Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun
The Ghetto Trap

by Brandon Colas

During 1959, in a growing neighborhood outside Chicago, Progress Development Corporation planned to sell ten to twelve new homes to blacks. When the all-white neighborhood of Deerfield discovered this, they were furious (Rosen 24). One resident, Bob Danning, explained his feelings and the feelings of his neighbors when he stated, "We're not bigots. We don't go around calling people names. And I don't think we want to deny Negroes or anybody else the right to decent homes, just as good as ours. But not next door" (Rosen 16).  

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) analyzes northern racism, as expressed by Bob Danning, and its cruel effects in her play A Raisin in the Sun, which she claims is "specifically [about] Southside Chicago" (Hansberry. YGB 114). Many social issues of the 1950's, including feminism, gender roles, the black family, and the pan-African movement, as well as events within Hansberry's own life, are interweaved in this play. However, a central theme of A Raisin in the Sun reveals how racism from the housing industry, government, religious leaders, and average Americans supported the segregated housing environment of Chicago.

The setting of A Raisin in the Sun is the ghetto of Chicago, where most blacks lived. These districts consisted of overpriced, overcrowded, and poorly-maintained apartments and homes. In the ghettos, crime rates were high and public services were limited. Most blacks living in the ghetto had hopes of leaving to better suburban neighborhoods, but segregated housing kept them stuck in the ghetto.

The housing industry was the greatest cause of segregated housing in Chicago. Within the housing industry, many social scientists observed that "real estate agencies play the largest role in maintaining segregated communities" (Knowles and Prewitt 26). Real estate agents made enormous profits manipulating white fears of integration and black desires to escape the ghetto, as evidenced by the lucrative practice of blockbusting. A real estate agent would encourage a black family to move to an all-white neighborhood. Housing costs within the white neighborhoods were much lower than black neighborhoods, so some black family would attempt to move, despite threats from future white neighbors. After the black family moved in, nervous whites feared their property values would crash. The real estate agent would then purchase much of whites' houses for well below their market value, and resell them well above their market value to blacks wanting to flee the ghetto. This lucrative bait-and-switch procedure could double real estate agencies' profits within two years (Knowles and Prewitt 27). Whites who experienced blockbusting held hard feelings towards blacks which sometimes turned violent.

Real estate agents also fostered the segregation in Chicago by developing separate housing markets for blacks and whites. In 1917 the Chicago Real Estate Board condemned the sale and rental of housing to blacks outside of city blocks contingent to the ghetto (Ralph 101). Conditions did not change in the next half-century, and blacks interested in a home or apartment were usually shown only ghettos or transition neighborhoods (Knowles and Prewitt 150). Real estate agents limited blacks' housing options by rarely offering them housing opportunities outside the ghetto. The real estate industry literally trapped the black family in the ghetto.

The real estate industry was aided in segregating Chicago by unfair costs of living within the housing industry. Landlords charged black families high prices for low quality housing, and the average black family in the ghetto had to pay 10% more in housing taxes and fees than in a comparable white neighborhood (Weaver 108). Higher housing costs limited blacks' opportunities to move to better neighborhoods by taking away a large portion of their income. In addition, most white landlords did not maintain their slum property, leading to poor living conditions (Ralph 61). Many black families suffered these higher housing costs and poor living conditions within the ghetto because they could not save enough money to move to a cheaper suburban neighborhood.

A Raisin in the Sun notes that the housing industry has a racist nature because of discrepancies in housing cost within black and white communities and their separate housing locations. Walter and Ruth are stunned that Mama purchases a house in an entirely white neighborhood, because moving to a white neighborhood could put their lives at risk. Mama explains why she was unwilling to stay in the black community when she states, "Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could," also noting that the new houses built for blacks are located in their own segregated communities, "way out" (92-93).

When Ruth observes to Mama that "we've put enough [money] in this rat trap to pay for four houses by now," she is not making an idle statement considering the unreasonably high costs of ghetto housing (44). Like most blacks in the Chicago ghetto, the Younger family lives in a "tired," run-down, "rat trap" (23). Neighborhood games further reveal poverty: Travis chases and kills a rat "as big as a cat" with his friends (59). The Younger's house is roach-infested, and a Saturday morning chore consists of "spraying insecticide into the cracks in the walls" (54). Like the "rat trap" of the Youngers, living conditions for blacks in the ghetto were poor.

