Dreams Deferred: Student Voices Respond to A Raisin in the Sun
In our English III: American Voices class, we frame writing as a way to enter the public conversation, a conversation that began centuries ago: about race, class, gender, the environment, education, poverty, etc. During the first half of the year, students enter conversations with authors like Colson Whitehead and F. Scott Fitzgerald through their analytical writing.
We want, however, our students to experience many different ways of joining the conversation – not just academic analyses. So, to close the fall semester, we ask them to unlock their creative potential, using art, poetry, playwriting, and memoir to respond to those universal American questions. We see this kind of creative engagement so clearly in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun as she begins her depiction of the dreams, conflicts, and lives of the Younger family with an epigraph of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem/What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” Hansberry takes this poem as an invitation to write and create something of her own, using Hughes’ words, themes, emotions, and framework as a springboard into her own examination of the American Dream.
Our students make a similar artistic move, selecting a line or passage from Hansberry’s play as their own epigraph to a creative response in a medium of their choice. Their response acts as a bridge from the play into our contemporary conversations about similar themes, such as race and identity, and into our reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” the founding texts to our Citizen Rhetor assignment.
Raisin in the Sun Creative Response Prompt
Lorraine Hansberry brought to bear all her own experiences as a Black girl growing up in the South Side of Chicago: her family’s experience of redlining, her own ambition, and her family relationships. Just as Hansberry takes Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” as an epigraph to direct our attention the Younger family’s pursuit of their respective dreams and the intersectional experiences of being American, so too you are going to find a passage in A Raisin in the Sun to take as your own epigraph and create something new in response. After reading A Raisin in the Sun and tracing the characters’ dreams and conflicts, you will select a passage from the play as an epigraph and write a 1-3 page creative reflective response in your own voice.
Student response can take one of four possible forms:
OPTION #1: Poem. Be a poet! Use not only the words, but also the sounds and figurative language of poetry to join the conversation with Hansberry and Hughes. Your poem does not necessarily need to rhyme or be in a specific form, but the syntax, sound, and figurative language (metaphors, similes, imagery, personification, hyperbole, etc.) should contribute to the experience and reflection on the themes you are responding to in Raisin.
OPTION #2: Play Scene/Monologue. Be a playwright! Create a scene with characters who, like the Youngers, are grappling with the experience of dreams deferred (or other themes in Raisin that you feel drawn to!). Describe the setting, stage, lighting, any soundtrack, and write a dialogue with a beginning, middle, and end that demonstrates your consideration of the issues in Raisin.
OPTION #3: Personal Reflective Narrative. Be a memoirist! In your own voice, tell a story of an event, experience, or reading that has changed, deepened, or complicated your understanding of one of the themes Hansberry has set out.
OPTION #4: Choose your own adventure! Be a rebel! Perhaps you are drawn to another written genre, e.g., flash fiction, graphic novel, etc. Consult with your teacher about it. Then give it a whirl.
Below is a sampling of the beautiful and thoughtful work our creative geniuses submitted. We are so proud of their insights, eloquence, and honesty. Enjoy!
A Rich Man Is Nothing but A Poor Man with Money
MAMA: Oh . . . so now it's life. Money is life.
Once upon a time freedom used to be life--now it's money.
I guess the world really do change . . .
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
It can buy clothes – but can’t wear them
It can buy food – but not health
It can buy intimacy – but not love
It can buy a bed – but can’t sleep
It can buy looks – but not self-esteem
It can buy toys – but not fun
It can buy a book – but can’t read
Is money truly everything that we need in life?
Or is it what we portray to be everything in life?
--Taters Erickson, '23
RUTH: (Touching BENEATHA’S hair) "Girl, you done lost your natural mind!?
Look at your head!"
GEORGE: "What have you done to your head—I mean your hair!"
BENEATHA: "Nothing—except cut it off."
RUTH: "Now that’s the truth—it’s what ain’t been done to it! You expect this boy to
go out with you with your head all nappy like that?"
BENEATHA: (Looking at GEORGE) "That’s up to George. If he’s ashamed of his
GEORGE: "Oh, don’t be so proud of yourself, Bennie—just because you look
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
[Please Restart Your Computer]
Everyone has had their computer spit back these excuses to us. Only for the issue to be magically solved within a few clicks or a power off.
Three tests, one essay, four practices, two games. Sleep slips away from us quicker than the easy' A we never get anymore.
[System cannot handle that many requests]
Parents pick us apart like puppets in the life they never got to live. Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that.
Coaches examine us like we have time to calculate each muscle and tendon.
