Summary: Act I, scene ii
Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money.
The next day, Saturday, the Youngers are cleaning their apartment and waiting for the insurance check to arrive. Walter receives a phone call from his friend Willy Harris, who is coordinating the potential liquor store venture. It appears that their plan is moving smoothly. The insurance check is all Walter needs to pursue the venture. He promises to bring the money to Willy when he receives it. Meanwhile, Beneatha is spraying the apartment with insecticide in an attempt to rid it of cockroaches. Beneatha and Travis start fighting, and Beneatha threatens him with the spray gun.
The phone rings, and Beneatha answers. She invites the person on the phone over to the still-dirty apartment, much to Mama’s chagrin. After hanging up, Beneatha explains to Mama that the man she has spoken to on the phone is Joseph Asagai, an African intellectual whom Beneatha has met at school. She and Mama discuss Beneatha’s worries about her family’s ignorance about Africa and African people. Mama believes that Africans need religious salvation from “heathenism,” while Beneatha believes that they are in greater need of political and civil salvation from French and British colonialism.
Ruth returns from seeing a doctor, who has told her that she is two months pregnant. She reveals this information to Mama and Beneatha. Ruth and Beneatha are worried and uncertain, while Mama simply expresses her hope that the baby will be a girl. Ruth calls the doctor “she,” which arouses Mama’s suspicion because their family doctor is a man. Ruth feels ill and anxious about her pregnancy. Mama tries to help her relax.
Asagai visits Beneatha, and they spend some time together by themselves. He brings her some Nigerian clothing and music as gifts. As Beneatha tries on one of the robes, Asagai asks about her straightened hair. He implies that her hairstyle is too American and unnatural, and he wonders how it got that way. Beneatha says that her hair was once like his, but that she finds it too “raw” that way. He teases her a bit about being very serious about finding her identity, particularly her African identity, through him. Asagai obviously cares for Beneatha very much, and he wonders why Beneatha does not have the same feeling for him. She explains that she is looking for more than storybook love. She wants to become an independent and liberated woman. Asagai scorns her wish, much to Beneatha’s disappointment.
Mama comes into the room, and Beneatha introduces her to Asagai. Mama then recites Beneatha’s views on Africa and African people as best she can. When Asagai says goodbye, he calls Beneatha by a nickname, “Alaiyo.” He explains that it is a word from his African tribal language, roughly translated to mean “One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough.” He leaves, having charmed both women. Finally, the check arrives.
Walter returns home and wants to talk about his liquor store plans. Ruth wants to discuss her pregnancy with him and becomes upset when he will not listen. She shuts herself into their bedroom. Mama sits down with Walter who is upset by—and ashamed of—his poverty, his job as a chauffeur, and his lack of upward mobility. Finally, Mama tells him that Ruth is pregnant and that she fears that Ruth is considering having an abortion. Walter does not believe that Ruth would do such a thing until Ruth comes out of the bedroom to confirm that she has made a down payment on the service.
Analysis: Act I, scene ii
While the play takes place entirely within the Youngers’ apartment, Hansberry takes care to introduce external influences. This scene includes two phone calls: one for Walter from Willy about the liquor store investment and the other for Beneatha from Joseph Asagai, her good friend and fellow intellectual. These phone calls serve parallel functions for those who receive them and demonstrate what is important to both of the characters: Walter is waiting to move quickly on the investment, while Beneatha cannot wait to see Asagai and introduce him to her family.
Beneatha’s spraying of the apartment seems symbolic of her dissatisfaction with her surroundings. She wants to rid herself and her family of what she later refers to as “acute ghetto-itis.” It is obvious that Beneatha is not proud of her family’s economic and social situation and is a bit embarrassed by it when Asagai visits. As she asks him to sit down, she scurries to throw the spray gun off the couch in the hopes that Asagai won’t see it. Interestingly, Beneatha’s spraying reverses the pattern the Youngers’ dreams. While most of their dreams involve the acquisition of some markers of success, such as a home, large cars, and privileged education, Beneatha has to begin by first ridding herself of the bugs that plague her current situation.
The interaction between Beneatha and Asagai reveals how serious Beneatha is about finding her identity. Beneatha does not want to assimilate into, or become successful in, the dominant white culture of the 1950s. Yet while she wants to break free of conforming to the white ideal, she still wants to acclimate herself to an educated American life. Many Black intellectuals and writers, especially in the 1960s, faced this dilemma; Beneatha’s character thus seems somewhat ahead of her time. Indeed, her seeking of her roots in Africa to forge her identity (even though her family has been in America for five generations) precedes the New African movement of the 1960s.
In this movement, Black Americans embraced their racial history, stopping their attempts to assimilate, even in physical appearance. Asagai hints at what is to come by telling Beneatha that by straightening her hair she is “mutilating” it. In his opinion, her hair should look as it does naturally: she should stop straightening it to look like white hair and instead wear an afro. Unsure of her identity as a Black woman joining an overwhelmingly white world, Beneatha turns to Asagai to see if he can supply a lost part of her self.
This scene also reveals Walter’s growing restlessness, as well as the desperation with which Ruth is trying to hold her family together. Ruth does not want to have an abortion, but she considers it because she sees it as the only way to keep the family together. It is possible that Hansberry is attempting to make a bold feminist statement with this plot twist. During the 1950s, abortion was illegal, but Ruth has valid reasons for not wanting her pregnancy. Obviously, Ruth is not an immoral or evil woman. She simply wants to do the best for the family that she already has. Walter, on the other hand, lacks this singular dedication to his family. His character is meant to represent a kind of broken masculinity that society perceived among Black men of the 1950s, men who were shut out of the American dream by racism and poverty. Because of this exclusion, Walter’s dreams of money and success in business become inextricably linked to his image of himself as a man.
Through the announcement of Ruth’s pregnancy, we can see the power that Mama wields as the matriarch of the family. She is at the center of her family’s life, and she controls many of the interactions of the members of her household. Actresses seem to portray the character of Mama in two primary ways: either as a folksy relic of an earlier time, a woman who hopes one day to have a garden in the sun, or more recently, as a hardworking, powerful, all-knowing matriarch. Both interpretations seem valid. She reminds the family of the importance of family and history, and she holds the power to make economic decisions. She does so literally in this scene by holding the insurance check.