A Raisin in the Sun
Act II, scene i
Later on the same Saturday, Beneatha emerges from her room cloaked in the Nigerian clothes that Asagai has brought her. She dances around the apartment, claiming to be performing a tribal dance while shouting “OCOMOGOSIAY” and singing. Ruth finds Beneatha’s pageantry silly and questions her about it. Meanwhile, Walter returns home drunk. He sees Beneatha all dressed up and acts out some made-up tribal rituals with her, at one point standing on a table and pronouncing himself “Flaming Spear.” Ruth looks on wearily.
George Murchison arrives to pick up Beneatha. Beneatha removes her headdress to reveal that she has cut off most of her hair, leaving only an unstraightened afro. Everyone is shocked, amazed, and slightly disappointed with Beneatha, prompting a fierce discussion between Beneatha and George about the importance of their African heritage. Beneatha goes to change for the theater, and Walter talks to George about business plans. George does not seem interested. Walter then becomes belligerent as he makes fun of George’s white shoes. Embarrassed, Ruth explains that the white shoes are part of the “college style.” George obviously looks down on Walter—calling him “Prometheus”—and Walter gets even angrier at him. George and Beneatha finally leave, and Ruth and Walter then begin to fight about Walter going out, spending money, and interacting with people like Willy Harris. They do begin to make up, though, by acknowledging that a great distance has grown between them.
Mama comes home and announces that she has put a down payment on a house with some of the insurance money. Ruth is elated to hear this news because she too dreams of moving out of their current apartment and into a more respectable home. Meanwhile, Walter is noticeably upset because he wants to put all the money into the liquor store venture. They all become worried when they hear that the house is in Clybourne Park, an entirely white neighborhood. Mama asks for their understanding—it was the only house that they could afford. She feels she needs to buy the house to hold the family together. Ruth regains her pleasure and rejoices, but Walter feels betrayed, his dream swept under the table. Walter makes Mama feel guilty, saying that she has crushed his dream. He goes quickly to his bedroom, and Mama remains sitting and worrying.
Beneatha’s exploration of her African heritage and her entrance with her afro and Nigerian garb were perhaps the first such appearance on an American stage. Hansberry creates a radical character in Beneatha, one who does not willingly submit to what she calls “oppressive” white culture. Since the audience for this play’s initial run was mostly white, such a threat to white dominance was extremely revolutionary.
The dancing scene with Beneatha and Walter is difficult to interpret, as the drunken Walter seems to mock the African dances and practices, while Beneatha seems not to comprehend this mocking. In addition, Beneatha’s fight with George and the rest of her family represents a larger battle within the black community over whether to enhance and celebrate their differences from whites or whether to join white culture and try to elevate their status within it. This desire to join white culture, referred to as assimilationism, was a contentious issue for the black community in the 1950s and 1960s. The overall tone of this scene seems to be anti-assimilationist—that is, the scene seems to value Beneatha’s expression of her cultural roots.
Beneatha’s two suitors embody this dichotomy between the conflicting identities available to blacks: the identity that seeks assimilation and the identity that rejects assimilation. This scene separates George and Asagai into completely different categories where George, as his common name suggests, represents a black person assimilating into the white world, while Asagai, with his ethnically rich name, stands for the New Africanist culture that those who oppose assimilation pursue. As Beneatha dances in a robe that Asagai gives her, George deems her interest in her African roots absurd. His comments put him further at odds with Beneatha, and she begins to feel more of an affinity with Asagai and her African roots than with George and what she considers to be his false roots in American society.
Ruth and Walter’s conversation reveals that they do have love left in their marriage and that they have both been oppressed by their circumstances. Their entrapment in the ghetto, in their jobs, and in their apartment results in the desire to leave physically, to escape mentally through alcohol, and to lash out at those involved in the entrapment. One way for them to escape this entrapment, though, seems to be through a reliance on each other. Yet, often, circumstances are so difficult for them that they cannot even do that. They continue to fight, as they put their own concerns before each other’s and before their marriage.
Mama’s down payment on a house reveals her belief that to be a happy family the Youngers need to own space and property. Her dream is a perfect example of the quintessential American dream. Part of her dream is the simple desire for consumer goods. She believes, as did many in the post–World War II consumer culture, that, to some degree at least, ownership can provide happiness. Therefore, although she means only to find the best for her family, she also succumbs to the powerful materialism that drives the desires of the society around her. Still, her desire is somewhat radical, because African-Americans were largely left out of depictions of the American dream during this period. Only white families populated suburban television programs and magazine advertisements. Therefore, Hansberry performs a radical act in claiming the general American dream for African-Americans.
The radical nature of the Youngers’ desire to participate in the American dream does bring along some hardship. Ruth and Walter’s concern about moving into a predominantly white neighborhood reflects the great tension that existed between races—even in the Northern states. Their concern foreshadows, among other developments, the arrival of Mr. Lindner, who reveals that the white people of Clybourne Park are just as wary of the Youngers as the Youngers are of white people.
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