In the 1950s racism and segregation were still very profound in society’s views. When Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun debuted in 1959, it was subject to a variety of critiques from a multitude of audiences that immediately sparked a debate about the message of the play. A Raisin in the Sun has been misunderstood as a symbol of racial integration and given the impression that African American families can achieve the American Dream through homeownership.
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The debate about the interpretations diverted attention away from Hansberry’s political message and its criticisms of upward mobility, normative domesticity, and the white nuclear family which is primarily seen through Hansberry’s showing of segregation as an essential part of the American Dream. Hansberry used A Raisin in the Sun as a chance to share her life experiences and to explore the effects societal and systemic oppression can have on a person’s interpersonal and private life.
Many critics overlooked this powerful message and saw the play as a sign of desegregation and African Americans’ ability to achieve the American Dream. Bernstein recounts how some white critics were surprised to find many similarities between their own experiences and the life of the Younger’s and praised its wide appeal through its universalness. Other white critics were amazed the particularity of the play as an honest and inside look into the private lives and culture of African Americans praised it as one of the first Negro plays (16). Both interpretations conflict with Hansberry’s message of the play and the paradox created by the two further misconstrued the message viewers took away from the play. Even when Hansberry disputed these claims by calling the play both universal and particular the paradox continued to survive amongst the mixed reviews of critics. Due to racial prejudice and societal norms of the time, a majority of audiences misinterpreted Hansberry’s message. Their responses and reactions further misconstrued the ideals of the play for future audiences and distracted them from Hansberry’s true message.
The debut of A Raisin in the Sun was groundbreaking as it was the first play produced on Broadway that was written by an African American woman. In addition, it is one of the first plays to focus predominantly on African American culture, never before in American theater history had so much truth of black people’s lives been on seen on stage (Bernstein, 20). This contributed to the play’s broad appeal, intrigued white audiences who wanted to learn more about black culture and attracted black audiences who wanted to see their experiences displayed on stage. The broad appeal of the play caused a majority of white critics to see it as universal and relatable even though it was about an African American family and sparked the conflict between the play being universal or particular.
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