An Analysis of Race Housing Issues Examined in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun
by Susan Houston
Lorraine Hansberry sets A Raisin in the Sun in Chicago’s Southside during a volatile period of race housing and segregated neighborhoods to illustrate a form of discrimination that many African Americans endured in the United States. According to the stage direction, “The action of the play is set in Chicago’s Southside, sometime between World War II and the present” (Hansberry 977). Chicago and this time period: 1945-1959 marks a place and time in US history when African Americans faced discrimination as tenants in housing projects, renters in apartments complexes, as well as owners in real estate. In As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door, Stephen Grant Meyer points out: “The decade from 1949 to 1959 marked the era of the most significant upheaval in race housing. …demographic, economic, legal, social, and intellectual forces merged to create a volatility not seen since the truce of the 1920s” (115). In the play, Hansberry not only exposes the gut-wrenching ugliness of racial discrimination that African Americans encountered in housing, but through the portrayal of the Younger family’s own struggle and ultimate victory with moving house, Hansberry mirrors the African Americans’ fight and resolve to overcome the race barrier for better housing.
Hansberry depicts in the Youngers’ living situation, an urban African American family in desperate need of better housing with the desire to better their condition. The Youngers’ five family members occupy a small two-bedroom apartment that shares a hall bathroom with neighbors. It is a crowded apartment. As Mama discusses with Ruth the possibility of buying “an old two story,” Ruth points out “…we’ve put enough rent into this here rat trap to pay for four houses by now….”(989). Ruth’s description of the Youngers’ apartment as a “rat trap” as well as noting the decades of paying rent for the same apartment suggests the desire of the Youngers to live in something better than a “rat trap,” and the dream of owning of a house. However, after Mama buys a house and explains its location: a white neighborhood of Clybourne Park, Ruth politely assures Mama that she is not “’fraid of no crackers” but asks “…wasn’t there no other houses nowhere?” (1018). Ruth’s shock that Mama would buy a house in a white neighborhood and her equally incredulous reaction that Mama could not find a suitable house in an African American neighborhood reveal the dilemma African Americans confronted when they chose to better their living situation. Namely, is it better to stay in their own neighborhood or try for a better living situation in a white neighborhood.
Hansberry uses Mama’s initial decision to buy a house in Clybourne Park to underscore the limited options many African Americans had if they decided to purchase real estate in Chicago. Mama explains to Ruth why she bought a house in a white neighborhood given their limited finances: “Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could” (1018). For African Americans, purchasing a house in a black neighborhood proved to be an expensive proposition. There were more African Americans trying to purchase or rent properties in black neighborhoods then there were houses and apartments available. This shortage of suitable and affordable housing for African Americans existed for decades in Chicago African American community.
Although there were numerous factors that contributed to the African American’s housing crises in large cities across America, there were two factors specific to Chicago’s housing crisis: African Americans migration to its urban centers and Chicago’s restrictive housing covenants. The large migration of southern blacks to Chicago’s urban centers was a major factor that contributed to its housing crisis. Meyer explains that of the “Second Great Migration” [that] continued through out the 1950s,” in industrial centers, “Chicago, by far received the largest influx of new black population” (116). As the population in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods increased, and became overcrowded, the new black residents tried to expand their neighborhood by purchasing and renting property outside of black neighborhoods. However, this expansion was met with resistance by white neighborhood in the form of restrictive housing covenants. These riders attached to leases and properties prohibited African Americans from moving into a building or owning property in a zoned white neighborhood. In “‘Hemmed In’: The Struggle Against Racial Restrictive Covenants and Deed Restrictions in Post-WW II Chicago,” Wendy Plotkin states, “In the mid-1940s, as the housing crisis intensified, the pace of covenant creation and renewal accelerate” (56). In other words, as the African American populations increased in the city, so did housing restrictions against African Americans. The much needed houses and expansions of black neighborhoods were checked with these covenants.
