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Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry - the Question of American Identity and Heritage

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The story of “Raisin in the Sun” asks the question of an American identity and honoring your heritage. The author Lorraine Hansberry points out many times the stark differences between Walter and his sister in regards to cultural identity. Walter being the symbol of the American worker who values hard work, opportunity and prosperity, while his sister seems more interested in honoring her culture. But the broader message is the question of what does it mean to be American. This country is a nation of immigrants with very diverse cultures and values. America since its beginning is a made of diverse people different backgrounds. Hansberry really tries to have the reader look into what does it mean to be American. Does it mean to assimilate into the American beliefs and values or to still consider yourself an ethnicity of your background?

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The question then comes in is how do we honor our heritage while assimilating into American culture? In the play Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha Younger is very much more attuned to her African culture such as wearing their traditional attire, styling her hair and performing traditional African dances. She is American but honors who backround and yearns to become a doctor and go to Africa to help the sick and needy.In contrast to her brother Walter, whor on the other hand is completely opposite. He dresses in western style clothing and seems to mock his sister’s fascination with her African identity. From a larger point a view this is a common issue in American families were one generation is from one country while the other grew up in America. The older generation tends to be insulted by the youngers lack of “respect” for tradition and to be oblivious to their background. For example in act II scene I, Beneatha comes out of her room dressed in traditional nigerian clothes and begins doing a traditional dance while chanting. Her mother Ruth finds her antics odd, while Walter who is intoxicated begins to mock his sister by dancing and calling himself flaming spear. This scene represents the big issues when it comes to being American. The desire to join mainstream American culture aka assimilation, or remembering that you have a unique background.Beneatha attitude such as when she reveals she styled her hair in a afro reflect the idea of anti assimilation of immigrants who come to America such as honoring some of their home nations traditions, whatever they may be. Walter and his sister serve as two foils of American identity; as such they claim the two constituents that make their identity: their American birth and their African origin. It is the whole that defines their identity, because as Amin Maalouf puts it in his writing In the Name of Identity: “identity cannot be compartmentalized”.

The Lorraine Hansberry gives the overall message of American identity while giving a direct example on African American identity to be used as a case study. The most prominent examples are Joseph Asagai and George Murchison who are both courting Beneatha Younger.. Both men are African American but have two different ideas at what that means. George is more “Americanized” having been raised in a very well off family, He dresses in the typical 1950s such wearing white shoes,khaki’s and polo shirt. George is not really interested in his African roots while Joseph Asagai on the other hand is completely different, he is very passionate about his African heritage.He was actually the person Beneatha got the clothes from. He dresses in traditional Nigerian attire and often tells Beneatha that she should consider herself an African rather than an African American and criticizes her straightened hair stating she assimilating into white culture. Both men represent the extremes of assimilation and anti-assimilation into American culture at both extremes. George representing the complete acceptance that he is an American while Joseph feels he is only an African living in the United States . In other words George idea on his identity is that he is an American who is of African descent while Joseph is an African who happens to live in America. These two men are a great example as to look at the question as to what does it mean to be American. On one extreme does it mean to completely assimilate to American culture while also being clueless on your background such as George’s ase or does it mean to be so attuned to your ancestral history that you neglect the fact you are an American citizen.

