The article is written in the light of critical whiteness studies and the critical discourse regarding the political implications of literary works. It deals with Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, which I position within the context of black American radical theatre. In particular, the article will show how Hansberry’s theatrical rhetoric challenges the public dynamics of racial separation and performs an ongoing role in destabilising the assumptions about the legitimacy of the reproduction of colonial differences.
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The Harlem Renaissance or The New Negro Movement, as it was called then, spanned from about 1918 till the mid-1930s.
The speech was delivered at the First Conference of Negro Writers, held ten days before the first staging of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGMIcMsqTec.
The term “subaltern” was first used by Antonio Gramsci in his The prison notebooks. According to Walter Mignolo, the term “colonial subalterns” refers to all those “outside European categories of proficiency and identity, such as Christianity, European languages, modernity, history, skin colour and scientific knowledge” (2004, 386), and “foregrounds racialised oppression and socio-economic subordination” (381).
Lipsky distinguishes between the “target publics,” i.e., the representatives of American government bodies with the ability to realise the political goals of the protest group, and the “reference publics,” all those who enter the “bargaining arena” by being supportive of the “protest goals” (1968, 1146).
As observed by Jerry Watts, black nationalism was temporarily established as hegemonic ideology among the African-American intelligentsia. African American intellectuals who were not black nationalists were scrutinised and even labelled “ethnically traitorous” (2001, 7). In Raise race rays raze: Essays since 1965, Amiri Baraka, who later withdrew from the black nationalist movement, writes: “The Negro artist who is not a nationalist […] is a white artist […]. What he does will not matter because it is in the shadow, connected with the shadow and will die when the shadow dies” (1971, 98).
In his 1995 article, A critical re-evaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s enduring passion, Baraka mentions that he and other black artists and intellectuals considered Hansberry’s play as part of the “passive resistance” phase of the movement. They thought it was about “middle-class,” since its focus seemed to be on “moving into white folks’ neighbourhoods,” when most blacks could hardly pay their rent in ghetto shacks (19). “[In the 1960 s], we missed the essence of the work—that Hansberry had created a family on the cutting edge of the same class and ideological struggles as existed in the movement itself and among the people. What is most telling about our ignorance is that Hansberry’s play still remains overwhelmingly popular and evocative of black and white reality” (19).
Suzan-Lori Parks is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She won it in 2002 for her play Topdog/Underdog (2001).
The speech was entitled To be young, gifted, and black and given to the United Negro College creative writing contest winners in New York City on May 1, 1964.
John Davis was the Executive Director of the American Society of African Culture, the first publisher of the papers presented at the First Conference of Negro Writers.
In 1959, other plays nominated for this award included Eugene O’Neill’s A touch of the poet and Tennessee Williams’s Sweet bird of youth.
Hansberry joined the American Communist Party as a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This, in addition to her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, who was known to the FBI for his involvement with the Communist Party, and several political activities, including her work as an associate editor for Paul Robeson’s radical weekly newspaper Freedom (from 1951 to 1953), her travel to a Montevideo peace conference, and her call for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), put her under FBI surveillance from 1952 until her death in 1965 (Wilkerson 2001, 45; Maxwell 2015). A month before A Raisin in the Sun opened in New York City, the show was under the surveillance of an FBI agent to discover if it contained any communist propaganda (Thomas 2015, 462).
Much of the black artists’ discomfort with the play lay in the characterisation of Mama Lena. They saw her as a “conservative mammy of the ‘good old days,’ who revered the master, sought to emulate his lifestyle, and struggled to keep her unruly children in line” (Wilkerson 2001, 42). They were also dissatisfied with the presentation of Walter Lee; they saw it as “demeaning the black man’s struggle for manhood in a racist society” (ibid.).
Hansberry’s other plays include: The sign in Sidney Brustein’s window, Les Blancs, The drinking gourd, What use are flowers?, To be young, gifted and black.
In her interview with Studs Terkel, Hansberry expressed the objection to the claims about the universality of the play. “In order to create universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. […]. It is definitely a Negro play before it's anything else” (Terkel 1961, 8).
As discussed by Thomas (2015) and Mark Naison (1983), among others, in the 1950s and the 1960s, the black American play was infected by Marxism's penetrating critique of colonialism and capitalism, although several historians of black theatre (Peterson 1990; Hill and Hatch 2003) have sought to de-emphasise the influence of communism on African American theatre.
This label, earned for presenting black Americans as “real people rather than social problem cases,” as written in the 27 April 1959 issue of Life (137), caused problems from the very beginning, since it implied that the play’s greatest strength was that it was not a “race drama or a social drama” (Keppel 1995, 183).
In particular, Thomas hints at Errol Hill and James Hatch’s seminal History of African American theatre, in which communism is hardly mentioned.
See footnote 6.
Hansberry and other contributors to the newspaper Freedom wrote about the situation of tenants in Chicago and covered demonstrations to fight evictions in New York, calling attention to the impact of planned slum clearance projects in destroying ethnic working-class housing and the discriminatory banking policies that prevented homeowners in Harlem from being able to borrow for the repairs (Smith 2004, 300).
The play was written when Africa was in the process of liberating itself from the colonial chains.
For Marx, this was a period of “primitive accumulation.”
According to the report issued by the Department of Labour,“the average black worker made less than 60 percent of his white counterparts. Moreover, blacks held the worst jobs; jobs which most whites would find demeaning. Fewer than 7 percent of them had professional or managerial positions, about a fourth of the figure for whites, while about half of black men were unskilled workers or laborers" (Ghani 2011, 609).
According to Michelle Gordon, “by mid-century, Chicago’s South Side had become one of the most densely populated ghettos in the U.S. […], with 64% of black women and 34% of black men working as domestic servants (2008, 126).
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This article is part of the project which was financially supported by the Slovenian Research Agency [BI-US/17-18-030].
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Čerče, D. Race and politics in the twentieth-century Black American play: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Neohelicon 46, 227–239 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-018-0464-7
- Post-colonial literature
- Black American play
- The critique of racism and capitalism
- Destabilising whiteness