Note: Alerted by a reader, I revised the following post to indicate that
it is the blue collar worker's sister-in-law, not her sister, with
whom she resides. -- Wendy Plotkin
Date: Tue, 7 Dec 1993
Sender: H-URBAN Urban History discussion list
From: Wendy Plotkin
Subject: Urban Films
I'd like to revive the discussion of feature and documentary
films for use in an urban history or U.S. history class.
What about Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun", a play and film
about African-American life in Chicago in the 1950s? "Raisin in the
Sun" includes several "slices" of African-American family life in the
urban post World War II North: a harried female blue collar worker,
her husband who aspires for capital to become an entrepreneur, her
sister-in-law who is drawing on the family resources to go through medical
school, and her mother-in-law who is an aging and powerful matriarch.
Social movements are also addressed in the form of the suitor who is
from Africa and introduces the sister to African nationalism and
The most suitable section of the film for urban history students,
however, is the segregation in housing that almost tears the family
apart. As far as I am aware, this is a subject rarely covered in
American film and television, other than the program "East Side, West
Side" in the 1960s (I stopped watching television in the 1970s, so I am
behind the times).
Here is a speech from a "representative" of the white neighborhood
who visits the family informing them of the reaction to their
proposed integration of the neighborhood, and of Beneatha, the
daughter of the African-American family:
LINDNER (more frustrated than annoyed): ...I am sure you
people must be aware of some of the incidents which have
happened in various parts of the city when colored people
have moved into certain areas---....Well--because we have
what I think is going to be a unique type of organization
in American community life -- not only do we deplore that
kind of thing -- but we are trying to do something about
it....We feel...we feel that most of the trouble in this
world, when you come right down to it -- most of the trouble
exists because people just don't sit down and talk to each other."
Well -- you see our community is made up of people who've worked
hard as the dickens for years to build up that little community.
They're not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest
people who don't really have much but those little homes and
a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their
children in. Now, I don't say we are perfect and there is a
lot of wrong in some of the things they want. But you've got
to admit that a man, right or wrong, has the right to want to
have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way. And
at the moment the overwhelming majority of our people out there
feel that people get along better, take more of a common interest
in the life of the community, when they share a common background.
I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice
simply doesn't enter into it. It is a matter of the people of
Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for
the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier
when they live in their *own* communities.
Beneatha (with a grand and bitter gesture): This, friends, is the
It seems to me that if one is using Arnold Hirsch's _Making the Second
Ghetto_, Jim Grossman's _Land of Hope, or _Black Metropolis_ this scene
would offer a compelling "slice of life" to the students.
Also, in an urban history class in which I participated, an
open-housing documentary [from the Chicago urban renewal agency?] was
shown -- an interesting attempt on the part of fair housing advocates
to use film to ameliorate the problems that "Raisin in the Sun" probes.
An essay on the play observes:
This play illustrates the American dream as it is felt not
just by blacks but by all Americans: If you work hard and
save your money, if you hold to the proper values and
hope, then you can one day buy your own home and have
the kind of space and privacy that permit people to live
in dignity. 
Thus, the play also lends itself to a discussion of non-race-specific
issues of tenancy vs. home-ownership, the American dream. . . .
It is interesting that the desired destination of the family in "Raisin
in the Sun" is another city location, and not the suburbs -- at this
period, the city was still considered "livable" enough to be desirable
for a rising middle class family (although, as Eric points out, "It's A
Wonderful Life celebrates the suburbs -- or is it a small town?).
A discussion of "Raisin in the Sun" might be augmented by a discussion
of Lorraine Hansberry (the author), herself an African-American woman,
and the experience of the African-American artist in the U.S. in the
post-World War II period [10 years after the Supreme Court ruled
against the use of restrictive covenants in deeds]. In addition, the
title of the play is from a poem by Langston Hughes, a poet of the
Harlem Renaissance, which could broaden the discussion to the explosion
of African-American culture in New York City in the 1920s.
After all of the above, I should say I am still interested in the
thoughts of others about using feature films in urban and other history
courses. Feature films are useful in exploring attitudes about the
city, but are documentary films or traditional primary materials such
as newspapers preferable for the explication of urban experience?
University of Illinois at Chicago
This and the portions of the play are from Lee A. Jacobus, _The
Bedford Introduction to Drama_, New York: St. Martin's Press,
This WWW page was created by Wendy
Plotkin (email@example.com) in 1998 and updated on 1 September 2003.