Oppression and Hope in Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry’s play is a close study of an African-American family and their struggles to fulfill their various dreams in 1950’s America. The story represents the ultimate triumph of hope and action over the oppressive confines and prejudices of society. Sometimes, however, our restrictions are self-imposed and brought on by our own limitations. While the theme is powerful, does Hansberry present a realistic look at the conflict between the privileged class and those oppressed by its rules and expectations? Due to the complex makeup of her characters and the symbolic nature of their beliefs and dreams, the play works well as a showcase for the realistic struggles and societal obstacles in place during this time.
The character of Mama is the main focus of the play, as she works to maintain the safety and happiness of her family while pushing to fulfill the greater dream of owning a house. She is the emotional and symbolic center that holds the family–as well as the story–together through a number of obstacles and personal challenges. Mama realistically portrays the importance of family and the matriarchal aspect of low-income households. Her desires represent the goals of many to live the American dream and build a strong, positive future for their families. Her struggles mirror the monetary challenges the oppressed classes face: While Mama and her deceased husband had worked hard to save money for a down payment on a house, it is only through his death and the resulting insurance money that this dream becomes possible.
Walter’s life shows what can happen when personal struggles get in the way of bigger dreams to know some level of success. He does experience prejudice and oppression from the majority class, but his struggles are more internal. Walter sometimes drinks too much and is less mature emotionally when compared to other members of his family, as seen in his embrace of self-pity and the tendency to blame outside forces for his own shortcomings. He also struggles with the oppression from within his own family; his mother’s reluctance to share the insurance money so that Walter can invest in a liquor store is seen by him as a great injustice. Despite the more leveled-headed example of his wife, Ruth, Walter is forced to address his issues through the course of the play and, as a result, grows into a mature, more focused man.
His sister Beneatha must face unique challenges when compared to other family members: She is a black woman striving for career success and fulfillment. She is also working to gain her own sense of identity and finds a connection to her African roots. Her hair works as a symbol of her desire to push aside the mainstream culture of the majority class and embrace her ancestors’ legacy. Her choice to become a doctor is based on her belief that action is the way to force change in the world; she must face, however, not only the external boundaries of racism, but sexism as well. Hansberry shares a realistic view of this personal struggle and displays the internal conflicts that a person must address before happiness and success are possible.
A Raisin in the Sun realistically presents the struggles of the oppressed class against a privileged majority working to maintain society’s status quo. Hansberry also addresses the personal crutches we sometimes use to justify our own failures. Her main theme focuses on the power of the family structure and the need to stand up to injustice. All these points come together to make a sound representation of American society, not just for the 1950’s; the author’s work gives timeless lessons regarding standing up to prejudice, class and economic oppression.