A Raisin in the Sun

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun contains an annotated list of characters, a brief synopsis of the screenplay, and teaching suggestions to be used before, during, and after reading the play. This literature guide makes a perfect lesson for Black History Month.
Teaching Strategies:
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Updated on: November 21, 2000
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Teachers will want to select some activities from the many suggestions offered.

Film Techniques

It is helpful to analyze Hansberry's camera instructions closely as you read. Ask: What silent messages do they convey? The following camera shots represent highlights from the screenplay; students should be encouraged to find others:

  • Pan shots of Chicago's South Side (3). Ask: Who lives here? Why do they live here? Why does Hansberry think these shots are important?

  • Pan shot within the Younger apartment (4-7). Ask: How does this shot introduce us to the family and the likely action of the film?

  • Close-ups of Lena's hands (31), Walter's hands (43), their employers' hands (39,45). Ask: What do hands reveal about character and lifestyle? Why does Hansberry put so much emphasis on hands?

  • Exterior shots of the neighborhoods Lena and Walter must pass through en route home to their apartment (57). Ask: What are these neighborhoods like? Why is Hansberry emphasizing these shots?

  • Interior shots of Beneatha's relatively sheltered college routine (47). Ask: What do these shots tell us about Beneatha? Why is this knowledge important?

  • Exterior high/wide angle shot of Lena's detour to the open market (56). Ask: What point is Hansberry making in this shot?

  • Interior/wide angle shots of Walter drinking with Willy and Bobo in the type of lounge for which they hope to provide liquor (81). Ask: What does this shot reveal about Walter and his dreams?

  • Montage of Walter drinking alone, driving around Chicago, wandering aimlessly around the Loop, stopping under the Negro Soldier's monument, listening to the street preacher harangue (128-132). Ask: What do these shots tell us about Walter? About his life? What do they reveal about the plot of the screenplay?

  • The juxtaposition of shots of Asagai, the new African, with shots of Walter (132-133). Ask: What do these shots reveal about these two characters? Why is the juxtaposition important?

  • Shots of the Youngers' visit to Clybourne Park including the neighbors' reactions (149-151). What do these shots reveal about what is to occur in the plot? What do we learn about the family from these shots?

  • The final shot of the apartment, window, plant, and Walter Lee and Lena (206). What does this shot reveal about the characters and about their dreams?

Because this is a screenplay that is meant to be acted and seen, it is best when read orally by the students. To help them integrate the words with the images suggested by Hansberry's camera instructions, stop their reading periodically and ask:

  • What does this shot convey about the character (or setting)? For example: The QUICK FLASH of Lena's annoyed face as she is being sold inferior apples (52).

  • Why is this type of shot specified rather than another? For example: Later in the scene, Hansberry's directions change to a CLOSE SHOT of Lena's outraged face (53).

  • How do the words spoken (or image seen) represent this character's point of view? For example: Mrs. Holiday, Lena's employer, is looking around the kitchen while Lena is speaking to her from the sink where she is washing a child's toys (39).

  • Why is the camera on "this" character (scene) when another character is speaking? For example: Walter receiving his chauffeuring assignment for the morning (45).

As students become familiar with the interrelationships of camera shots, dialogue, and action, informal writing responses might be assigned.

  • Offer your own camera directions as if you were writing the screenplay, defending why you altered Hansberry's directions.

Understanding Irony

The voice heard in A Raisin in the Sun is ironic. Students can be helped to see the irony in the screenplay by responding to it orally or in writing. Examples of irony can be suggested as they read, and they can then be encouraged to keep their own list of the play's ironies.

  • African-Americans came North to find the economic, social, and educational equality denied them in the South only to discover the same (133-134). Examples of this can be seen throughout the screenplay: the inadequate housing in the ghettos (4-5), the lack of materials in Travis' school (13), and price gouging in an African-American neighborhood (56).

  • The irony of having to pay more for homes and food (56) in poor neighborhoods than in rich neighborhoods.

  • Lena's labors ease those of the Holiday family although Lena receives no leisure time or holidays (31-42). Mr. Lindner extols the values of hard work and neighborhood pride as he offers the Youngers "easy" money to stay away from Clybourne Park (162-167).

Getting to Know the Characters

Assign each character to partners, even if several partners have the same character. One student can chart a list of physical characteristics mentioned in the screenplay, and the other can trace the personality/character traits. Cite references from the screenplay.

