Seeing through another’s eyes that common hopes are greater than racial divisions

    Last week, when Philadelphia Magazine started catching fire for Robert Huber’s article, “Being White in Philly,” we all recognized how far our city has to go in order to have a healthy dialogue about race and class and opportunity.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Last week, when Philadelphia Magazine started catching fire for Robert Huber’s article, “Being White in Philly,” we all recognized how far our city has to go in order to have a healthy dialogue about race and class and opportunity.

    As an English teacher at a variety of schools (middle school, high school, community college), I always found a way in — and helped my students find a way in — to controversial and emotional topics through our discussions about literature. Literature has a way of helping us distance ourselves so that we can return to a painful reality more empathetic, more thoughtful, and better prepared.

    My favorite piece of literature to teach was Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The story is about an African American family in Chicago in the 1950s, before the civil rights movement. Walter Younger and his wife Ruth live in a tiny apartment with their son Travis, Walter’s mother (known as Mama), and Walter’s sister Beneatha.

    The family has big dreams. Mama is a classic matriarch, a strong woman who fled the Jim Crow south to have a better future. After her husband’s death, a life insurance check of $10,000 comes in the mail and the family wonders how she’s going to spend it.

    She decides that part of it will be invested in Beneatha’s education, since she is studying to become a doctor. She gives another portion to Walter, even though it’s against her better judgment, because he is desperate to start a business. He has become tired and angry about his station in life — being a chauffeur to a rich white man — with no opportunity for advancement. The last of the money goes to a down payment on a new home Mama decides to buy after years of living in a small, one-window apartment with a shared bathroom in the hall.

    Approaching a crossroads

    Buying a home, the Younger family is directly and personally confronted by the depth of white racism. Mama bought a house in a white neighborhood, because the houses in black neighborhoods are too expensive. The family fears harrassment, but they are so desperate to get out of the cramped apartment that they’re willing to make the best of it.

    That’s when Carl Lindner shows up, a man from the “Hyde Park Improvement Association,” who offers the Youngers triple the amount of money not to move into their white neighborhood. The entire white community, the Youngers find out, has raised money to ensure their neighborhood remains all-white.

    Lorraine Hansberry does such a good job with dialogue and detail that my students — black and white — feel very connected to the Younger family. They see in the characters reflections of themselves and their own family members; they see the struggles, but also the love and pride. Lindner’s proposal comes as a shock and reminds us of the brutal reality of racial segregation, the notion that persists even today that black people’s dreams and concerns are inferior to whites’.

    I always ask my students what they would do if they were in Walter’s situation. By the end of the play, his little bit of insurance money has been gambled and lost, and the only thing the family has left is this dream of owning a home. Should he stand in front of his son and take Carl Lindner’s money, money that represents a white community’s fear and judgment? Or should he tell Carl Lindner no, that the Youngers are good and proud people, and they have as much right to that property as white folks?

    What would you do?

    Many of my students say Walter should take the money. It’s not worth it to move into a neighborhood where people don’t want you, knowing your house may get bombed and your family hurt. The money is a safer bet. Other students stare blankly, not knowing what they would do. The situation seems too impossible, and neither choice feels free.

    This is usually when I get on my high horse and insist that no amount of money is worth the cost of your spirit. Usually, I’m wiping my eyes, because the last scene of the play is powerful, no matter how many times I’ve read it. I remind the students that what Walter wants most in the world is his family’s respect and to honor his ancestors’ legacy; how can he get there if he accepts Lindner’s offer? At what point, I ask, does a person stand up to injustice because it’s the right thing to do, and not let fear and oppression win?

    More than 50 years after Lorraine Hansberry wrote that play, we still live in a racially segregated society. Many of us don’t know each other. And unless we make a conscious effort to work toward living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, learning in ethnically diverse schools, worshipping in ethnically diverse churches — unless we look into our hearts and practice peace and stop letting fear be the dominant emotion when it comes to discussions about race, our country’s future will suffer.

    The thing I love about “A Raisin in the Sun” is that it reminds us of the importance and power of dreams — that with hard work, dedication, and sometimes a little luck, we all hope our deeply held desires will come true. Everyone in this country, regardless of color, wants access to that. Unfortunately, we too often get mired in discussions of race where harmful stereotypes reign. We too often forget that we’re on the same side, with the same hopes for our future, a similar vision the country we want to live in, and the same dreams for our children.

    Jana Llewellyn is a writer, editor, and former English teacher currently working on her first novel. She blogs about spirituality, parenting, and writing at AnAttitudeAdjustment.com.

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