The Struggle Against Racism in Housing as Revealed in A Raisin in the Sun
by Mollie Mandell
Despite many constitutional amendments enacted after the end of the Civil War, African-Americans were still denied many civil rights one hundred years later, which affected all aspects of their lives. Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, used her family’s experience with discrimination as inspiration for the Younger family in order to shine a light on the specific racism that resulted from the residential segregation that dominated Chicago’s housing industry post WWII. The playwright depicts the Youngers’ substandard living conditions, the boundaries placed on their housing choices, and Lindner’s pretense of community outreach, as emanating from the racially restrictive housing covenants that existed at that point in history. And, Hansberry ultimately portrays how this racism follows the Younger family even as they pursue a better life outside the ghetto.
Hansberry effectively establishes that the Youngers are unhappy and disappointed, living in an overcrowded ghetto apartment in a black neighborhood. And, that they have not fulfilled their dream of the comfortable life they feel they have earned. The play opens with a graphic description of the family’s apartment and its mediocre furniture whose “primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years” (Hansberry 977). Not only is the furniture overused and “tired,” but the carpet is “worn” and is “showing its weariness” (Hansberry 977). In addition to the depressing physical state of the apartment is the fact that it must be shared by three generations, forcing Travis to sleep on the couch, Lena and Beneatha to share a room and the whole family to use a common hall bathroom. Added to this are the unsanitary conditions as evidenced by Beneatha spraying insecticide and Travis playing outside with rats. Gordon describes the environment in her article, “Somewhat like War,” “Hansberry uses the bloody demise of a [rat]…. to establish a pervasive reality of ghetto life early in the play. Where there is little or no municipal sanitation service or landlord upkeep, rats and roaches thrive” (Gordon 127). This lack of sanitation on behalf of landlords adds to the decreased quality of life experienced in the ghetto. As Gordon further explains about the play’s setting, “[l]ocating the Younger family in Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry directly engages crises produced by ghetto economies and dehumanizing living conditions, restricted educational access, and explosive encounters along urban color lines” (Gordon 123). Not only is their present environment hampered by the poor conditions, but their future is as well–-life in the ghetto impacts generations to come due to the lack of good school districts. It is this segregated and inferior lifestyle that is the root of friction between those who have no choice but to live in the ghetto and those who have the freedom to move out.
Lena hopes the insurance check will lift them out of this ghetto. She reveals her dream saying, “Been thinking that we maybe could meet the notes on a little old two-story somewhere with a yard where Travis could play in the summertime, if we use part of the insurance for a down payment” (Hansberry 989). She knows the move will lead to a better life for all of them, especially her grandson. She further laments on her mediocre lifestyle saying that, “We hadn’t planned on living here more than a year...You should know all the dreams I had ‘bout buying that house and fixing it up and making me a little garden in the back – and didn’t none of it happen” (Hansberry 990). Lena reflects on her dream that was never realized and is disappointed by this. Hansberry effectively establishes that the Youngers are unhappy living in their ghetto apartment, in a neighborhood whose boundaries are drawn along color lines, and that they have been unable to fulfill their dream of homeownership.
Hansberry illustrates that the Youngers’ substandard living conditions are not just due to economic disparity, but are directly the result of Chicago’s clearly defined racially restrictive housing covenants that originated from Jim Crow Laws. In the play, Walter indicates this segregation when he woefully tells Lena, “Mama – sometimes when I’m downtown and I pass them cool, quiet-looking restaurants where them white boys are sitting back and talking ‘bout things…. Sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars” (Hansberry 1007). His feelings of exclusion are not unfounded but are based on specific laws that bar his entry to white society. Tripp explains these laws in the biography, The Importance of Lorraine Hansberry:
Since the days of slavery, the custom had been to keep the races separated. The Jim Crow laws written in the early 1900’s legalized this separation and enforced an inferior status for blacks… In the early 1930’s and 1940’s state laws strengthened segregation. Fair housing legislation did not exist. Whites plotted to keep blacks segregated by refusing to sell or rent homes in certain neighborhoods to blacks. (Tripp 19-20)
This discrimination of Blacks bled into all facets of life: restaurants, transportation, workplace and housing.