At intervals during the reading, all students charting the same character should meet in a small group to discuss the character. Each group is to reach a consensus on how to present a definitive character portrait or sketch to the class. Appoint a recorder to keep notes. The following might be included in the portrait: a photograph, magazine illustration, or original art work to show the physical attributes of the character. Dramatic readings from the screenplay designed to reveal the character's personality. A video presentation of the character, incorporating some of Hansberry's character-revealing camera shots.

In writing or in small groups, trace the development/resolution of conflicts between/among the characters to be shared later with the whole class. Examine/ discuss the following:

  • Walter Lee and Ruth. What are their expectations of each other?

  • Walter Lee and Beneatha. Are they sensitive to each other's needs, or have they become locked into the "sibling rivalry" syndrome?

  • Walter Lee and Lena. Is she unconsciously emasculating him? Is he behaving more like a son than a husband and father? What cultural traditions affect their relationship?

  • Lena and Ruth. Is Lena trying to undermine Ruth's maternal authority by commenting on what Travis eats, how he dresses, and her excusing his lapses as "he's just a little boy" [31]?

  • Beneatha and Asagai. What cultural differences cause tension in their relationship? How does he prove he really cares for her?

Reenact the scenes in which dramatic tension is greatest. The teacher or a student director should position the actors and stress the most appropriate voice inflections to convey what is happening between/among them. Students can either memorize* or paraphrase their lines. Scenes that lend themselves to reenactment are the following:

  • Walter, Ruth, Beneatha. The argument over the spending of the insurance money (20-29).

  • Lena, Ruth, Beneatha. Beneatha's refuting the existence of God's will infuriates her mother (70-77).

  • Walter, Lena, Ruth. Lena reemphasizes her objection to the liquor store; Ruth admits she is planning an abortion (102-110).

  • The Younger family. Lena announces that she has made the down payment on the house in Clybourne Park (121-127).

  • Lena and Walter. Lena finally acknowledges Walter's need and entrusts him with the rest of the money (138-142).

  • Beneatha and Asagai. Asagai reveals his compassionate understanding of human nature and his wisdom; his proposal to Beneatha (180-190).

  • The Younger family. Walter announces that he has agreed to accept Lindner's offer; Walter's moment of recognition when he subsequently refuses it (193-202).

As a complementary writing assignment, compare Walter Lee, Beneatha, and Lena as rebels. How are the young people really like their mother? Use citations from the screenplay.*

Write about Asagai, the "modern" black man. How are his values and those of the more traditional Lena surprisingly alike? Use citations from the screenplay.*

The minor characters can be assigned to a small group of students and treated as a unit. Ask students to analyze the function of each character in the screenplay according to the following guidelines: What does the character do to extend the plot; to explain another character; or to enhance a theme?

  • Mrs. Holiday, Lena's employer (31-42).

  • Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, Walter's employers (43-45).

  • The white clerk at the neighborhood grocery (51-53).

  • Mrs. Johnson, the Youngers' neighbor (54-55).

  • Herman, the white clerk in a liquor store (59-63).

  • Bobo and Willy Harris, Walter's hoped-for business partners (81-84).

  • Mr. Lindner, the insensitive emissary from the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association (157-168).

In an essay, discuss the different values represented by Lena, Walter, George Murchison, Beneatha, and Asagai. Why do you think these differences exist? As part of this assignment, you might want to read Spike Lee's commentary (xiv), noting the difference between "assimilationism" and "Afrocentricity" as he describes them.*

In an essay, explore the concept of black pride. Consider the definition of black pride and how different characters embody it. Opinions should be defended through research and citations from the screenplay.*

In a small group, discuss which character(s) represents Hansberry's voice. Explain your rationale.*

In an informal essay, discuss the meaning of manliness. In your opinion, what makes a "real" man? Extend your personal beliefs to the screenplay, defining Walter Lee's concept of manhood. In his eyes, what makes a "real" man? Trace the ways he changes as the film develops. To what extent do his ideas and yours coincide?

Write a portrait of Walter Lee Sr. Although he is dead, his influence permeates the entire screenplay. From Lena's comments, what were his values? (43, 70, 108, 201). Is she being fair when she compares him to her son? In what ways are father and son similar?*

Understanding Symbols

Throughout the play, Hansberry uses many symbols. The play will have much more meaning if students are aware of these.