Teachers squeeze our brains like they sit in a jar just for them to test its limits.
Siblings become rulers we can never measure up to.
The grades, comments, coaching, critiquing, and comparison overlap in a horrible symphony of "you are doing it wrong."
The likes and comments float around the dead space in my head.
The window of perfection and prettiness taunt me with each ping.
Girls so perfect I have to squint at their brightness through my under eye bags reminding me that I will never be them.
[Give us a minute we are cleaning your desktop!]
The self-deprecation piles up like old files in the corner. The piercing gaze of my peers illuminates the dust in the air from too much time since my last cleanup.
[Please try again later]
When is my later? What if I don't want there to be a later?
Maybe teenage girls are computers too.
--Reagan Engleman, '23
Another Perspective: Featuring Lorraine
(MAMA enters. She is a woman in her early sixties, full-bodied and strong. She is one of those women of a certain grace and beauty who wear it so unobtrusively that it takes a while to notice. Her dark brown face is surrounded by the total whiteness of her hair, and, being a woman who has adjusted to the many things in life and overcome many more, her face is full of strength. She has, we can see, wit and faith of a kind that keep her eyes lit and full of interest and expectancy. She is, in a word, a beautiful woman. Her bearing is perhaps most like the notable bearing the women of the Heroes of Southwest Africa— rather as if she imagines that as she walks she still bears a basket or vessel upon her head. Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise— she is inclined to slur everything— but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.)
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
(Ellie enters. She is a young woman nearly seventeen, outspoken and overwhelmed. She is one of those women who acts like a sponge trying bravely to soak up her surroundings and overfilling herself to where she does not notice her holes that are leaking. Her dark hair contrasts with the lightness of her eyes, and, being inexperienced at life yet just barely experienced enough to seek new beginnings, her expression often falls flat, just short of a smile. She has as far as we know, a great deal of interest in the world that keeps her eyes bright and wondering. She is, in a word, optimistic about things. She holds herself almost like her mother, she imagines herself grown up and living her mother’s life— rather she holds herself tall, even a bit too tall, and can feel herself falling over at times. Her speech on the other hand, is as loud as her thoughts— she is inclined to let her ideas spill out— her voice is perhaps not so much loud as it is direct.)
Ellie Mentgen, Mirror Mirror
--Ellie Mentgen, '23
ASAGAI: You wear it very well…very well…mutilated hair and all.
BENEATHA: (Turning suddenly) My hair - what's wrong with my hair?
ASAGAI: (Shrugging) Were you born with it like that?
BENEATHA: (Reaching up to touch it) No…of course not.
(She looks back to the mirror, disturbed)
ASAGAI: (Smiling) How then?
BENEATHA: You know perfectly well how…as crinkly as yours…that's how.
ASGAI: And it is ugly to you that way?
BENEATHA: (Quickly) Oh, no - not ugly… (More slowly, apologetically) But it's
so hard to manage when it's, well - raw.
ASAGAI: And so to accommodate that - you mutilate it every week?
BENEATHA: It's not mutilation!
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
SCENE ONE (CONTINUATION)
Beneatha: So just because I style my hair, I’m an assimilationist?!
Asagai: (nonchalantly) I didn’t say that, I’m talking more about the type of styles you do.
Beneatha: (crossing her arms) Oh really, and what type is this?
Asagai: (sighs) Ones that hurt your hair more than they help it.
(Beneatha sits down on the couch with a defeated look on her face.)
Beneatha: It isn’t fair of you to judge me for what I do with my hair. I just do what I was taught! It’s all I know. No one ever taught me how to manage it…(almost forcing the word out) naturally. It’s not like I necessarily enjoy having to relax it all the time. Relaxers have been burning my scalp since I was a little girl!
Asagai: (excitedly) I can help you!
Beneatha: (unconvinced) Oh, really. (giggling) The lack of hair on your head tells me I should get advice from someone else!
Asagai: (playfully) Hey, now! I rock this buzz cut by choice! (pleading) Please, just give me a chance! Trust me, you won’t regret it.
(Beneatha sits on the couch and ponders her decision. She puts on a bold front, but deep down there is a sensitive emotional layer she must deal with every time she changes, or even thinks about her hair. What is it going to look like? What will other people think? Will they accept it? Ignore it? Ridicule it? She wishes she could leave her hair alone. She wishes she didn’t have to spend hours twisting and turning it into a “socially acceptable” form every week. Maybe she should give Asagai a chance. After all, what does she have to lose? It’s not like she’d be cutting it off.)
