Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun. The Ghetto Trap
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.
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