Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and the Harlem Renaissance

Although Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun at the end of the 1950s, in a significant sense her landmark play extends the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to a major explosion of Black intellectual and artistic activity that erupted in the 1920s. Though centered on the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the Renaissance had an international reach that witnessed the flowering of Black intellectual discourse, literature, visual art, music, and fashion. All of these forms of cultural and artistic production sought to challenge racism, subvert predominant stereotypes, and develop progressive new politics to advance Black people and promote integration.

At the very center of the Harlem Renaissance stood the figure known as the New Negro. The “Old Negro” remained hampered by the historical trauma of slavery. The “New Negro,” by contrast, possessed a renewed sense of self, purpose, and pride, all guided by a unifying vision of Pan-African identity. Alain Locke announced the arrival of the New Negro in his landmark 1925 anthology The New Negro, which featured fiction, poetry, and essays by important writers such as Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.

Hansberry makes her connection to the Harlem Renaissance most obvious through the title of her play. The phrase “a raisin in the sun” comes from the poem “Harlem” by the preeminent poet, Langston Hughes. Hughes’s poem opens with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” The “dream” referenced in this question is the dream of the New Negro—that is, the dream of a better life for people of African descent as well as the flourishing of Black arts both in the United States and abroad.

In the rest of the poem, Hughes offers a series of possible answers to his question, the first of which gives Hansberry her title: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” All of the proposed answers have negative connotations, as expressed in the poet’s choice of verbs like “fester,” “stink,” “crust,” and “sag,” and the poem ends with the suggestion of a violent outbreak: “Or does it explode?” Although in “Harlem” Hughes implies the possibility of ongoing Black oppression, elsewhere he expresses hope for the future. For instance, in his poem “Youth” he indicates his faith that the next generation of African Americans will achieve freedom.

More than thirty years after the Harlem Renaissance, Hansberry would pose Hughes’s question once again. In re-posing the question (“What happens to a dream deferred?”), Hansberry recognizes that the dream of equality to which Hughes referred, and toward which the artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance worked, still had not arrived. All of Hansberry’s characters in A Raisin in the Sun could be considered struggling versions of the Harlem Renaissance’s New Negro. Indeed, they all share the same dreams that had given life to the idea of the New Negro. That is, they seek to realize their full potential through education (e.g., Beneatha), more fulfilling work (e.g., Walter), and higher standards of living (e.g., Mama, Ruth).

Yet in Hansberry’s play the ideal of the New Negro comes up against numerous pitfalls and roadblocks, suggesting that the racism against which so many artists and intellectuals had fought during the Harlem Renaissance remained alive and well. Hansberry signals the necessity of a break, maybe even a violent one, not unlike what Hughes invokes when he asks if a dream that continuously gets put off will eventually explode.