A Raisin in the Sun takes place in an apartment in the South Side neighborhood in Chicago, sometime between the end of World War II and 1959. In the early decades of the twentieth century, South Side was racially segregated, with Black people confined to a slum area known as the Black Belt. Beneatha refers indirectly to the squalid conditions of their South Side neighborhood in Act I, scene ii, when she jokingly informs Asagai: “We’ve all got acute ghetto-itis.”
The circumstances of their life in Chicago’s South Side weigh heavily on the spirits of the Youngers, who are a working-class family with their sights set on upward social mobility. Despite their longstanding dream of moving out of the neighborhood, they’ve been unable to establish the financial security necessary to do so. Visually, the apartment reflects the family’s spiritual exhaustion. As Hansberry puts it in the set description at the beginning of her script, the primary feature of the apartment’s furnishings “is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years . . .Weariness has, in fact, won in this room.”
Although all the action takes place in the Youngers’ apartment, also significant is Clybourne Park, the white neighborhood for which the family departs at the end of the play. In the postwar years in which Hansberry wrote, Black Americans began to move out of the Black Belt and into other, predominantly white areas of South Side. The legal restrictions of segregation collapsed in 1940, when the housing case Hansberry v. Lee went to the U.S. Supreme Court. This case, which bears the name of Hansberry’s father, overturned a legal covenant that had previously prevented Black families from owning land in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
Although this case made it possible to leave the Black Belt, Black people who moved into white neighborhoods still faced bigotry and violence. Mrs. Johnson reflects this historical reality when she reports that a Black family was recently bombed out of their new house. She also ominously predicts: “I bet this time next month y’all’s names will have been in the papers plenty . . .‘NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK—BOMBED!’” Hansberry’s play reflects the unsettling reality that endangered any Black family that, like the Youngers, dared to leave the Black Belt.