Besides the housing industry, different levels of the American government supported segregated housing within Chicago. Federal housing programs after the Great Depression favored homogenous neighborhoods in the belief that there would be less racial conflict (Knowles and Prewitt 28). The government's policy was successful for a time. Eventually, however, the blacks' poor living conditions led to social agitation. By 1964 a social scientist noted that the "failure to satisfy the Negro's urge for better residential surroundings is the crux of the racial crisis in the North" (Lubell 121). Other government policies detracted from the battle to help those in urban areas. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society dreams died in the rice paddies of Vietnam, preventing needy families in the segregated ghettos from receiving government aid needed to improve their living conditions or enter better neighborhoods.

When Lorraine Hansberry was a child, her family experienced firsthand the results of a government unconcerned with blacks leaving segregation. After the Hansberrys moved into a white neighborhood, their neighbors brought a lawsuit to evict them. The local Chicago government was willing to eject the Hansberrys from their new home but Lorraine's father, Carl Hansberry, took their case to court. With the help of the NAACP, he eventually won the right to stay, but never recovered from the emotional stress of their legal battles ("Lorraine Hansberry"; Hansberry 21).

The problem of the government which held blacks in the ghetto and which the Hansberry family experienced is implied in A Raisin in the Sun. Walter plans to chop through the government's forest of red tape to gain a liquor license by bribing a city official. He explains his reasoning to Ruth, his wife, saying, "don't nothing happen for you in this world 'less you pay somebody off!" (33). A government where graft is common is a government slow to respond to its peoples' needs-as was Chicago. Despite the poverty that the Younger family lives in, there is no mention of help or any sort of aid from the government, even to fumigate their house for healthier living conditions.

The housing industry and government were major contributors to segregated housing, and white religious leaders from all areas of the United States used Christian terminology to further buttress segregation. For example, the Reverend Parker of Deerfield told his parishioners that as a Christian, he must approve of integration. But he undercut his statement by stating he did not approve of Progress Development Corporation's method to "bring integration to Deerfield" (Rosen 32). He repeatedly attacked the builders for violating the "law of love," prompting one builder to rebuke him for aiding the "cause of panic" (Rosen 33-34). Dr. G. T. Gillespie, President Emeritus of Belhaven College, a northern Christian college, stated, "The principle of segregation may be defended on biblical grounds, and is not un-Christian" (Rosen 132). Ira Harkey, a newspaper editor during the Civil Rights Movement, noted that many churches were only social events, as exemplified by a sermon entitled "God's Answer to Segregation." In this diatribe, a "devout Baptist proved through Scriptures that racial bigotry is godly and Christian" (188-191).

Encouragement of segregation by white Christian leaders caused many black intellectuals to approach religion skeptically. In Young, Gifted, and Black, Lorraine Hansberry is quoted as saying, "I don't attack people who are religious at all, as you can tell from the play; I rather admire this human quality to make our own crutches as long as we need them" (185). She is tolerant of religion, but considers faith irrelevant to life in her era. Her conclusion is understandable in the light of the blatant racism of many Christian leaders.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha expresses the cynicism that many minority intellectuals, including Lorraine Hansberry, held towards religion in light of white Christian leadership favoring segregation. Mama tells Beneatha that she will be a doctor someday, "God willing." Beneatha "drily" replies to Mama that "God hasn't got a thing to do with it," later saying, "God is just one idea that I don't accept.. I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort" (50-51). Hansberry further reveals her own attitude towards religion when Mama folds over, begging God for strength, as she realizes that Walter has lost all of their insurance money. Beneatha tries to gain her mother's attention to help her, speaking to her "plaintively" (130). This implies that she is pleading with her mother as a parent to an emotionally immature child.

Karl Lindner also provides a reflection of some racist Christian leaders. He is dressed professionally and described as "a gentle man; thoughtful and somewhat labored in his manner" (115). He speaks to the Youngers in a pious tone, saying, "most of the [race] trouble exists because people just don't sit down and talk to each other." To this remark, Ruth replies, "You can say that again mister," while "nodding as she might in church" (116). Hansberry shows further textual evidence that Linder represents religious leadership as Beneatha tells Mama about Linder's offer to their family. She says, "He talked about Brotherhood. He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship" (121). Linder even sounds like the Reverend Parker of Deerfield when he states, "you've got to admit that a man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way" (117). Both men gently justify segregation in a religious manner.