From a historical standpoint the story reflects the growing Black Power movement of the 1960s, The 1960s saw the rise of the civil rights era, the Vietnam War and the social revolution. Many African Americans began to see themselves differently and wanted to start embracing their African roots. African Americans did not really feel that America was their home after so many years of being treated as second class citizens.Many African Americans also began feeling sympathy for the citizens of Africa, which at the time was mostly under European control. Black Americans began seeing the native Africans as brothers and related to their struggle with dealing with oppression. They often took part in protesting the visitation of the colonial leaders to America and trying to send humanitarian aid. Many African Americans such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad became engaged in embracing their background and considering themselves as Africans while distancing themselves to practices that they saw as white America.For example Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little to Baptist parents. He eventually converted to Islam while in prison and dropped the last name Little, he stated X symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears”. Malcolm X was also a firm believer in Pan- Africanism (the idea of a united African continent) and believed that Christianity was a white man’s religion imposed on slaves by their masters and that Islam is their ancestors true religion. Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the Nation of Islam for 40 years during the civil rights era.Born as Elijah Poole, he converted to Islam in the 1930s and began preaching about Black Nationalism and a return to Africa. Another famous black nationalists was the boxer Muhammad Ali. Ali was born Cassius Clay to Methodist parents. In the late 1960s he converted to the nation of Islam which was a African American Muslim organization and later changed his name to an Arabic one. When asked why he converted and changed his name he said “Cassius Clay isn’t my name, it’s a slave name given to my ancestors by a white master”. Ali represented the question of what did it mean to be American and did being American mean assimilating into white culture.Beneatha represents the beginning of what it meant to be a Black American in the 1960s.

From another historical standpoint, A Raisin in the Sun, explores the idea of what it meant to be American for families. For example most immigrant families that came from Europe in the early 20th century, by two generations they completely assimilated into American culture, with ignorance to their language and background. Also there is no true single definition of what you have to look like to be an America. The american identity is complexed due to the influx of immigrants. In America’s earliest days being an american meant you were a White Anglo- Saxon, however that soon changed with the arrival of German and Irish immigrants. In a broader sense it is very difficult to have an American identity since every group has a different idea of what that means. African Scholar and philosopher Cheikh Anta Diop writes in Civilization or Barbarism: “the historical factor is the cultural cement that unifies the disparate elements of a people to make them into a whole.” However his claim sounds nice in theory, but in practice it is difficult because different races and groups have had different experiences in American history. Unlike in other countries where people are united by a common experience such as Britain, France and Germany.For example when white children read about the Manifest Destiny they tend to interpret it as a time of expansion and prosperity, but Native Americans see it as the destruction of their culture and being exiled from their homeland. In his book “A People’s History of the United States”, political scientists gives an alternative viewpoint on several key events in American history, that many Americans take pride in .He explores the viewpoint of british loyalist during the American Revolution, African Americans that were not invited to the Constitutional Convention and Japanese Americans during World War II. Howard Zinn explores the theory that it is impossible to achieve one American Identity since we do not hold the same beliefs on past experiences on our nation that help create identity.

Lorraine Hansberry understood this I believe since she questions the definition of being an American from the interaction of several characters on their beliefs. American historian Philip Gleason in his book “American Identity and Americanization” summarizes it by stating “To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American”. Raisin in the Sun will have the reader question this statement just by looking at the interaction of several characters. Walter would seems to agree with this assessment, as he longs for economic freedom to gain wealth, equality to be wealthy like a white person and to achieve the American Dream. Beneatha on the other hand has a different idea of this, she sees liberty as being independent, equality as helping those in need and republicanism and having free will to not accept any of those virtues. Hansberry reflects on the social question that has been facing America for generation on a common identity since people have different interpretations of our values by contrasting the personalities and the desires of the Younger family.

The question comes into play now is how does an American honor their roots if they have ancestry of multiple countries. Since in today’s age most people are of mixed bloodlines and most likely more than three. So does someone like that should consider themselves strictly American or can they learn about their background even though they feel little connection to it.

The broader message of the play acknowledges that balancing the difference assimilation and honoring your heritage. American is a melting pot for people of different backgrounds and that is what makes America unique. There is no universal definition of what is an American. Every American (besides Native Americans) is a descendent from an immigrant who came to this country seeking freedom and opportunity. America is a diverse nation and that is what makes Americans unique because we honor many cultures. Yet Americans are a very unique people we have a unique set of values and history, and even though we have different interpretations, the one thing that makes an American identity is the belief in free will.

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