On Lorraine Hansberry’s realistic, flawed, and deeply moving young married couple.
Walter and Ruth Younger, the young husband and wife at the center of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), are perhaps the least sympathetic of the Youngers, the drama’s major characters. To be sure, as in the case in any great dramatic work all the characters have their flaws: but while the overly proud, widowed Mama (Lena) is also struggling to keep her family together; self-centered elitist Beneatha is impressively going to school to become a doctor; and naïve young Travis is just trying to grow up; Travis’s parents Walter and Ruth are defined mostly by their hot-and-cold marriage and Walter’s foolish and destructive get-rich-quick schemes. Some combination of those factors, Walter’s individual pipe dreams and the extremities to which their marital problems drive them both, could be said to lead to most of the family’s worst arguments and problems throughout the play.
That could be said, but it’d be wrong, as the play’s final scenes reveal a much more systematic and significant culprit, putting the Youngers in the center of a broad and crucial biographical and historical context: the racial “covenants” that made it so difficult for African American and other minority families to move out of cities like Chicago and into suburban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II. While not as regimented or all-encompassing as the South’s system of Jim Crow segregation, the covenants did an equally thorough job of segregating their respective urban and suburban worlds, and proved a powerfully difficult impediment to the dreams of families like the Youngers. Systems like the covenants don’t explain away all of Walter’s irresponsibilities or Ruth’s enabling—again, no dramatic work as impressive as Hansberry’s treats its characters as mere ciphers—but they certainly better reveal the world in which these characters are trying to survive and succeed, and to an open-minded audience render Walter and Ruth significantly more sympathetic as a result.
But in the final scene Hansberry takes the couple, and her play, one step further still. The Youngers have been approached by a representative from the neighborhood association of the suburban community into which they hope to move, a man who is offering them money in exchange for their withdrawing their purchase of that suburban home. In one of the play’s most traditional moments, not only in terms of gender roles but also because it embodies the spirit of Walter Sr., the family’s departed father, both Mama and Ruth allow Walter to make the decision; and Walter rises to the occasion, saying no to the lure of easy money and rejecting the offer. He gains a great deal of respect from Mama in the process, but perhaps even more significant is Ruth’s response: she seems to see in her husband for the first time in years the man she married, a man who can model for Travis a strong, proud, resilient African American identity and manhood in the face of some of the worst their society can throw at them. The moment and scene are tremendously moving for many reasons, but certainly at the top of the list is seeing the reconnection between this flawed and troubled but likewise resilient and impressive couple.
Next lovers tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Nominations for the series?6/5 Memory Day nominee: Bill Moyers, the pioneering television host and journalist whose investigative reporting, philosophical and spiritual conversations, and American Studies efforts have fundamentally impacted and changed American journalism, politics, and culture.
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