Summary and Analysis Act II — Scene 1
Later that Saturday, dressed in her new Nigerian robes and headdress, Beneatha dances to African music while simultaneously giving Ruth an impromptu lesson in its significance. Walter comes in, after having had a few too many drinks, and joins in Beneatha’s ritualistic dance. The doorbell rings suddenly, and George Murchison arrives for his theater date with Beneatha. He gets into a heated debate with her over the history and heritage of black people, all of which he belittles as insignificant, and then he antagonizes Walter by dismissing Walter’s attempts to discuss his “big” business plans with him.
After George’s exit, Walter Lee and Ruth reminisce about their early days together and contrast their early dreams and warm feelings for one another, compared to now, when they seem to be slipping away from one another. Mama returns unexpectedly and announces to Travis especially — and also to Walter and Ruth — that she has put a hefty down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood. Ruth cannot contain her happiness at the thought of their finally being able to move out of the overcrowded apartment. Walter, however, is crushed by Mama’s news; to him, Mama has “butchered his dream.”
This scene emphasizes Beneatha’s naivete about African culture, for although she is wearing the Nigerian robe and headdress, she is “fanning herself with an ornate oriental fan” and inadvertently appears more Asian than African. Also, Ruth reveals her lack of knowledge about things African as she questions Beneatha about the Nigerian outfit and dance. Walter’s sudden intrusion into the dance is comical on the surface, but on a deeper level, Walter Lee appears somewhat tragic as he attempts to recapture his lost African past.
Even though Walter knows little about Africa, he immediately falls into step with the ritualistic dance and chants as though a psychic memory serves him.
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Most blacks wanting to gain acceptance and possible wealth would have to throw off their African past and assimilate, as George has done, which includes deriding and belittling their African culture.
Although Asagai has received a Western-style education, as George Murchison has, Asagai does not have a problem of identity. He knows who he is because he is African. Murchison, on the other hand, knows nothing of his African past, despises the little he knows of his heritage, and, therefore, hates himself. His self-hatred manifests itself in his contemptuous attitude toward other blacks, especially toward less wealthy and less educated blacks like Walter.
Both Beneatha and George Murchison seem to be pedants, showing off their learning, but George is offensive when he flaunts his knowledge in order to insult and degrade others. Although George suspects that Ruth has never been to the theater — and certainly not a theater in another state — he insists on giving Ruth unnecessary information about the difference between curtain times in Chicago and New York’s theaters.
George calls Walter Lee “Prometheus” in order to subtly insult Walter, but mainly to point out Walter’s lack of learning. This scene clearly reveals Walter Lee’s lack of formal education because Walter assumes that George has simply invented the name “Prometheus” to annoy him.
In addition, this scene illustrates how difficult it is to be Walter Lee Younger without being bitter. When George Murchison refers to Walter Lee as “bitter,” Walter Lee agrees that he’s bitter; Walter also wonders how George can be content having to live as a second-class citizen — in spite of his wealth — and not be bitter himself.
Hansberry also uses this scene in order to validate the natural hairstyle (unstraightened hair on black women) — a very new concept in 1959 — and even considered somewhat radical when this play opened, but a hairstyle which became popular in the late sixties as the “Afro” hairstyle. When Beneatha reenters, dressed for her date with George, she is wearing a natural hairstyle. Ultra-conservative George surprises everyone with his praise of Beneatha’s new look; however, his attitude is patronizing and condescending, as though she requires his approval.
Finally, in this scene, Hansberry makes an emphatic statement about integration. Ruth is apprehensive, almost frightened, when she hears that the new house is located in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. But Mama explains that a comparable house in a black neighborhood would cost twice as much. Mama is not moving to Clybourne Park because she wants to integrate a neighborhood; instead, she simply wants the best deal for her money. This scene is often the most misinterpreted of all the scenes in the play.
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fanning herself . . . mistakenly more like Butterfly than any Nigerian This stage direction refers to Beneatha’s exuberance after receiving the gift of the Nigerian robes and headdress from Asagai. Because Beneatha is not accustomed to African dress, she does not “wear” it properly. Although she is dressed like a Nigerian woman, she begins to dramatically fan herself in order to accentuate her outfit, but she inadvertently loses the African look and appears more Asian, looking as though she’s Madame Butterfly instead of African royalty.