Besides the housing industry, the government, and religious leaders, personal racism on the individual level kept blacks in the Chicago ghettos. Terrified of blacks entering their neighborhoods, whites believed that integration "endangered their turf, their community, the place they called home" (Ralph 125). Moving to a white neighborhood could be deadly for black families. From 1944 to 1946 there were over 46 arson bombings within Chicago directed at black homes on the ghettos' outskirts (Weaver 96). In 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) marched against segregated housing in Chicago. In one instance, 500 black protesters marched in a white neighborhood, Gage Park, to protest segregation. They were promptly attacked by 4000 outraged whites (Ralph 122-123). Even the KKK and the American Nazi party came north to Chicago during SCLC's open-housing movement because conditions appeared ripe for recruits (Ralph 164).

After Carl Hansberry sued to remain in his new neighborhood, "howling mobs" surrounded the Hansberry's house (Hansberry 20). At one point a brick hurled through their window barely missed Lorraine's head before embedding itself in their wall ("Lorraine Hansberry"). This violence, from the perspective of many whites, was unfortunate, for as long as both races remained separate, conflict was unnecessary. When integration threatened the carefully crafted white society, violence ensued.

The role of individual racism within segregated housing in Chicago is an important focus of A Raisin in the Sun. When Ruth and Walter first hear the news that they will be moving to Clybourne Park, they are shocked. Walter looks at his mother with "hostility," while Ruth's stunned response is, "Clybourne Park? Mama, there ain't no colored people living in Clybourne Park." Walter becomes bitter as Ruth tries to adjust to the shock (92-93). They realize that their lives could be at risk from an irate vigilante if they move within a white neighborhood.

Just as individuals' violence fought to keep Chicago segregated, violence threatens the Younger family. Fire bombings are discussed in the play by the simplistic Mrs. Johnson. She arrives to chat, and while discussing the Younger's upcoming move asks if Mama and Ruth have read "about them colored people that was bombed out of their place out there" (100). She then idiotically states, "Lord-I bet this time next month y'all's names will have been in the papers plenty-'NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK-BOMBED!'" (102). She warns Mama and Ruth that "these here Chicago peckerwoods is some baaaad peckerwoods," an accurate statement of white Chicago's general hatred of integration [a peckerwood is a disparaging term for a white Southerner].

The characterization of Karl Linder is a scathing commentary on white Northern racism on the personal level. He appears innocuous, "quiet-looking," "middle aged," and "a gentle man" (113, 115). He explains to the Youngers that "most of the trouble [between whites and blacks] exists because people just don't sit down and talk to each other" (116). He is calm, patient, and "almost sadly" warns the Youngers that they will be in physical danger if they move into Clybourne Park (119). However, by desiring to keep the Youngers from Clybourne Park, he is implying to them, as Mama says, "they aren't fit to walk the earth" (143). Like Bob Danning, Karl Lindner says, "I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it" (118). At the end of the play, when Walter triumphantly kicks him out of the house, Karl's true character is as weak and shallow as that of whites who openly support housing segregation. The Younger family ignores his veiled threats and concentrates on Walter, the unexpected hero. Karl's last line is a lame, "I sure hope you people know what you're getting into" (149).

Carl Sandburg called Chicago America's laughing city, "proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning." Bill Berry, of Chicago's Urban League, called Chicago "America's largest segregated city" (Ralph 46). A Raisin in the Sun shows through the triumph of the black spirit amidst white racism and segregation that both observations are accurate. Robert Nemiroff, in his introduction to the 1987 text, called the play "so contemporary" (13) because of Lorraine Hansberry's ability to tie social issues, including the rise of second-wave feminism, questioning of gender roles, the difficulties of the black family, and the death of colonialism, throughout A Raisin in the Sun. However, her portrayal of Chicago's segregated housing market is particularly poignant because of her accurate observation that Chicago's segregated housing existed mainly because of racism within the housing industry, the government, religious leaders, and the individual American.

In Deerfield, the white community halted Progress Development Corporation's building project in court (Rosen 148). By 1962, three years from when the controversy began, Harry and David Rosen concluded, "in Deerfield, there are no Negroes next door" (159). A Raisin in the Sun is still a rebuke to suburban audiences today. For most of us, there are still no Negroes next door.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.
Harkey, Jr. , Ira B. The Smell of Burning Crosses; an Autobiography of a Mississippi Newspaperman. Jacksonville, Ill.: Harris-Wolfe, 1967.
Knowles, Louis L., and Kenneth Prewitt, ed. Institutional Racism in America. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.
"Lorraine Hansberry." Gay & Lesbian Biography. 16 Oct. 2003 http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
Lubell, Samuel. White and Black: Test of a Nation. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Ralph, Jr. , James R. Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Rosen, David, and Harry Rosen. But Not Next Door. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962.
Weaver, Robert C. The Negro Ghetto. New York: Russell and Russell, 1948.

© Brandon Colas, October 2006
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