- Hymns of Sedition: Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary African-American Drama
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 1992
- p. pp. 87-107
- View Citation
JAMES C. McKELLY Hymns of Sedition: Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary African-American Drama The 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun presented a picture of the African-American family that white American culture generally found to be charming, heroic, and hospitable in every respect. Part of the reason for the unparalleled enthusiasm of the play's reception is that it posed no real threat to this dominant culture. Like thousands ofworking-class post-war families, the Youngers place their faith in the bourgeois virtues of frugality and hard work, and aspire to the material satisfaction and cultural inclusion which the free market promises to those who embrace it with vigor and imagination. In her play, Hansberry never strays from her implicit premise that American democratic capitalism can be the vehicle of African-American political and economic ascent. She celebrates Walter Lee's vision of "an executive's life," complete with a black Chrysler ("More elegant. Rich people don't have to be flashy"), a black gardener, and a son sitting on the floor surrounded by the catalogues of "all the great schools in the world" (Raisin 89). Although, as C.W.E. Bigsby points out in The Second Black Renaissance, Hansberry firmly establishes Walter Lee as "a black Willy Loman, self-deceiving and self-destructive" (216), Walter Lee's failure, rectified in the climactic moment of the play, is not Willy Loman's unrectifiable tragedy. Loman has entrusted a life of hope and labor to the integrity of a system that in the end is revealed as ethically bankrupt; Walter Lee sins against the universally-held, and hence universally-applauded, American imperatives ofhonesty and digArizona Quarter/} Volume 48 Number 1, Spring 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004-1610 James C. McKelly nity which his authot promotes as sacred. In Hansberry's world, the only bad business which Walter Lee is guilty of practicing is entrusting his investment to another black man. Even the would-be radical Beneatha, Hansberry's only slightly camouflaged self-portrait of the artist, never strays far from the wellworn path of middle-class upward mobility. An aspiring doctor of twenty, she is a college undergraduate, and as such does not suffer from lack of opportunity or choice. Rather, she seeks an adequate means of "self-expression," and unabashedly displays a typically undergraduate, self-conscious dilettantism in her search: she has explored horse-back riding, play-acting, and guitar lessons, and has yet to discover her medium. Her politics never rise above the level of rhetoric and iconoclastic posture. Her atheism provokes a slap from her mother, and a humbling, if not humiliating, lecture to which she submits in shame: '"Now—you say after me, in my mother's house there is still God'" (39). And although she is taken by the handsome Nigerian Asagai, who offers her an awareness of the glory of African history, she is equally drawn to George Murchison, a merchant's son, the scion of the new black bourgeoisie resplendent in upper-middle-class collegiate gear: white buckskin shoes, cashmere V-neck sweater, and tweed sports jacket. The play concludes with this rivalry between the prince of tradition and the prince of assimilation still unresolved, with Beneatha happily suspended in a condition offree choice and uncircumscribed potential . Beneatha is confused but optimistic and her assumption that the Ametican system, though resistant, will eventually accommodate het desire to achieve the self-expression for which she longs is one which the play never seriously places in doubt. But something changed. In 1962, four years after the successful debut of Raisin, Hansberry proposed another version of the AfricanAmerican artist. She contradicted her own role as the authot of Raisin, presenting an artist less amenable to the white cultural establishment and, as a result, more threatening to white political authority: While an excessively poignant Porgy was being instilled in generations of Americans, his truer-life counterpart was ravaged by longings that were, and are, in no way alien to those of the rest of mankind, and that beat within them the stuff of truly great art. He is waiting yet for those of us who will...