Student dramaturg Alexis Williams, an English and Spanish double major, discusses Lorraine Hansberry’s inspiration for the title of her 1959 play in her Talk on the Steps for A Raisin in the Sun at the Yeager Recital Hall, 15 April 2016. She read Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem “Harlem,” and invited audience members to consider their own experiences of a “dream deferred.” She then explored the centuries of deferred dreams that resulted in the frustration, anger, and hope felt by members of the Younger family in Hansberry’s iconic exploration of the African American experience.
Read her speech below:
Good afternoon everyone! My name is Alexis Williams and in this time together, I hope to give you some insight into A Raisin in the Sun. I’d like to begin with a recitation of “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the poem off of which this play is based:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I think we should begin by looking into what this means to you all. Think about a dream you’ve had. Maybe you’ve wanted to travel the world or start a family or maybe just eat that pint of ice cream sitting in your freezer after a long day of work. What ever it is, you know what it is like to want something so much that you can’t wait until the day you get it. Some of you may have succeeded in attaining those dreams, but have you ever wondered what it would have been like to never have that opportunity? If you never got that job? If you never went to that school and met those people? Try to imagine what that would feel like. Perhaps, a dream of yours has been deferred. Think about the kinds of emotions that evokes.
Does anyone have any experiences with a dream deferred? Do you have any ideas about what it feels like when a dream is deferred?
Responses from the audience
These feelings are exactly what the characters within the play experience. Now another question for you all is, what time period does this play discuss?
Responses from the audience
Many of you said the 1950’s. Unfortunately that is not correct. This play explores centuries of American History. We cannot begin to understand A Raisin in the Sun without first looking at slavery in the United States. The first African slaves were brought to North America in 1619 to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. From that moment, slavery became integral to American society, especially the South’s economy.
Have any of you played Jenga? The game with the wooden blocks? Well, the game reaches a point where there is one block on which the rest of the blocks depend for stability. Without it the whole thing crumbles. You can think of slavery as that block. The work of African slaves built the Unites States into what it is today. All the while, those same slaves were beaten, sold, and violated. Slaves made the American Dream possible but could never actually take part in it themselves. However, they never lost hope that one day they would reach that dream. African slaves, who became African-Americans, continued to hope and pray for the freedom afforded to white Americans. That freedom didn’t come until 1863 with the emancipation proclamation. That’s 244 years. Have you ever waited for something for 244 years?
But in all honesty, that freedom was faker than fast-food chicken nuggets. African-Americans continued to be oppressed through sharecropping. Freed slaves would work on the land of southern white landowners (sometimes their old masters) in return for food and housing. Ultimately it was a sequel to slavery but this time the bondage was due to the immense debt that accumulated from the process. Even more, it prevented African-Americans from being able to really leave the South. But African-Americans continued to press on, still waiting for that dream to come true.
Eventually sharecropping ended but racism didn’t, so Jim Crow laws were put into place to keep African- Americans out of white spaces. These state and local laws were responsible for that separate but equal nonsense. They were instituted in 1890 and persisted until 1965. During this time, too, the lynchings of African- Americans reached a profane height. African-Americans couldn’t find the dream amidst all of this segregation and violence so they looked for it in the North. This is what is referred to as the Great Migration. Around 1910, African-Americans moved from places like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to cities like New York and Chicago.
Now we’re getting closer to the setting of the play. The North promised more opportunities and to be sure they did when compared to the South. But more opportunities did not mean less oppression. Sure African-Americans could find work and buy a house but there were limitations. The North didn’t have mandated Jim Crow laws, but institutions were set up to implicitly subvert specific groups of people.
In looking at history up until this point, African-Americans moved closer and closer to a dream but have yet to get it.
As you watch A Raisin in the Sun, think about what the family dreams for. What are Walter’s dreams? What are Lena’s and Ruth’s and Beneatha’s? What parts of the African-American experience do these dreams speak to? Also think about if African-Americans today are continuing in dreaming these dreams and why.
Thank you all. I hope you enjoyed my talk and I hope you enjoy the performance even more.