Ethiopia References to Ethiopia can be found in the Bible and in the writings of Herodotus and Homer. For much of its history, Ethiopia was known as Abyssinia. Although it is documented that as early as the first century B.C. some Middle Eastern traders settled there, Ethiopian history cites Queen Makeda of Ethiopia and King Solomon as being the parents of Menelik I who, during his reign, founded the kingdom of Ethiopia in 10 B.C. Queen Makeda was known by many names: “Bilquis” to the ancient Moslems, “Black Minerva” and “Ethiopian Diana” to the Greeks, “Queen of Sheba” to King Solomon, and to her own people, she was “Makeda, the beautiful.” Queen Makeda was so impressed with the wisdom of King Solomon that she visited him in Jerusalem, adopted his religion of Judaism and, upon the birth of their first child, who was a male, she crowned this child King of Ethiopia, an act which united the two nations. She named this child Ibn-alHakim, which means “son of the wise man,” but he was popularly known as Menelik. In 1889, Sahaba Mariem rose to power in Ethiopia, ascended the throne, and changed his name to Menelik II, signifying blood ties to Menelik, Makeda’s son. Menelik II initiated the modern age of Ethiopian development by defeating the Italians, who were trying to establish a protectorate over Ethiopia. Under his reign, roads were constructed, formal education and social services were instituted, and electricity was introduced. Menelik II is also responsible for relocating the capital at Addis Ababa and for modernizing the operation of government. The most dominant figure in recent Ethiopian history is Haile Selassie I, also known as “the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Elect of God, and King of Kings.” He was crowned Emperor in 1930. Five years later, in 1935, after Selassie had offered his people a written constitution and educational and administrative reforms, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and occupied the country until 1941, when the British forced the Italians out, and Haile Selassie returned to his throne. During the following decades, Haile Selassie became a symbol of leadership to other African nations that eventually would demand their independence. The founding of the Organization of African Unity, under Haile Selassie, and the headquartering of the OAU in Addis Ababa attest to the respect that Selassie received from the people of Africa.
The lion is waking This phrase refers to all of the African countries that were beginning to demand their independence of colonial rule. The reference was somewhat unsettling to colonial rulers of that day because of the suggested imagery of the fates of those caught in the presence of an awakening, ferocious lion. This phrase also refers to the Lion of Judah.
Owimoweh “Owimoweh” is the title of an African chant, referring to the waking of the lion. Contained in an early sixties song, subtitled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the word was made popular by Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
a descendant of Chaka Chaka, also known as Shaka, or Shaka Zulu, was an early nineteenth century African warrior-king who implemented warfare techniques and weaponry which have been studied and adopted by military leaders and personnel worldwide ever since Shaka’s time. Shaka Zulu incorporated into his own army the warriors from defeated tribes; he also established military towns in order to ensure that his armies were well provided for and excellently trained. Shaka Zulu initiated the idea of complex battle formations in order to outflank and confuse his enemies, not unlike those strategies used in football formations. In addition, Shaka Zulu revolutionized the existing Zulu weaponry by designing a short-handled stabbing spear, known as the “assegai.” To this day, the name Shaka Zulu garners high praise in military circles and commands great respect. Hansberry’s description of Walter as he chants to the African music with Beneatha includes a reference to Shaka Zulu, or Chaka: “On the table, very far gone, his eyes pure glass sheets. He sees what we cannot, that he is a leader of his people, a great chief, a descendant of Chaka, and that the hour to march has come.”
Ashanti Beneatha’s reference to the Ashanti people, along with George Murchison’s references to the Songhay Empire, Benin, and the Bantu language, shows that Hansberry herself had some knowledge of the African continent and its culture. Because her uncle, Leo Hansberry, was a professor of African history at Howard University and, perhaps, because one of his students was Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence, Hansberry’s major geographical focus here appears to be on the history of Ghana, known prior to its independence as “The Gold Coast.” The Ashanti, originally a part of present-day Ghana, were people within the Ghana Empire whose ascendancy was based on the iron and gold found within this wealthy country. By 1180, however, a group of rival tribes united as the nation of Mali, ravaged Ghana, and put an end to its empire. The new Mali Empire, larger and more wealthy that the former empire of Ghana, reached from the Atlantic Ocean to the Niger River and north to the Sahara Desert. The rulers of Mali established the Muslim religion that had come out of Arabia and was sweeping throughout Africa. Mali’s most well-known king, Mansa Musa, advanced his civilization to a point of such great wealth that when he made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he spent more than a hundred camel-loads of gold on his holy trip. Perhaps, because of such abuses by its kings, Mali, once one of the world’s great trading nations, was eventually conquered by the neighboring kingdom of Songhai (Songhay).
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Songhai (Songhay) The Sunni dynastry of Songbai conquered Mali after Mali had progressively grown weaker with its line of ineffective kings. By the 1470s, Songhai had become the largest and richest country in Africa, boasting the city of Timbuktu, which was the center of learning and trade for the Muslim world. In Timbuktu, men and boys (only) studied at its great university, utilizing to great advantage its many active libraries and books on history, medicine, astronomy, and poetry. The first Songhai king, Sunni Ali, destroyed much of Timbuktu, but his successor, Askia, rebuilt this ancient city of learning. However, after the death of Askia, the Songhai Empire weakened and was finally conquered by neighboring enemies. Timbuktu, once the center of learning, became a tiny desert town, important only because of its history. After the fall of the Songhai Empire, the days of the great black kingdoms of West Africa were over. Attesting to Hansberry’s preoccupation with the demise of such great African civilizations and her deep regret that there was a universal lack of knowledge of these ancient black kingdoms are her constant references to Africa in Raisin. Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were the three greatest of the many empires that flourished in West Africa, yet all that remains of these advanced civilizations of past great wealth and strength are relics of ruins and the tales of ancient travelers.