Lena returns to announce her purchase of a house with the insurance money, and the family immediately challenges her choice of neighborhood. When Ruth asks Lena “Clybourne Park? Mama, they ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park,” she confirms she is aware of the laws that were created to specifically keep blacks and whites separated (Hansberry 1018). Unfortunately, white real estate owners took advantage of black families who wanted to purchase a home—the cost of living in the ghetto was much higher than renting or buying outside Chicago’s “Black Belt” (the term used for the city’s South Side) (Gordon 124). Lena experienced this first hand as evidenced when she answers Ruth: “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…I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family,” knowing her money is better spent outside the ghetto (Hansberry 1018). Hansberry effectively illustrates how a history of prejudice led to racially restrictive housing covenants, which effectively precluded black families from living in designated whites-only neighborhoods in Chicago, and kept them in the ghetto.
Hansberry establishes that Lena’s purchase of a home in this white neighborhood is a bold stance against prejudice. This mirrors Hansberry’s father’s quest for equality and justice as exemplified by his State and Supreme Court cases, which challenged Chicago’s racially restrictive housing covenants. In the play, Lena tells Travis, “She [Lena] went out and she bought you a house… It’s going to be yours when you get to be a man … It’s just a plain little old house – but it’s made good and solid—and it will be ours… it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him” (Hansberry 1017-1018). Lena clearly puts her dreams for future generations above any fears she may have of moving to Clybourne Park. The “man” refers not only to her grandson Travis, but her son, Walter, because she knows that home ownership functions not only as an investment, but also as a source of much needed pride for her troubled son.
According to Hansberry in her autobiography, Young, Gifted & Black, like Lena, her father also took a stand against racism: “My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the ‘American way’ could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus…he spent a small personal fortune… and many years of his life fighting …Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettoes” (Nemiroff 51). Carl Hansberry felt his family had every right, no matter their color, to pursue the “American way” and utilized the court system to fight for this dream. Tripp illuminates the link between the play and the case: “When Lorraine was eight years old her father decided he would test the Jim Crow laws and the concept of restrictive covenants by buying a home in an area restricted to whites by law…Carl lost the case in state court…but appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C…. Finally, in 1940, the Supreme Court reversed the state’s decision in the case known as Hansberry vs. Lee. It became one of the central ideas of her first play” (Tripp 20-21). Hansberry infuses Lena with these qualities of courage and fortitude. And, Lena also challenges her family to follow her lead. When Ruth states that there are no black people in Clybourne Park, Lena answers without any hesitation, “Well, I guess there’s going to be some now,” making it clear she has no intention of backing down (Hansberry 1023). Hansberry effectively establishes the connection between Lena’s challenge of her housing situation and Carl Hansberry’s quest for justice and that both are courageous and unprecedented acts.
Hansberry reveals that Lindner represents the type of racism that originates not just from these government laws, but also on behalf of average individuals who camouflage their bigotry in seemingly calm and eloquent language. Lindner’s prejudice is revealed when he coolly tells the family,
A man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way. And, at the moment, the overwhelming majority of our people out there feel that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community, when they share a common background. I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t even enter into it … our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities. (Hansberry 1033)
Here, Linder clearly defines his right to live wherever and however he wants, but contrary to what he states, he uses prejudice to deny the Younger family this same right because of their race. The term “common background” is merely a euphemism for skin color. He then completely shifts the blame away from the whites to the “Negro families” for wanting to live on their own where they are “happier,” but it is obvious that it is the whites that are happier with this arrangement. Hansberry, clarifying Lindner’s persona explains, “I have treated Mr. Lindner as a human being merely because he is one; that does not make the meaning of his call less malignant, less sick. I could no more imagine myself allowing the Youngers to accept his obscene offer of money than I could imagine myself allowing them to accept a cash payment for their own murder” (Nemiroff 131-132). Lindner’s offer is disparaging and patronizing to the Youngers, despite his own belief that it is equitable. These acts on behalf of individuals can be just as harmful if not more than the acts of government, because they are more personal and calculated and therefore more offensive.
