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WILLIAM MURRAY University of Alabama The Roof of a Southern Home: A Reimagined and Usable South in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun WHILE MUCH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE DEPICTS THE SOUTH AS A source of terror or trepidation,1 Lorraine Hansberry, in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), gives readers a relatively positive regional perspective. She uses the Younger family’s Southern history (mainly accessed through Lena Younger or “Mama”) to provide her characters with a sense of grounded identity and pride that enables the family to move beyond the limitations of their current environment and into a more sustainable space.2 Both the small apartment in Chicago’s Southside and the mental environment of a Northern/national white culture work to limit and restrict the family’s ability to grow and develop, but through the process of adopting their mother’s attitude toward their shared Southern past, Mama’s children gain the confidence needed to face challenges obstructing their pursuit of a sustainable future. The concept of whites adopting an identity rooted in the Southern past is well established, but too often scholars seem to ignore the ways that African Americans have claimed and embraced forms of Southern identity. Despite the history of enslavement, lynching, and Jim Crow, African Americans have a history in the South that extends well beyond abuse and subjection, and Hansberry, in her canonical play, works to reclaim that history for the Younger family and, by extension, her audience. Understanding the way Hansberry constructs Southern history as a usable past in which to root the family’s identity is not only useful for those interested in Southern and African American literature, but also helps readers more fully 1 For an excellent study of this mode of representation, see Trudier Harris’s The Scary Mason-Dixon Line (2009). 2 I mean space here both in the sense of a physical space in which the family members can spread out and maintain individuality as well as a mental environment in which they can ground their identity in a history that gives them pride and a sense of belonging in the United States. 278 William Murray comprehend the character of Mama, who has recently been categorized as narrow-minded or tyrannical.3 Reading Hansberry’s play as promoting a connection to a “Southern” history/heritage could understandably elicit some reservations, in that the very conception of the South as a discernable region is one that is fraught with complications and contentions. As recent work in Southern studies has fruitfully shown, the characterization of the region as distinct largely emanates from a long history of problematic myths and fantasies. Scholars, including Leigh Anne Duck, Michael Kreyling, and Jon Smith, have illustrated how such mythic constructions of the South lead to problematic conceptions of the region as exceptionally noble or degraded. Hansberry’s play, however, offers a version of Southern identity that steers away from reinforcing the existing and problematic understandings of the region that these scholars have identified and argued against. What this means for Southern studies is that the conception of the South, as a space of white romance or white degeneracy, must in some ways fundamentally change in order to incorporate African American voices. The inclusion of black voices as historically Southern should not be mistaken for an endorsement of the deeply problematic notion of “Southern heritage,” as it is commonly held, nor as a romanticization of the Jim Crow South such as Adolph Reed defines, but rather should be understood as work to understand the deeply conflicted sense of identity rooted in a place that has historically marginalized black identity, yet is an ancestral home. Houston A. Baker, Jr., explains this connection to the region in Turning South Again as “an indelible and shaping ambivalence,” and he goes on to point out that being Southern and black works as a complicated “badge of honor in regard to tight places of youth, tight places that were my testing ground, that are my legacy” (17-18). James Cobb, in his chapter “Blackness and Southerness,” further illustrates the multifaceted relationship many AfricanAmericanshavewiththeSouth,bothhistoricallyandcurrently,4 and he ultimately argues against the fallacy “that all southern blacks were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 277-293
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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