Why does Mama want to own property?
A Raisin in the Sun is centered around a Black family that buys a house in an all-white neighborhood. As such, the play emphasizes the relationship between race and property. The historical connection between race and property in the United States is older than the United States itself. Back in the days of the American colonies, voting rights extended only to full citizens, which is to say they extended only to white males who owned property. Property ownership remained a legal requirement to vote until the achievement of universal white male suffrage in 1820.
To this day, even though property is no longer a legal prerequisite for citizenship, it remains an important marker of social status. Compared to their white counterparts, however, Black Americans' struggle to achieve status through property ownership has been much longer and more difficult. Notably, their ancestors were brought to the New World as slaves, which meant that they couldn’t own property because, legally, they were property themselves. The long journey from slavery to freedom to equality continues even now, and at the time A Raisin in the Sun is set, the issues of property ownership and the struggle for racial uplift came to a head.
When Hansberry wrote in the 1950s, the city of Chicago was strictly segregated, with Black families relegated to densely populated ghettos. The Youngers live in just such a ghetto in Chicago’s South Side, and as Beneatha puts it, the family suffers from an acute case of “ghetto-itis” (Act II, scene i). The Youngers are a working-class Black family motivated by the dream of becoming middle-class, a dream that in the 1950s was quickly becoming a reality for a significant proportion of white Americans.
Upward mobility required access to better education and better jobs, but entrance into the middle-class could only be achieved with the purchase of property. The Youngers longed to own their own house for a long time, but financial constraints prevented them from getting out of their cramped apartment. Mama explains that she and her husband only ever meant to live in the apartment for a year and save up for a small house in the Morgan Park neighborhood: “Lord, child, you should know all the dreams I had ’bout buying that house and fixing it up. . . . And didn’t none of it happen” (Act I, scene i).
The disappointment of having to live in the same apartment for so long yields to a sense of excitement and hope when the insurance check arrives. Now that there’s finally enough money, the first thing Mama does is make a down payment on a house for the family. She envisions the purchase of the house as an investment in her family’s future, and as she explains to Walter when he expresses his disapproval, the purchase of this house symbolizes a new beginning that could salvage their crumbling family:
I—I just seen my family falling apart today . . . just falling to pieces in front of my eyes . . . We couldn’t of gone on like we was today. We was going backwards ’stead of forwards—talking ’bout killing babies and wishing each other was dead . . . When it gets like that in life—you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger. (Act II, scene i)
As an expression of what Mama calls “something bigger,” the house has an almost spiritual significance that portends the redemption of the whole family—a redemption further symbolized by Mama’s desire to cultivate a small but flourishing garden in the new house’s backyard. Walter’s disapproval represents just one of the obstacles to Mama achieving her dream of purchasing property on behalf of the family. The other major obstacle is the community association of the all-white neighborhood where she purchased the house. Despite the obstacles that make the Youngers’ new home life so uncertain, it remains clear that Mama’s vision of property ownership ultimately guides the way toward a better life in which African Americans may also gain access to the American Dream.