Linder is completely blind to this bigotry. When he tells Walter, who refuses the buyout of the house, “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son,” he misses the remark’s double meaning (Hansberry 1035). While speaking to Walter’s stubbornness, Lindner is also showing his own narrow-mindedness. Gordon argues that Hansberry employs Mr. Lindner “to demonstrate the seemingly benign ways that northern whites deny racial discrimination, romanticize their own paternalism, and repudiate black self-determination” (Gordon 129). Lindner clearly disavows his own intolerance, elevates himself to a position above the Youngers merely because he is white, and refuses to accept the Younger’s equality. Hansberry illustrates how racism, sanctioned by state laws, leads to increased racism on behalf of the individual.
Hansberry establishes that the Youngers’ decision to move to Clybourne Park does not mean they have overcome this racism, but the threats will follow them, similar to the violence that followed the Hansberry family when they moved into a white neighborhood. In the play, Mrs. Johnson updates the Youngers on current events: “You mean you ain’t read ‘bout them colored people that was bombed out their place out there? Ain’t it something how bad these here white folks is getting here in Chicago! Lord, getting so you think you are right down in Mississippi!” and points to the paper, reading aloud: “Negroes Invade Clybourne Park –Bombed!” (Hansberry 1022-1023). Most Blacks left the South to escape its brutal realities, only to move to northern states and encounter the same type of treatment. Lena counters the neighbor’s dim view saying, “We done thought about all that Mis’ Johnson,” and demonstrates that she knows fully what her family will be up against (Hansberry 1018).
The aggression the Youngers will face has roots in Hansberry’s own life. In an interview in the New Yorker, Hansberry remembers her childhood in a white neighborhood and tells the reporter, “[My mother] sat in that house for eight months with us – while Daddy spent most of his time in Washington fighting his case – in what was a very hostile neighborhood…a mob gathered. We went inside, and while we were in our living room, a brick came crashing through the window with such force it embedded itself in the opposite wall. I was the one the brick almost hit” (White 34). This experience although horrific, did not sway the Hansberrys to move and became a theme in the play.
It becomes very clear that the Youngers also have every intention to stand their ground and move to the white neighborhood. Upon hearing this, Lindner not so subtly threatens: “What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted and where some elements – well – people can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve worked for is threatened?” (Hansberry 1033). Lindner, although previously relying on more soft-spoken tactics, reverts to using more threatening speech. He is incredulous that the Youngers do not see eye-to-eye with him, and his last words, “I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into,” forebodes the neighborhood’s plans for retaliation (Hansberry 1051). Hansberry effectively establishes that the Youngers’ fight for equality and peace of mind will continue on in their new place of residence despite the expressions of happiness they show at the prospect of leaving the ghetto.
Hansberry utilized her play, A Raisin in the Sun, as a vehicle to expose the unfairness of racially restrictive housing covenants in Post WWII Chicago. These laws were created by the government and condoned by individual Americans. Through the actions and experiences of the Younger family, Hansberry expressed her own pain of moving to an unwelcoming white neighborhood. She personified the Youngers with the same purpose exhibited by her father—to pursue a dream of homeownership, and to live and thrive despite the hostile environment. Both the Younger family and the Hansberry family made a commitment to overcome racial prejudice in order to secure freedoms for future generations. Unfortunately, resistance from the white community was very slow to change.
Gordon, Michelle. “Somewhat like War: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black
Liberation and ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’” African American Review. Spring 2008: 121-133. Jstor. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Eds.
Janet Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl, & Peter Schakel. Boston: MA, 2012. 976-1052. Print.
Nemiroff, Robert. To Be Young Gifted and Black: An informal Autobiography of Lorraine
Hansberry. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. Print.
Tripp, Janet. The Importance of Lorraine Hansberry. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.
White, E.B. “Talk of the Town.” New Yorker, 9 May 1959. Web. 26 Nov. 2012
 According to Gordon, Hansberry in responding to a critic’s misinterpretation of the play’s ending as a happy one, “once huffed in an interview, ‘If he thinks that’s a happy ending, I invite him to come live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going’…The Youngers are fully aware that their breech of Chicago’s color line will trigger hostility and likely terrorism” (Gordon 130).