic radio host Studs Terkel engaging in a fascinating conversation with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In it, she offers a firsthand account of her intentions behind writing A Raisin in the Sun, as she articulates her broader artistic philosophy. “Make New Sounds: Studs Terkel Interviews Lorraine Hansberry.” (WFMT Radio, Chicago, Illinois, broadcast May 12, 1959)
Lead students in a succession of questions that engages them in a discussion about the concept of "The American Dream." Record students' responses on a board or on large display paper and categorize them according to social, educational, economical, political and religious reasons. If there are students from other countries in the class, allow them to discuss their stories of immigration if they choose. Ask students:
Have students write out their definition of "The American Dream". Allow students to read their definitions aloud and elaborate on them as they see fit.
Tell students that they will examine various documents and read and analyze the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry to understand how the quest for "The American Dream" affected African Americans during the 1950’s.
Remind students that writers do not write in a vacuum, but that much of their creativity has its roots in personal experiences. Lorraine Hansberry is no exception. The daughter of Carl and Nannie Hansberry, Lorraine grew up in a successful black family where both of her parents were political activists campaigning against Jim Crow laws.
Discuss students' responses and add any other details that you deem important based on your reading of To Be Young Gifted and Black.
Tell students that the title Hansberry selected for A Raisin in the Sun is drawn from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, "Harlem," found within a longer poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred published in 1951. In "Harlem" Hughes asks readers to consider: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
In this activity students will begin 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.
Begin by viewing the first several minutes of this documentary found within the Spotlight on Voices and Visions entry: Langston Hughes which includes a reading of the poem 3:30 minutes into the video. (You can also have student view this video clip on Yale University's exhibition: "Langston Hughes at 100" scroll down to the thrid entry "Langston Hughes reading "Harlem.")
After listening to the poem, have students think about why might have chosen this poem as a title for Raisin as they read the poem silently to themselves , (The text of "Harlem" by Langston Hughes can be found by scrolling down this Library of Congress transcript of "Langston Hughes and His Poetry" till you see these words: "From the "Lenox Avenue Mural" section, to find the poem called "Harlem")
Place the definition of the following vocabulary words from the poem on the board or on large display paper: defer, fester.
Ask students to think about what central question does the poem ask?
Tell students that rather than present his audience with the answer to the poem's central question, Hughes develops the poem using a series of questions.
Use the Figurative Language Chart (available here as a downloadable PDF) to analyze the similes and metaphors in the poem. Then have students discuss their responses to the Figurative Language Chart.
Explain to students that although the poem is phrased as a list of questions, Hughes is making a statement. Ask students:
To better understand this message about dreams deferred, have students work in groups analyzing another one of this poet's signature poems, "Let America Be America Again," by Langston Hughes available from The Academy of American Poets. Have each group respond to one or two of the following questions:
Complete the activity by asking the class the following questions:
Begin the lesson by asking students how Hughes' poems "Harlem" and Let America Be America Again, implicitly reveal the role that segregation and racism played in preventing African Americans from attaining the American Dream.
Tell students that Jim Crow is the race based legislation that epitomized the era of segregation in America.
Engage students in a discussion based on their responses to the photo analysis worksheet and the questions.
To further enhance students understanding of Jim Crow law as a race-based legislation, have students conduct internet research in groups on one of the following documents:
Each of the following documents are located on the same page at American Memory Collection: African American Odyssey/Civil Rights Era:
Direct each group to complete the Written Document Analysis Worksheet and answer the following questions:
Allow each group to present their findings to the entire class.
Begin this lesson by introducing students to background information on Brown v. Board of Education. Tell students that the legal battle known as Brown V. Board of Education represented many years of social and legal battles against institutionalized racism in America. This is an ideal lesson for using an overhead projector.
Download and give students a copy of "Dissenting Opinion of Judge Waites Waring in Harry Briggs, Jr. et al. V. R.W. Elliot, Chairman et. al." Ask students to read pages 8, 9, and 10 and respond to the following questions:
Tell students that as a consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, nine students from Little Rock Arkansas were chosen to integrate Little Rock High School.
Give students a copy of the Daisy Bates and Little Rock Nine Letter and complete the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Engage students in a discussion about their responses to the document analysis worksheet. Ask students "How does this letter illustrate African Americans' quest for the American Dream?"
Tell the students to take the position of a student attending Little Rock Central High School at the time that the Little Rock Nine are scheduled to integrate the school. Write a speech speaking out against the opposition facing the Little Rock Nine. In your speech seek to convince the adults in your school and community to accept the Little Rock Nine.
Have students read their speeches aloud.
Given what we have learned about Hansberry, Jim Crow, and the African American Experience between 1850 and 1954, why do you think Hansberry chose to use a play to illustrate African Americans' quest for the American Dream?
At this point the teacher might want to distribute “Dramatic Elements” (downloadable as a PDF) to the students.
Engage students in a dramatic reading of the play by assigning parts to each student. Be sure to rotate so that all students have a chance to read a part.
At the end of each Act, have students work in groups of four analyzing the play using the following focus questions and activities:
Characterization. Use the “Character Analysis” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to record important information about each member of the Younger family.
Plot/Conflict. Use the “Plot Outline” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to map the dramatic structure of the central conflict.
Symbolism. Use the “Analyzing Symbols Chart” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to analyze the symbolic elements below.
Have students present their answers to the above activities. Summarize the unit by having students engage in a class discussion in which they answer the unit's guiding questions:
Have students demonstrate their understanding of the play's themes by responding to one of the following writing tasks:
1–2 class periods