The 1950s was the time, when the American society restricted womens rights and due to Carter, this restriction was even worse for black people. Nevertheless, at that time, Lorraine Hansberry, an American playwright and writer, becomes the first African-American woman winning a Pulitzer Prize for her drama A Raisin in the Sun, as well asNew York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Hansberry focuses her play on the womens role in society, where the race segregation is obvious. Among all the characters in Raisin in the Sun, the character of Beneatha Younger is the most prominent and multidimensional one, as she shifts the perception of the role and place of African American family, as well as African-American woman in society. Beneatha is the image of a new African American woman in the twentieth century, who searches for identity and independence.
In her play, Hansberry represents the Youngers, a Christian African-American family living in the Southside of Chicago in the time of the Civil Rights Movement. The family, which consists of Mama, the head of the family, her daughter Beneatha and son Walter with his wife Ruth and their son Travis, is rather poor. Indeed, the five Yongers live in a small two-bedroom apartment and share a bathroom with other families on the floor. Therefore, the $10, 000 insurance check that Lena receives after her husbands death becomes the turning point of the familys life. At the same time, it turns also into a source of conflict for the family because all its members want to use this money for reaching their dreams.
Beneathas dream is spending a part of the money for her education on becoming a doctor. Despite attending the school is yet a privilege for her that Walter did not have, Beneatha believes that the further study at university is her right. Moreover, Beneatha prefers different expensive hobbies such as guitar lessons, horseback riding, and acting lessons. Hereby, the three adults – Mama, Walter, and Ruth, have to assist the needs of Beneatha, as she yet goes to school and does not make money on her own.
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Because of her aspirations to live a better life and reach new horizons, Beneatha may seem too selfish, especially if taking into account that the family is low in income. Yet as it becomes obvious during the plot, Beneatha is not selfish or ambitious, but rather purposeful. While focusing on her identity, Beneatha fights for her background, for her equal rights, as well as for the pride and dignity of her family.
Beneatha feels difficulties in relating to the rest of the family. Her family works hard while serving the white people. In particular, Walter Lee is a chauffeur and Mama and Ruth perform domestic work for middle-class and rich white families. In contrast, Beneatha choses the intellectual way of struggle though education. Because of her high level of education, the girl has some conflicts with other members of the family. Since Mama and Ruth represent the traditional women who have married early, care for children, are in charge of cleaning and cooking, they also expect Beneatha to behave like them and do more around the house. Moreover, because Beneatha can deal with people abruptly and combatively, while insisting on her believes, Ruth advises her that she should be a little sweeter sometimes.
In turn, Hansberry depicts the image of BeneathaYounger as a fighter in contrast to Mama and Ruth. Mama is also eager to do everything to liberate her family from the poverty and move to Claybourne Park, a white neighborhood, by not exceeding the limits of Christianity. Therefore, with the insurance money, Lena makes a decision to purchase a small house, while putting part of it for Beneathas education, in order to make her all family happy. However, unlike Mama, who is rooted deeply in the past traditions and tries to guide the life of her family by the Christianitys rules, Beneatha focuses on the future life, while representing the generation of free people that are not afraid to rise and reach their dreams.
While Mama and Ruth support Beneathas aspiration to become a doctor, Walter and George, whom she dates, do not understand her. Because Walter is rather materialistic and searches for financial well-being and status, he cannot realize Beneatha`s aspirations for identity, self-realization, and independence. Walter gives all the money, which he has to keep for Beneathas education, to his friend for investing into the liquor store, which is his dream. However, Walters friend cheats him, while leaving him without all the money, including that part that ought to contribute to Beneathas dream. Nevertheless, through this loss, as well as the consequent sorrow and shame he experienced, Walter realizes that pride and dignity are more important values than material satisfaction.
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At the beginning Ruth and Mama criticize Beneatha for rejecting to marry George as they consider him a suitable candidate for his prosperity and handsome appearance. However, the girl rejects to marry not because of her preference for career over marriage, as her family presumes, but rather because of Georges lack of personality and understanding towards her. The author clearly shows Georges attitude towards the role of his potential wife in the family and society, when George addresses Beneatha: You’re a nice looking girl…all over. That’s all you need, honey, forget the atmospherethey’re going to go for what they see. Be glad for that. Drop the Garbo routine. It doesn’t go with you, as for myself, I want a nice(groping)simple (thoughtfully)sophisticated girl…not a poet? In turn, the girl considers the proposal of Asagai, her other philanderer, to become his wife and go with him to Africa rather than becoming the wife of George.
While being an intellectual, Asagai stimulates Beneathas mind and supports her aspirations to become a doctor. By calling her Alaiyo that in African culture means One for Whom Bread Food Is Not Enough, the man represents the understanding of her true nature and dreams, as well as peaks her curiosity about her African heritage. By criticizing Beneatha that she straightens her hair that is naturally curly, he helps her to understand that she should not hide her African roots but rather be proud of them. Thus, after taking a cue from her beloved, Beneatha let her hair to be curly and take a more African look. She learns about her familys African heritage and tries to transmit these ideas to other family members, though they do not understand them at the beginning and consider her notions strange. In turn, Asagai helps her to overcome the objections and obstacles in her own home.
Hansberry shows Beneatha to be different from the rest of her family, as well as from other traditional black women of that time. In this way, the author opposes the character of BeneathaYounger to stereotypes of African American women in 1950s as demure, passive, helpless, and wanton. Thus, by refusing to accept the traditional female roles, Beneatha tries to free herself from the stereotypes of ideal female careers and images of acceptable womens behavior and appearance. Hereby, she is also not afraid to choose for herself a role that is not common among the women of that time the career of a physician. So, as we can see, Beneatha wants something more than just a role of a housewife; she wants to broaden her mind and truly express herself.
Beneatha is obviously the only character, who can liberate the minds of her family members by her own positive example. The author clearly reflects it in the scene, when Beneatha appears with her natural hair and new African dress that Asagai presented to her, before her family. Although at first the whole family expresses displeasure and non-acceptance, after a while, Ruth says that she starts to like Beneathas new appearance.
Not only Beneatha influences the views of her family, but also her family determines the girls believes. Beneatha believed she was independent. However, with the help of Asagai and her family she understands that she is not as independent as she thinks because she fully relies on the insurance money, as well as on the money of her family, to reach her dream. Thus, when at the end of the play, the family moves into their new home, they all have to work full-time to meet the note on the house. Hereby, although Beneathas medical career is under question, she does not protest against moving into the new house and working. Obviously, the girl realizes that the family can reach success only if they will help each other and work for common goals. The experience of Beneatha learns that in order to become truly independent and achieve his/her dreams, one must work really hard rather than try to reach it at the expense of others.
Beneathas behavior and lifestyle shows that being a person, no matter whether black or white one, man or woman, is more than living according to certain societal norms and rules or reaching financial well-being; it is also about finding own identity and preserving ones own pride and dignity. Overall, only after gaining own identity, finding own heritage, as well as uniting with the family, one can start paving the path to a new independent life. While reading how Beneatha rises and overcomes all the identity and intellectual barriers set by the society and her family with the dignity and pride, we start believing that we can do the same. Overall, thanks to this personality, we can gain new perspective on our dreams and motivation to achieve them.