Lena's Plant.

Ask students:

  • What do most plants represent?

  • How is the introduction of the plant early in the screenplay foreshadowing?

  • How do the shots of and references to the plant reflect the corresponding action of the screenplay? (7, 66, 78, 170, 206)

Sunlight and contrasting darkness (69, 126, 151).

  • Make a collage or play music to show this contrast.


Ask students:

  • What does money symbolize to Walter Lee? (107)

  • How does Hansberry show the relative wealth of the characters in the play? What does the wealth symbolize? Mrs. Holiday's well-equipped kitchen (39); the Arnolds' affluent estate (44).

  • What does money represent to Beneatha, Ruth, Travis, George Murchison, Asagai, and Herman? Why are their attitudes about money so different?

George Murchison's white shoes (115-116) and Asagai's Nigerian robes (91-92; 187-188).

  • Discuss in a small group why these symbols of these two men's lives are so different. What does the symbol tell us about the man, his dreams, and his values?

  • Create a visual representation of pride (self, racial, national) that reflects Hansberry's theme.

Make a collage that shows the symbols of your life, or write about the single symbol that best represents who you are.

Understanding the Themes

Although many of the themes were introduced prior to reading the play, during the reading it is possible to deal with them in more depth.

Each small group should select a different theme to investigate and present to the class. On chart paper, develop a flowchart highlighting examples of the theme from the beginning, middle, and end of the screenplay to present to the class. Specific citations should be highlighted. Groups might want to present these themes through dramatic interpretations of appropriate sections of the play.

Individuals, partners, or small groups might select a theme that they find particularly meaningful and explain why in one of the following ways (citations from the screenplay should be included):

  • A visual and/or musical presentation of a particular theme.

  • A collage or medley representing the importance of the theme.

  • A reading from a novel, a poem, or another play that illustrates the importance of the theme.

  • Creation of an art work that illustrates the meaningfulness of the theme.

Don't sell out.

Students can respond to this theme in writing, orally, or artistically.

  • Write about how and why Walter Lee's opinion about selling out changes throughout the play.

  • Write a story about a time you sold out and how it made you feel.

  • Find clips from videos or sections from books showing how and why an individual sold out his/her beliefs or values.

  • Write a poem about selling out.

The strength of family.

  • Write about how the Younger family sustains its members.

  • Discuss or write about why it is difficult to be a member of a family; use examples from the screenplay to help explain your point.

The problem of conflicting expectations.

  • Write about the phrase "my time," which reoccurs throughout the play. What does this mean to the individual characters?

  • Write a poem or song titled "My Time." What does this phrase mean to you?

  • Discuss the positive and negative connotations of a phrase like "my time." Examine how believing that it is "my time" can lead to conflicting expectations with others.*

Love and trust prevail over deceit and selfishness.

  • Discuss or write about how love wins out in the screenplay. Why do you think it wins?

  • Search for other works of literature with this theme, or ones in which love and trust do not win out.*

  • Write about or discuss a time in your life when love and trust did win/did not win. Why?

  • Write a short story or poem that explores this theme.

Stereotyping and prejudice.

  • In a small group, read aloud the scene of the visit from Mr. Lindner (158-167), or watch this scene from the film. Comment on the stereotypes you observe. What causes these stereotypes? How do they make the other characters feel? Could they be avoided?

  • Write about how the Youngers' lives might be different if these stereotypes did not exist. Have the Youngers come to believe the stereotypes? Cite examples from the play.*

During (or after) reading the screenplay, significant quotes that advance the themes can be used as writing or discussion prompts. A partial list of suggested lines follows. Students can find others that hold personal meaning for them.

  • "It means...One for whom Bread - Food - Is Not Enough. Is that all right?" (95) -Asagai

  • "You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done." (108) -Lena to Walter

  • "It makes a difference to a man when he walk on floors that belong to him." (124) -Lena

  • "If this is my time...my time to say goodbye...then I say it loud and good! Hallelujah! And good-bye, misery." (126) -Ruth

  • "I'm telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be." (142) -Lena

  • "As I say, the whole business is a matter of caring for the other fellow." (164) -Lindner

  • "When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right." (198) -Lena

  • "That's all dad - we don't want your money." (202) -Walter
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