"Somewhat like war": the aesthetics of segregation, black liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun

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Author: Michelle Gordon
Date: Spring 2008
From: African American Review(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,903 words

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... We must come out of the ghettos of America, because the ghettos are killing us; not only our dreams, as Mama says, but our very bodies. It is not an abstraction to us that the average American Negro has a life expectancy of five to ten years less than the average white. You see, Miss Oehler, that is murder, and a Negro writer cannot be expected to share the placid view of the situation that might be the case with a white writer.

As for changing "the hearts of individuals"--I am glad the American nation did not wait for the hearts of individual slave owners to abolish the slave system-for I suspect that I should still be running around on a plantation as a slave. And that really would not do.

Sincerely,

Lorraine Hansberry (To Be Young 117)

In early summer of 1937, a mob arrived at 6140 Rhodes Avenue to convince the Hansberrys of Chicago to abandon their new home. The Hansberrys instead convinced their new white neighbors to disperse, with a shotgun. As expected, the neighborhood "improvement association" sought an injunction against the Hansberrys, on the grounds that blacks legally could not occupy any residence in any neighborhood covered by a "race restrictive covenant." In their attempt to combat legal segregation in the North, and to open up desperately needed housing around Chicago's Black Belt, the Hansberrys and local NAACP attorneys took their case before the US Supreme Court. Lorraine Hansberry later recalled her "desperate and courageous mother, patrolling [the] house all night with a loaded German luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while [her] father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court" (To Be Young 20). In its 1940 decision on Hansberry v. Lee, the Supreme Court ruled in Carl Hansberry's favor on a technicality, while declining to address the constitutionality of the covenants themselves. It would not be until 1948, in Shelley v. Kramer, that the North's legal bulwark of racial segregation--the race restrictive covenant--was declared unconstitutional. (1)

Coming of age amid the tensions and violence surrounding Chicago's "series of Mason-Dixon lines" fundamentally shaped Lorraine Hansberry's self-consciousness, radical politics, and revolutionary art. As a young playwright, Hansberry shaped her aesthetic practices to respond to the urban segregation her family had fought for so long, and, in the midst of the Cold War, the capitalist systems from which segregation grew. Her first play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), directly engages segregation struggles in Chicago as a penultimate symbol of black oppression and resistance. In doing so, she brought local, individual struggles of African Americans--against segregation, ghettoization, and capitalist exploitation--to the national stage. "Our Southside," she once wrote, "is a place apart. Each piece of our living is a protest" (To Be Young 17).

Set in that South Side "sometime between World War II and the present" (Raisin 22), Raisin unfolds in a two-bedroom apartment in an over-crowded black ghetto, the borders of which had shifted little since Hansberry v. Lee. (2) In...

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Source Citation
Gordon, Michelle. "'Somewhat like war': the aesthetics of segregation, black liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun." African American Review, vol. 42, no. 1, 2008, p. 121+. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
  

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