Benin When George Murchison mentions “the great sculpture of Benin,” he is referring to the magnificent works of art that were produced throughout Africa, much to the astonished appreciation of Europeans who had come to Africa, first to trade and later to capture slaves. But, of all the superior works of art that came out of Africa, the most remarkable were those found in Benin. Many factors contributed to the downfall of the aforementioned empires, including weakening from within by internal strife, invasions by outsiders and the beginnings of trade along the West Coast with European merchants. The coastal people who had once been ruled by empires in the interior soon began to trade slaves and gold for firearms and ammunition since lances, spears, and arrows were no match against the rifles and cannons of the Arabs and Europeans. Using their new weapons to fight their rulers, they eventually created their own kingdoms in the coastal forests of West Africa, the most powerful of which was that of Benin (present-day Nigeria). Benin’s theocracy dictated the production of art for religious purposes. Tradition states that around 1170, the Oba (king) commissioned the finest bronze/brass-smith, a man who was so excellent in his craft that to this day, his name is worshipped as a god by the bronze/brass-smiths of Benin. Thus began the Benin practice of making bronze-brass castings to memorialize important events. Sadly, the people of Benin began to involve themselves in the lucrative Atlantic slave-trade — selling captured rival prisoners to Europeans and Americans. At this point, we should note that although Hansberry lauds the Ashanti empires specifically and speaks highly of the art of Benin through the dialogue of her character, Beneatha, Hansberry, herself, in other essays, refers specifically to the Ashanti as “those murderous, slave trading Ashanti.” Hansberry does not mention the slave trading aspect of West African history in this play; possibly she believed that this fact would be intentionally misinterpreted. The inexcusable complicity of the Africans in the heinous slave trade, however miniscule it might have been, is often exaggerated — perhaps in an attempt to assuage guilt over the grand scale involvement in the violation of human rights by all those connected with the Atlantic slave trade. As the economy of Benin grew to depend upon the slave trade, internal strife once again claimed an empire as Benin declined and was eventually overwhelmed by the British. The British attack on Benin, ironically, was initially to retaliate for the killing of nine European travelers. But when the British stormed the city, they were so impressed by the Benin bronzes that they took them back with them, giving the British Museum an incomparable collection of rare treasures of African art. Because this art received such worldwide attention, few wanted to believe that such magnificent artwork had been created by the Africans. Thus, the art of Benin was, at first, attributed to the Portuguese; then someone suggested that the bronzes had been washed ashore from the lost city of Atlantis or had been created by its descendants or survivors; others said that some lost and wandering Europeans had found themselves in Benin and had produced the bronze wonders; others said that nomadic Greeks had produced these works while journeying through Africa. Still others insisted that these works, found in Africa, had been the products of the European Renaissance. All of this confusion was due to the widespread ignorance of Africa, its traditions, its people and their capabilities, and the great lost civilizations. In this play, Hansberry attempted, in her own small way, to educate the world about Africa through her drama about a poor black family living on Chicago’s Southside.
Bantu The Bantu language is the tongue common to the peoples of Africa who live below the equator. There are many languages and tribes among the Bantu people — thus, the Bantu are one of the many native African groups who speak one of the Bantu languages. Bantu is the largest language family and Swahili (which consists of Bantu and Arabic) is the most widely spoken.
that big hotel on the Drive Walter refers to “that big hotel on the Drive” in a conversation with George Murchison as he asks George about the Murchison family’s prospective real estate ventures. Clearly, Hansherry uses her own family’s livelihood as being the livelihood of the rich black family in Raisin. Lorraine Hansberry’s father was a successful real estate businessman; apparently, the Murchison family of Raisin is equally successful, for Walter refers to the Murchisons’ purchase of a big hotel on the “Drive.” The “Drive” to which Walter refers is an expressway along a scenic stretch of land — a large sprawling park or a river view; in whatever city, this would be expensive property. In 1959, anyone, most especially a black person, who could afford to purchase a hotel — especially a hotel on such expensive property — would have been very wealthy.
Prometheus As noted later in the character analysis of Walter Lee Younger, George Murchison’s reference to Prometheus fits Walter’s fiery personality, along with several other parallels. Prometheus, the god who was punished for having brought fire to mortals, was chained to Mt. Caucasus, where his liver was torn out every day by an eagle but grew back each night. Prometheus’ suffering lasted for thousands of years — until Hercules killed the eagle and freed Prometheus. Although Walter’s frustrations of establishing his own business appear to devour his hopes, his obsession with his dream restores his hope. George is pedantic, showing off his knowledge, when he says to Walter (after he is safely half-out the door), “Good night, Prometheus.”
Gimme some sugar then a southern expression that means “Give me a hug, a kiss.” Mama says this to Travis as she tells him about the house that she is planning to buy.
never been ‘fraid of no crackers After Mama has announced her plans to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood, Ruth at first expresses fear. Then, as if it were an afterthought, Ruth says that she’s “never been ‘fraid of no crackers” even though her previous dialogue says otherwise. Traditionally, “crackers” refers to bigoted whites, especially those living in Georgia; here, Ruth is using the term to derogatorily refer to all white racists.