Black vs. White Responses to “Raisin”

Dee, Poitier in “Raisin in the Sun”


In my Theories of the Reader senior seminar last semester, I received a fascinating essay from student Mindy Grant about the different receptions that Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun received when it played on Broadway in 1959. Black and white audiences both liked it but for very different reasons. Mindy set out to find the reasons.

For her theoretical framework, Mindy drew on W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “Criteria for Negro Art,” in which he controversially asserts that “all art is propaganda.” (See my post on Du Bois’s essay here.) Du Bois overstates his case somewhat since he actually believes that the artist’s first obligation is to truth, not to some agenda. In that way he doesn’t disagree with, say, Sir Philip Sidney or Percy Shelley. But he’s well aware that many white authors are biased when they portray people of color. To cite Chinua Achebe’s famous example, the howling Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are a white European’s projection and have nothing to do with real Africans. Conrad may tell a deep truth about Europe’s spiritual crisis but, when it comes to people of color, he writes propaganda.

Raisin in the Sun was a hit amongst African Americans because, for the first time on Broadway, they felt they were witnessing complex depictions of themselves rather than stereotypes. Mindy writes,

Civil rights activists and leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin all spoke highly of Lorraine Hansberry and her work, and black audiences would mob her for her autograph following early performances. The response of black audiences can be understood when it is understood that until this time, Broadway had only ever shown flat and stereotyped caricatures of black people on the stage. For black audiences, they applauded the truthfulness of the play. Baldwin commented that “never before in American theater history had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on stage.” The play was one of the first to draw a large black audience to Broadway theater, and it did so because it gave them something of what they needed during this time of rising tension in race relations: an honest depiction of their own lives and experiences. Hansberry’s work allowed black audiences to, for once, see their own lives and experiences reflected on stage. This is the ideal that Du Bois encourages artists to strive for – truth in which beauty and freedom are inherent.

It’s worth noting, for contrast purposes, how Raisin in the Sun differs from Richard Wright’s Native Son, a theatrical version of which Orson Welles directed in 1941. Wright’s work captured the truth of black anger but it also (as James Baldwin would later complain) confirmed certain white stereotypes about black men. Raisin in the Sun, by contrast, depicted African Americans with middle class aspirations. The dream of owning one’s own home gripped America in the 1950s so everyone could relate. Mindy writes,

In Raisin black audiences were able to recognize the house, the family, and the streets outside it. Compared to many white authors’ depictions of black people, the full-bodied and seemingly real people that populated the stage inspired black audiences. They saw, to use Du Bois’s framing, beauty in truth well-represented. Critic A. Alvarez at the New Statesmen stated, “Miss Hansberry’s characters continually talk about the subjects which concern all Negroes: the jobs they can get, the areas they can live in, the strategies by which pride is preserved or undermined, assimilation…” For many people this reaffirmed that they were not alone, that their experiences were real, or gave them a way to understand and articulate their own lived experiences. King himself described Hansberry as “an inspiration” for “generations to come.” Playwright and actor Ossie Davis in Freedomways said the play sold because people of all color could identify with it.

White audiences, while they too liked the play, had a different take:

White audiences primarily applauded A Raisin in the Sun as “universal.” After watching the initial tours in the early 60s, they repeatedly made such observations as “This is not a Negro play, but a human play!”… [Many white spectators] found in the play something inherently American. White audiences held up and lauded the play as a token work of black culture to which they, too, could relate.

The assumption here is that white reality is universal reality, and the surprise behind the white response was that African Americans are “just like us.” White audiences were thus given a window they previously had lacked into increasing civil rights agitation, such as the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) and the Little Rock Nine (1957).

They were also given a picture that wasn’t as strident as, say, Bigger Thomas haranguing white society. This meant, however, that white audiences could also avoid the play’s political message about housing discrimination. Mindy notes that even the race-obsessed FBI didn’t find the play objectionable:

[T]his argument for the universality of the play allowed them to ignore the play’s criticism of the class and race relations in America and the so-called American dream. By seeing Hansberry’s play as similar to their own experiences, they did not feel that their world view was significantly challenged or that they would need to change their own behavior. John McClain in The New York Journal American wrote that there was “no abnormal exploitation of the current racial problems.” In many ways, Raisin was something of a relief. It did not call for violence nor lay heavy blame on white people as a whole. The story’s focus could be seen as a domestic drama about something which all middle and working-class Americans could relate to. Any political message which may have been embedded in the play was swallowed by the fullness and the richness of the characters, and the play was even deemed “not propagandistic” by the FBI, despite Hansberry’s somewhat radical past.

Although Mindy didn’t explore this, the issues raise the evolution vs. revolution debate. A quieter drama allowed white audiences an easier entry into racial conflict but, by doing so, also let them off the hook. Consciousness was raised gradually and indeed they wouldn’t have attended a more confrontational play. Only in the 1960’s did the benefits of this evolution pay off: their new awareness opened them up to, say, the more violent plays of Amiri Baraka (Dutchman, The Toilet).

In short, in 1959 black audiences were grateful that their reality was being acknowledged on stage and white audiences were pleased that relating to African Americans didn’t prove to be too uncomfortable.

This entry was posted in Hansberry (Lorraine) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete