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In this play, Beneatha expresses Hansberry’s knowledge of and pride in her African heritage. Beneatha’s Afrocentric spirit is nurtured by her relationship with the African, Asagai. Not only is Beneatha’s dialogue peppered with a knowledge of 1959 African politics, but her dialogue also shows a knowledge of the ancient kingdoms of Africa, something few historians spoke of and even fewer people knew about.
In Act II, Scene 1, when Beneatha defines an “assimilationist Negro” as being “someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant . . . oppressive culture,” George Murchison responds immediately with, “Here we go! A lecture on the African past! On our Great West African Heritage! In one second we will hear all about the great Ashanti empires; the great Songhay civilizations and the great sculpture of Benin and then some poetry in the Bantu. . . . Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts.”
In response to George’s self-deprecating sarcasm about the historical achievements of black people, Beneatha screams at him from another room: “the Ashanti were performing surgical operations when the English — were still tatooing themselves with blue dragons.” It is clear that whatever George knows about Africa’s past great civilizations has been learned through his association with Beneatha.
Note that when Beneatha’s African suitor, Asagai, is on his way to the Younger apartment, Beneatha gives her mother a hasty briefmg on African history, coaching her mother in conversational protocol. She tells Mama that Asagai is from Nigeria, which Mama immediately confuses with Liberia. After correcting her, Beneatha begs Mama not to make stereotypical comments about Africans and tells her that the only thing that most people seem to know about Africa has been learned from Tarzan movies. Beneatha berates those missionaries who, like Mama, are more concerned with changing the African’s religion than in overthrowing colonial rule.
After Asagai arrives, Mama’s attempt to impress him with her new knowledge of Africa is almost pathetic as she parrots what Beneatha has just told her, echoing Beneatha’s previous dialogue almost verbatim. When Raisin opened in 1959, most people’s knowledge of Africa was as limited as Mama’s. Although a more enlightened modern audience might be chagrined by the political misconceptions of the late 50s, Lorraine Hansberry’s prophetic vision is accurate and important, as though she envisioned the day that the true history of Africa would be widely known and that the shackles of colonialism would be broken. In 1959, when Raisin opened on Broadway, most African countries were under European rule. The following year, 1960, fifteen African countries gained their independence, and in eight more years, thirteen more had become independent.
In Act III, Beneatha and Asagai address the possibility of the African countries’ replacing oppressive colonial rule with corrupt African leaders. Beneatha asks, “Independence and then what? What about the crooks and thieves and just plain idiots who will come into power and steal and plunder the same as before — only now they will be black and do it in the name of the new Independence.” Kwame Nkrumah received worldwide praise for his role in leading Ghana into independence in 1960.
However, immediately after taking office, Nkrumah began to spend the country’s money with reckless abandon and embraced the Communist Parry. The people rebelled against all of his dealings, staged a successful coup d’etat, and he was overthrown in 1966. In retrospect, Hansberry’s prophetic accuracy is once again evident, for Nkrumah, in particular, was one of the leaders most admired by Hansberry in 1959, when Raisin opened. Other African nations also experienced political instability after their post-1959 independence.
Closely related to the theme of Afrocentrism in this play is Beneatha’s decision to change her hairstyle. Although the dialogue concerning Beneatha’s decision to change her hairstyle was omitted from the original stage presentation and from the original screenplay, this dialogue is in the complete, original version of the play and was used in the 1989 American Playhouse TV presentation.
In Act I, Scene 2, Asagai’s off-hand remark about Beneatha’s straightened hair is the catalyst for her dramatic change in Act II, Scene 1 (ironically, for her date with George Murchison and not for a date with Asagai). In Act I, Scene 2, when Asagai presents Beneatha with Nigerian tribal robes, he says, “You wear it well . . . mutilated hair and all.” His meaning is clear, although Beneatha’s sensitivity does not permit her to immediately grasp his meaning. So Asagai explains by asking, “Were you born with it [your hair] like that?”
In Act II, Scene 1, Beneatha was supposed to have come out for her date with a natural (unstraightened) hairstyle; this scene, however, was omitted at the last minute from the original stage presentation because the actress, Diana Sands, in the role of Beneatha, received an imperfect haircut. Since this would have given a negative impression of the natural look, both Hansberry and Sands decided to omit the hairstyle change from the Broadway opening. It is interesting to note that in 1959, Beneatha’s new hairstyle would have sent some shock waves throughout the audience, whereas ten years later, the same style had become so popular nationwide that it was promoted by Madison Avenue as the “Afro.” Once again, Hansberry’s prophetic vision was accurate and on target.
Throughout Raisin, Hansberry expresses her own desire to see blacks in entrepreneurial ventures. So few blacks were in business in 1959 that sociologists of that day addressed this concern in academic publications. Mama says, in response to Ruth’s echoing Walter’s dream of owning his own business, “We ain’t no business people, Ruth. We just plain working folks,” and Ruth answers with: “Ain’t nobody business people till they go into business. Walter Lee says colored people ain’t never going to start getting ahead till they start gambling on some different kinds of things in the world — investments and things.” Because the percentage of black people who own their own businesses has increased dramatically since 1959, one might conclude that, here once again, Hansberry had an accurate view of the future.
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