Pride Despite Prejudice
Pride is a powerful force in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), where the Younger family, living in 1950’s Chicago, has their dreams clash with the reality of their situation. Pride propels characters into conflict, and they emerge different from when they went in. They struggle to maintain their pride and dignity is a main plot point for the characters, and the realization of their dreams hinges on it. In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry employs Walter Lee’s actions and interactions with the other characters to expose the undercurrent of the different types of pride, which is significant because it reveals the development and essential nature of pride in those who are oppressed but still wish remain dignified people.
Walter is inspired and driven to make his decisions in order to overcome his troubles because he has regained his ancestral pride. When Mama says to him before Mr. Lindner arrives, “Son–I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers–but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ‘em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor.” Even though Walter has just lost the insurance money, Mama continues to try to impress upon him that they cannot trade away their dignity for any financial gain. The moment they do, they will have lost all of their pride, and so, their dignity must be treated as superior to any check. She continues to Walter, “We ain’t never been that–dead inside” (143). If he takes Mr. Lindner’s demeaning offer, it would be disdainful to their ancestors. Instead of upholding his family’s honor, he would be voluntarily complying with the systematic exclusion of minorities. Walter eventually realizes that he cannot accept the deal. Mama is the one who reminds the family of their ancestral pride, and who pounds it back into him, but it is Walter who tells Mr. Lindner to leave, upholding and restoring his hereditary dignity.
Walter is motivated to make many of his more important decisions because of his masculine pride. When Walter says to Mr. Lindner, with Travis there before him, “This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation of our family in this country. And we have all thought about your offer […] and we have decided to move into our house because my father-my father-earned it for us brick by brick” (148). Before, Walter was ready to get on his knees and beg Mr. Lindner. Now, with Travis there, his pride as a father, and his pride as a man, asserts itself and he feels like he can live with himself again as he refuses the money. This development and maturation of Walter’s pride throughout the play is a main plot point. He finds pride when there was previously none; he feels humiliated through his loss and then needs the pride he finds in the climax with Mr. Lindner to build himself back up as a man. Early in the play, when Travis innocently asks for fifty cents, Walter strengthens and reinforces his sense of masculine pride by giving him a dollar. He returns afterwards, requesting fifty cents for taxi money. It is not important to him that he does not have the money to give to Travis, but it matters deeply that his son thinks he does. Later, he says to Travis, “You just name it, son […] and I hand you the world!” (109). Walter believes that a man must be the breadwinner to be a good father. At this point, he is not, but he needs to feel like the main provider for the family in order to maintain his pride as a father and as a man.
Walter is spurred to make his choices, like investing the insurance money, because of his inborn sense of dignity. When Mama talks to Mrs. Johnson about Walter being a chauffeur, “My husband always said being any kind of servant wasn’t a fit thing for a man to have to be. He always said a man’s hands was made to make things, or to turn the earth with-not to drive nobody’s car for ’em-or- (She looks at her own hands) carry they slop jars. And my boy is just like him-he wasn’t meant to wait on nobody” (103). Mama’s belief springs from their family’s pride, and it was Walter’s yearning for freedom from his job, his bondage, which caused him to invest the insurance money in the bogus liquor store. His ambitious urge is made of the same dreams that brought Mama and Big Walter to Chicago in the first place, fleeing the lynching and persecution of the South. It appears that they are not entirely free from tyranny and oppression yet. Likewise, the Youngers take a great deal of pride in the appearance of their home. Although they live by meager means, they still meticulously arrange and clean the apartment for guests. Unlike many others in their community, the family always upholds the highest standards, due to their strong and pervasive sense of dignity, which would normally only be found much higher up the socioeconomic chain.
By the end of the play, the Younger family, and especially Walter, learns that pride does not arrive with the insurance check in the mail. Throughout the story, they feel oppressed, and pride is their vehicle to assert their dignity. Walter almost forfeits his dignity when on the brink of submitting to Mr. Lindner’s offer, but the insult to his pride; ancestral, masculine, and through a sense of dignity, is too much and he turns it down. Even though the family is heading into an uncertain future, a dark tunnel, with no idea what lies at the other end, they do it unflinchingly to retain and preserve their pride. It is the driving force of the plot, and their pride is what enables the Younger family to remain sane and functional throughout each crisis, break down, and period of depression. The essential nature of their pride in their household allows them to continue on the path of fulfilling their aspirations despite the prejudice they face, such as the purchase of the new house. Walter’s actions, and interactions with other characters, are utilized by Hansberry to encompass and exemplify this theme, and it is the Youngers who must use their pride to overcome their oppression and realize their dreams, while still remaining dignified people.