By: Tera Ertz
While A Raisin in the Sun looked at many issues of poverty and Black families in the 1950s, one of the primary themes of the play was the idea of integration. Hansberry presented a well rounded picture of the differing perspectives of the time on the subject. Mama illustrated the idea in light of simple economic concerns when she chose to use some of her insurance money to purchase a home in a white neighborhood. The family’s initial reaction of horror demonstrated the tightly held desire to remain in their comfort zone, and their fear of the possible repercussions of such a move. Beneatha shows the intersection of the two extremes of the debate in her choice of male companionship. On the one side, there is George Murchison, a young black man from a well-off family of businessmen. On the other side is Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian national who encourages Beneatha to get back to her African roots, and eventually asks her to return to Africa with him.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of conflict between the two sides is the scene where Beneatha wears the Nigerian robes Asagai has brought her. While she is playing African music, Walter returns drunk and begins his version of an African tribal dance, and into the mayhem, George Murchison arrives to take Beneatha out for the evening. There ensues a rejection of African brotherhood by Murchison, and a surly exchange by Walter, changing swiftly from beating his chest to trying to wheedle a meeting with Murchison’s father. The stage is set for a conflict between the old settled ways of tribal solidarity and the new way forward of assimilationism or coming into harmony with American society (Dictionary.com). All that was lacking was the outside force, which arrived on the scene in the person of Karl Linder of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association with his offer to pay them to not move into their new home. From beginning to end, the story unfolds along fairly predictable lines, with the inevitable outcome that Walter grows a backbone, rejects the offer at the last minute, and the family moves on into their brave new world.
Since the time of this play’s writing, much has changed in American society. And yet, questions persist about the benefits of assimilation. What has the impact been on the African-American community? Has it been a hindrance? Has it caused a loss of values and identity or has it provided the opportunity to thrive? In answering these questions, it might first be instructive to look to the African nation referenced with overtones of nostalgia in the play, Nigeria. Nigeria has had a long history of ethnic cleansing and civil war. During the time period from 1960 to today, this country has suffered 8 coups, 16 years of military rule, multiple civil wars and secession attempts, continuing ethnic and religious violence, and economic instability (BBC News). The current per capita GDP of the country of Nigeria is $2,300 per year, the infant mortality rate is the 10th highest in the world, the average life expectancy is 47 years old, and the literacy rate is 68%. Nigerian politics, and the resultant turmoil in its economy, is marked by more than 250 ethnic groups and multiple languages across the country (CIA) that supersede any sense of national unity and thereby contribute to the inability for functional governance to be achieved.
If we contrast this to the same period here in the United States, we see that there has been widespread progress across the board without the large scale anarchy. Institutionalized anti-racism, which actually came into being at the founding of this country, grew into such a strong national force that we now have an African American as President of the country. The per capita GDP is $46,000 per year, the infant mortality rate is 178th in the world, the average life expectancy is 78 years old, and the literacy rate is 99% (United States). While it is true that the poverty rate among blacks is still around 22% of the total number of people in poverty, which is 10% higher than their total percentage of population, this has dropped from the high of 30% of those in poverty in the 60s (Historical Poverty Tables – People Table 16), and the gap has shrunken as well since their percentage of population has risen from 10.5% of total population to the current 12.3%. From the perspective of maintaining the tribal ideas of places like Nigeria as opposed to assimilating into American culture, in the instance of physical and fiscal wellbeing, assimilation seems to be the better choice.
Yet there is still the question of identity. Has the move to integrate into American society deprived African Americans of their sense of values and respect? First examine the premise of the question. If a group is identified as African American, rather than American, then obviously assimilation has not occurred. The first uses of this identifier trace back to the Civil War period, but it did not come into popular use until the 1960s (Douglas Harper). Malcolm X was one of the great promoters of the early version of the term, Afro-American. He advocated separateness from “White America”, a rejection of Western ideas, and an embrace of Islam. While he claimed not to advocate violence, even his later speeches included such statements as
“But I think the Black man in this country, above and beyond people all over the world, will be more justified when he stands up and starts to protect himself, no matter how many necks he has to break and heads he has to crack.” (X)
In other words, he stood on the side of segregation and tribalism, and his message carries on today in groups like The Black Panther Party with their Ten-Point Program advocating black control of black communities, reparations, and free health care, among other things. (The Black Panther Party) The continual drumbeat of non-assimilation running alongside the siren song of the American dream has sown confusion in the minds of young people for nearly half a century.
Where does this leave the current state of affairs? The conclusion must be that it remains where it has always been. The nature and history of man leads us to cling to those we perceive most easily to be the same, and to attempt to exclude and even oppress those who are different. This was true of peoples of all colors and creeds throughout history, until the 1800s in Europe and America where a new idea took root; the idea that sameness could be achieved not through similar skin colors, backgrounds, or religions, but through the singular idea of individual liberty. Until African Americans decide to become Americans, bound together by this idea, they will always experience the sense of being torn between tribal angst and the liberation that the American ideal holds forth.
When looked at closely, the play examined this concept as well. The poverty suffered by the family was not simply due to skin color, or George Murchison would have been poor as well. It was instead attributable to poor decision making on the part of the major players. The father who wasted a little money to impress his child, and a lot of money to beat the man. The wife who did not voice her objections for fear of hurting her husband’s ego. The daughter who squandered money on one whim after another in an effort to “find herself.” The mother who provided everything her adult children wanted, and in so doing did not require them to learn the hard lesson of being responsible for themselves. In the play, as in life, it took the individual owning up to his mistakes, taking responsibility for his life and discarding the excuses for his failure, in this case his race, to finally step toward success. It is not our circumstances, or skin color, or adversities, but our response to these things that defines what we will become.
BBC News. BBC News. 30 November 2010. 6 December 2010 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/1067695.stm>.
CIA. “Nigeria.” 2010. CIA World Factbook. 6 December 2010 <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html>.
Dictionary.com. 2010. 6 December 2010 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/assimilation>.
Douglas Harper, Historian. “African American.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 5 December 2010 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/African+American>.
“Historical Poverty Tables – People Table 16.” US Census Bureau. 6 December 2010 <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/hstpov16.xls>.
Stoops, Frank Hobbs and Nicole. “Demographic Trends in the 20th Century.” November 2002. US Census Bureau. 6 December 2010 <http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf>.
The Black Panther Party. 6 December 2010 <http://www.blackpanther.org/index.html>.
“United States.” CIA World Factbook. 6 December 2010 <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html>.
X, Malcolm. Malcolm X. 14 February 1965. 6 December 2010 <http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches/spc_021465.htm>.