Beneatha: Hmmm…okay. (Asagai jumps for joy) I’ll give you ONE chance. But NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE is cutting off my hair Asagai!
Asagai: (laughing) I promise, the scissors will be kept away. We’d better get going!
Beneatha: (startled) Right now?
Asagai: Yes! Right now!
(Asagai takes Beneatha’s hand and starts pulling her out of the door.)
Beneatha: (As she is rushed along) Where are we going?
Asagai: (hurriedly) Don’t worry! I know just the place…
The curtains close and reopen on a bustling scene of downtown Chicago. There are tall apartment buildings lining the streets along with dozens of shops, restaurants, and parlors. The sun is shining, taxis are speeding up and down busy roads, and the sidewalks are full of children and adults going about their days. Asagai and Beneatha’s taxi comes to a stop, and they step out in front of their destination.
Asagai: We’re here!
(Beneatha looks up at the flashing store sign. It reads: “Abiola’s African Hair Braiding Shop”.)
Asagai: So…are you ready?
Beneatha: (Shakily) I don’t think I’ll ever be.
(Asagai walks in confidently, with Beneatha meekly trailing behind him. They are met with a warm greeting from an old Nigerian woman.)
Asagai: (Briefly taking a knee) Eh cas ohn, ma.
Abiola: Eh kah boh, my son.
(They are not related. Nor have they met before.)
Asagai: My name is Asagai, ma. This is Beneatha. (Beneatha finally steps out from behind Asagai and shows herself)
Beneatha: (mimicking Asagai, she awkwardly kneels while greeting Abiola) Um- he-hello ma’am. My name is Beneatha, but you can call me Bennie for short.
(Abiola takes Beneatha’s hands and pulls her up.)
Abiola: Don’t worry my child, I know what I can do for you.
Asagai: (whispering) Say o sheh, ma!
Beneatha: Oh shay?
(Abiola and Asagai laugh as Abiola leads Beneatha to the styling chair. Beneatha timidly sits in the chair, not knowing what to expect next.)
Abiola: Do you like braids?
Abiola: Not to worry, everyone starts somewhere.
(Abiola immediately pulls out a comb, a pack of braiding hair, and gets to work. Beneatha watches in amazement at how quickly Abiola’s fingers braid her hair…
One hour passes. Then two. Then three. Five and a half hours later…Abiola is done. She steps back and admires her intricate work.)
Abiola: Ah ah! Oh lewah!
(As Beneatha looks in the mirror at the finished product, a wide grin forms on her face. Her once relaxed and damaged hair has transformed into long, beautiful, intricate braids. )
Beneatha: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you ma’am! I’ve never seen anything like it!
Abiola: No wahala! I am glad you like them.
(Abiola goes on to tell Ruth everything she needs to know about how to take care of her hair while it’s in braids. Beneatha pays Abiola generously, gives her one last hug, and skips back out onto the street with Asagai running behind her.)
Asagai: (grinning) Aren’t you glad you trusted me now?
Beneatha: Oh, Asagai. I can never thank you enough!
(Beneatha and Asagai return to the apartment where Ruth is cooking dinner in the kitchen. Ruth sees Beneatha’s hair and gasps with delight.)
Ruth: Bennie! Your hair! (bewildered) It’s…amazing!
(Beneatha freezes and starts sobbing uncontrollably. Ruth rushes over immediately to comfort her.)
Ruth: Bennie, did you hear me right? I said I LIKED it!
Beneatha: (in between sobs) I-I know! I just can’t believe it took me so long to even have the courage to do it! You should’ve met Ms. Abiola, Ruth! She told me all about the braids and the other different styles I can do to help my hair. She called ‘em “protective styles”.
(Beneatha calms down and goes on talking about her experience and how she’s gonna treat her hair differently. Her newfound excitement about her hair can be spotted from a mile away.)
Asagai: Bennie… I owe you an apology.
Beneatha: (surprised, but intrigued) For what?
Asagai: Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you like your hair. But I shouldn’t have made you feel bad about how you styled it before. You have the freedom to do whatever you want with your hair, I just wanted to make sure you knew you had options.
Beneatha: Oh, Asagai. I know you had good intentions. I’ll probably style my hair differently again at some point, but now I know I can be comfortable with trying different ones. Ones that are actually meant for my hair type.
(Beneatha and Asagai embrace in a hug as he prepares to leave.)
Asagai: (standing in the doorway) Oh! And one more thing!
Asagai: Don’t let them touch your hair.
-Obademi Fashemo, '23