Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .
Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.
Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched . . . You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar—You my children—but how different we done become.
This exchange occurs in Act I, scene ii when Mama asks Walter why he always talks about money. Walter responds that “[m]oney is life,” explaining to her that success is now defined by how much money one has. This conversation takes place early in the play and reveals Mama’s and Walter’s economic struggles. These lines demonstrate the ideological differences between their generations. Throughout the play, Mama’s views are at odds with Walter’s and Beneatha’s views. For Walter, money seems to be the answer to everything. Money, he believes, allows people to live comfortable and carefree lives. It also seems to define a man by measuring his success and ability to provide for his family. For Walter, who feels enslaved in his job and life, money is the truest freedom.
Throughout A Raisin in the Sun, characters connect money to discussions of race. Mama says, “Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change.” Walter grew up being “free” in the way that Mama means, but he faced other problems, such as the lack of financial and social freedom that he talks about here. Walter believes that freedom is not enough and that, while civil rights are a large step for blacks, in the real world—for the Youngers, the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s—blacks are still treated differently and more harshly than whites. Mr. Lindner, who later comes to persuade the Youngers not to move into his all-white neighborhood, embodies one example of this racist treatment. Mrs. Johnson later speaks of reading about the bombing of a black family’s house in the “colored paper” and complains that the racist white people who were responsible for the bombing make her feel like times have not changed, as if they still live in turbulent Mississippi, a hotbed of racism during the mid-twentieth century.
Walter: You wouldn’t understand yet, son, but your daddy’s gonna make a transaction . . . a business transaction that’s going to change our lives. . . . That’s how come one day when you ‘bout seventeen years old I’ll come home . . . I’ll pull the car up on the driveway . . . just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires . . . the gardener will be clipping away at the hedges and he’ll say, “Good evening, Mr. Younger.” And I’ll say, “Hello, Jefferson, how are you this evening?” And I’ll go inside and Ruth will come downstairs and meet me at the door and we’ll kiss each other and she’ll take my arm and we’ll go up to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you. . . . All the great schools in the world! And—and I’ll say, all right son—it’s your seventeenth birthday, what is it you’ve decided? . . . Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it. . . . Whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it, son . . . and I hand you the world!
This speech from Act II, scene ii, which Walter delivers to Travis as he tucks him in bed, closes an important scene and foreshadows the climax of the play. Walter explains to Travis, and to the audience, that he will move quickly to invest the money that Mama has just given him (part of it meant for Beneatha’s future schooling costs).
Walter seems to be rehashing conversations he might have heard while he was working as a chauffer to rich people. That he envisions having a gardener makes it seem that Walter wants to live a life that he has seen others enjoy and be like the people he has serviced. He explains his dream of the future in detail, as if it were being presented before his eyes. He paints the future vividly, even describing what sort of tires his cars will have and how busy his day will be with important matters. He never speaks in the conditional mood, which entails words such as “if” and “would” and suggests uncertainty, but in the future tense, using the word “will” throughout. This use of the future tense makes his dream appear to be something that will inevitably come true.
Yet Walter’s dream is not entirely materialistic. He envisions a better relationship with his wife, Ruth, in which they kiss and hold hands—a far cry from the relationship they have now. He also explains to Travis that he will have his choice among all the best colleges and that they will have enough money to send him to whichever one he chooses. At heart, Walter wants to provide for his family and reduce their cares.
Asagai: Then isn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?
Beneatha: AND YOU CANNOT ANSWER IT!
Asagai: I LIVE THE ANSWER!
This exchange occurs near the end of the play in Act III, as Asagai and Beneatha fight after Bobo comes to tell the Youngers that the money Walter has invested is gone. Beneatha is terribly depressed and cynical, knowing now that the money for her future education is also gone and that her future and her dreams are likely ruined. Asagai gets her more angry by arguing that her dream and her means for achieving it are inextricably bound up in the death of her father and Walter’s financial savvy. While Beneatha considers herself to be independent, Asagai argues that she has been anything but.
Asagai goes on to describe his dream: he wishes to return to Nigeria, bring back what he has learned, and share it with the people of his homeland so to improve their lives. In other words, Asagai believes in bringing modern advancements from Western society back to Africa to improve the quality of life there. He is optimistic about his dream while understanding the difficulties that lie ahead. This exchange also allows Asagai to ask Beneatha to marry him and return to Africa with him in a few years. He will teach and lead the people, he says, and she can practice medicine and help take care of people. While Beneatha hesitates a bit when she says that she will consider going with him, it seems she will undoubtedly take him up on his offer. Asagai and his dream enable Beneatha to discover a new energy and shape a new dream for herself.
Mama: There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.
Mama makes this comment to Beneatha in Act III, near the end of the play, as Beneatha expresses her disappointment in Walter for losing the money in the liquor store venture and also for apparently having decided to give in to Mr. Lindner. Mama tells Beneatha that Walter needs her to be supportive. She also says that instead of constantly crying about herself, Beneatha should cry for Walter and everything that he has been through and try to understand how hard he has been trying to make everything better for his family.
One can argue that Mama speaks these words not only to Beneatha but also to the audience. Along the lines of this interpretation, she seems to be saying that if the audience hasn’t learned to love, then it hasn’t learned anything yet from the play. Since the audience when A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959 would have been entirely or almost entirely white, we can see Mama as a power-ful voice for social change.
Walter: [W]e have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money.
Walter delivers these words to Mr. Lindner in Act III after learning that his investment in the liquor store has been stolen. The other family members strongly disagree with Walter’s decision to accept Mr. Lindner’s buyout, but Walter, standing firm, decides that he will take control of the situation. Walter’s refusal here comes as something of a surprise, since it requires him to shift his priorities. Whereas earlier his desire for money trumps others’ needs, he now focuses all of his energy on family. Walter has finally stood up to his worries, has overcome his obsession with money and his equating of money with success, and has decided to stand by his family. We are told by the stage directions that Mama nods, eyes closed, as if she were hearing a great sermon in church. Beneatha and Ruth are finally proud of Walter, and everyone believes that Walter now has finally become a man. The Youngers will no longer defer their dreams. Instead, they will face the future as Walter does Mr. Lindner—directly and strongly, without blinking.