[Y]our daddy’s gonna make a . . . business transaction that’s going to change our lives. . . . You just name it, son . . . and I hand you the world!
On a Friday night a few weeks later, Beneatha and George return from a date. The Youngers’ apartment is full of moving boxes. George wants to kiss Beneatha, but she does not want to kiss. Rather, she wants to engage George in a conversation about the plight of African-Americans. It seems that George wants to marry a “nice . . . simple . . . sophisticated girl.” Mama comes in as Beneatha kicks him out. Mama asks if she had a good time with George, and Beneatha tells her that George is a “fool.” Mama replies, “I guess you better not waste your time with no fools.” Beneatha appreciates her mother’s support.
Mrs. Johnson—the Youngers’ neighbor—visits. Mama and Ruth offer her food and drink, and she gladly accepts. She has come to visit to tell them about a black family who has been bombed out of their home in a white neighborhood. She is generally insensitive and unable to speak in a civil manner. She predicts that the Youngers will also be scared out of the all-white neighborhood once they move in and insults much of the family by calling them a “proud-acting bunch of colored folks.” She then quotes Booker T. Washington, a famous African-American thinker and assimilationist. A frustrated and angered Mama retaliates by calling him a “fool.” Mrs. Johnson leaves the apartment.
Walter’s boss calls, telling Ruth that Walter has not been to work in three days. Walter explains that he has been wandering all day (often way into the country) and drinking all night (at a bar with a jazz duo that he loves). He says that he feels depressed, despondent, and useless as the man of the family. He feels that his job is no better than a slave’s job. Mama feels guilty for his unhappiness and tells him that she has never done anything to hurt her children. She gives him the remaining $6,500 of the insurance money, telling him to deposit $3,000 for Beneatha’s education and to keep the last $3,500. With this money, Mama says, Walter should become—and should act like he has become—the head of the family. Walter suddenly becomes more confident and energized. He talks to Travis about his plans, saying that he is going to “make a transaction” that will make them rich. Walter’s excitement builds as he describes his dream of their future house and cars, as well as Travis’s potential college education.
In Beneatha and George’s conversation, Hansberry reveals two sets of values regarding education. Beneatha believes in education as a means to understanding and self-fulfillment, while George sees education as a means to get a good job. The difference in their views about education displays a deeper divergence between the two, one of idealism versus pragmatism. Beneatha believes that society must be changed through self-knowledge and, thus, through consciousness and celebration of one’s heritage. George and his family, however, believe that they should become wealthy and perhaps achieve respect through their economic status, which demands a certain degree of assimilation into the dominant, white culture. Though George’s wealth and bearing impress Mama at first, she eventually shares Beneatha’s point of view.
Indeed, in the episode with Mrs. Johnson, it becomes clear that Mama agrees with Beneatha far more than one might expect. This scene portrays both George Murchison and Booker T. Washington as assimilationists, and Mama refers to them both as “fools.” While Mama calls George a “fool” only in response to Beneatha’s remark, her branding of Booker T. Washington with such an insult has profound historical and cultural implications. Washington, historically a hero to many in the black community, preached assimilation into mainstream America as the primary goal of African-Americans. Though he attained great stature in the first half of the twentieth century, public opinion had turned against him by the late 1950s. Many African-Americans had begun to reject assimilationist ideals, believing by this time that mainstream America would always mean white America and that assimilating into this culture would always mean degrading themselves to fit white society’s perceptions of how blacks should be and act. These African-Americans thus sought an independent identity that would allow them to embrace and express their heritage and culture.
The scene closes with Walter’s description to Travis of his materialistic fantasy about the future—Walter still wants to be a part of the culture that excludes him. He wants to be rich if being rich is the solution to his family’s problems. Most of all, he wants his son to have a better life than he has had and wants to provide him with the education he deserves. His wish for Travis seems selfish as well; he wants desperately to feel like a man, and he believes that Travis’s success would reflect on his own success as the man of the house.
What About Ruth
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