Recently, scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post by a friend, Kenneth Carroll, a D.C. writer, that made me shudder. Carroll, who is African American, wrote that in the midst of a discussion, a woman, “a [Democratic] party loyalist,” called him “boy.”
“It’s pretty standard racist code to refer to grown ass Black men as boys,” he told her. As a white woman trying to be aware of her white privilege, I’m no expert on race. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that racism, even liberal racism, is all too alive and well.
I thought of Carroll’s encounter with racism, as I watched a riveting production of “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry at Arena Stage. (It runs at Arena through May 7.) Hansberry who was black and queer, died of cancer at age 34 in 1965. A classic of mid-century American theater, “Raisin” is set in the 1950s in the South Side of Chicago. It tells the story of an African-American family. The Younger family live in a cramped tenement. The family unexpectedly comes into money when Momma receives a $10,000 check in life insurance after her husband dies. She, her son, 35-year-old Walter Lee, and her daughter, 20-year-old Beneatha, have different dreams of how they want to spend the money. Walter Lee wants to go into business. Beneatha wants to become a doctor.
Momma uses part of the money to buy a home for the family. Karl Lindner, a white man from the “welcoming committee” comes to their apartment to pressure them not to move into their new home in his neighborhood. Lindner tries to mask his racism in the language and veneer of tolerance and understanding. “Most of the trouble exists because people just don’t sit down and talk to each other,” he says. “That we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem. The other guy’s point of view.”
The New York Times called “A Raisin in the Sun,” “the play that changed American theater forever.” Hansberry received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award when her groundbreaking play appeared on Broadway in 1959. She was the youngest American playwright, fifth woman and only African American to win this award.
“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” said James Baldwin, a friend of Hansberry.
Some might feel that “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t relevant now – that we’ve moved beyond the racism depicted in the play. We have civil rights laws and for eight years we had a black president. But that would be wrong. In our time of Ferguson, there have been innumerable, senseless police shootings of black people. One hundred days into the Trump era, Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems bent on setting back civil rights for people of color (along with LGBT folk and other marginalized groups). It’s unlikely that HUD Secretary Ben Carson will be a fair housing champion.
This isn’t to say that all white people are racists. There are white people who check their privilege. I know white people who work with, are friends with and live in families with people of color. My friend Martha, who is white and lives in New York, is part of a loving, bi-racial family. “But,” she says, “issues around race are far from easy.” Martha participates in White Lives Listen, a Judson Memorial Church group that seeks to understand prejudice and works for racial justice.
“What happens to a dream deferred?” queer, African-American poet Langton Hughes asked in the poem (which provided Hansberry with the title for her play), “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”
“A Raisin in the Sun,” a play about dreams, calls on us to keep working to end the nightmare of racism.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.