Not a new phenomenon, these covenants were designed to keep African Americans out of Chicago’s white neighborhoods. These decades-old restrictive housing covenants were fought by African Americans for years in the court system. According to Plotkin, “Racial deed restrictions and restrictive covenants first appeared in Chicago in the World War I era” (41). And these covenants were being enforced until the late 1940s. In Hansberry v. Lee, one of the more famous court battle against housing covenants involved Lorraine Hansberry’s father, Carl Hansberry. The benefit of winning a court case against these covenants for the African American community was enormous and the number of houses that might be freed up by a court victory is summed-up in the following headline from the Chicago black newspaper Chicago Defender dated November 23, 1940: “Hansberry Decree Opens 500 New Homes to Race: Strategy Board in Hansberry Restrictive Covenants”(Chicago Defender1-2). What is stunning about the headline is the number of houses a single restrictive covenant had removed from African American access. This Supreme Court decision also stopped the eviction proceedings against Hansberry and his family, from their home in a white neighborhood (Chicago Defender 1-2). Even though enforcement of “racial and/or religious restrictive covenants” was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1948, many Chicago neighborhoods remained segregated (Plotkin 58).
Hansberry makes direct reference to the volatility of the process of integration for African Americans in white neighborhoods with the scene between Mrs. Johnson and Mama. After Mama explains to Mrs. Johnson that she had not read the local black newspaper for the week, Mrs. Johnson reports ‘‘You mean you ain’t read ‘bout them colored people that was bombed out their place out there?” (1022). Mrs. Johnson mentions this news story about Clybourne Park numerous times in the scene, so much so, that Mama exclaims “We ain’t exactly moving out there to get bombed” (1023). Although it might seem that Mrs. Johnson is being an alarmist, the threat of violence and harassment was a real possibility. In fact, as Meyer reports there were numerous accounts of threats, harassment and mob violence, against African Americans for moving into a Chicago white neighborhood and specifically in the areas bordering the Southside (Meyer 117, 118,120-121). That the Younger family and Mama are well aware of the dangers of moving into a segregated neighborhood and disregard the intimidation tactics of segregationist speaks of their courage. Fortunately, there were many African Americans that kept fighting for inclusion and integration in white neighborhoods even though exclusion tactics went beyond the threat of violence and harassment from neighbors.
According to Meyer, “Whites employed a series of tactics to exclude blacks from their neighborhoods. They ranged from buy-out schemes by improvement organizations to denial of mortgage of funds by lending institutions” (126). Hansberry illustrates with Mr. Linder, the representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association one of the “buy-out schemes” the seemingly polite form of housing discrimination: a business transaction to remove or keep out African Americans from the neighborhood. After Mr. Linder tells Walter, Ruth, and Beneatha that his association “the people of Cybourne” Park believe “that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities,” Linder explains why he came to the Youngers’ apartment: “Our association is prepared, through the collective effort of our people, to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family” (1033). Even though Walter firmly tells Linder that “we don’t want to hear no exact terms of no arrangement,” the animosity toward the African American family and the insidious attempt of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to keep the Younger family out of the white neighborhood is made clear (1033). The Younger family is not wanted in Clybourne Park because they are black. Lender’s offer is an example of pure prejudice, and it is not made less ugly when disguised as a business arrangement.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry exposes some of the obstacles that an African Americans living in Chicago might need to overcome, if they chose to move into a white neighborhood during the 1940s and 1950s. These obstacles include: the lack of affordable housing, and the various tactics such as, intimidation and harassment from segregationist or hurtful proposals from neighborhood improvement associations. Hansberry creates in the Younger family believable characters that are truly courageous in their move for a better life. In other words, the play is not just about an American family facing a crisis that leads them to the decision to move out of the old neighborhood, but an African American family in the midst of family crisis that makes the courageous choice to move to a white neighborhood at a time when they would not be welcome.
Grant, Stephen Meyer, As long as They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial
Conflict in America Neighborhoods. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 2000. Print.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Eds.
Gardner, E. Janet et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 976-1052. Print.
Plotkin, Wendy “Hemmed In: The Struggle against Racial Restrictive Covenants
and Deed Restrictions in Post World War II Chicago.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94:1 (2001): 39-69. Web. 23 Nov. 2012.
Water, Enoc P. Jr. “Hansberry Decree Opens 500 New Homes To Race: Strategy
Board in Hansberry Restrictive Covenant Case.” The Chicago Defender. 23 Nov. 1940: n.p ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 27 Nov 2012.