The style of A Raisin in the Sun is direct and colloquial. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play as a realist drama, meaning that she attempted to capture the everyday reality of her subjects, a working-class Black family living in South Side, Chicago, sometime in the late 1940s or 1950s. To reflect the specificity of the place and time, as well as the Youngers’ racial identity and economic class, Hansberry drew on her knowledge of the dialect spoken in Chicago’s Black community. It’s important to note that this dialect, which appears prominently in the play, is not simply an ungrammatical form of English that results from a lack of formal education. Instead, this dialect has historical roots in the period of slavery, when slaves who spoke a variety of languages had to develop a new kind of English in order to communicate. Following the abolition of slavery, this language developed into various dialects, which Black migrants who left the South brought with them to their new homes. Dialects like the one featured in Hansberry’s play have great historical significance for the Black communities that speak them.
Because A Raisin in the Sun is a play, the characters each speak their own variation on Chicago’s Black dialect, with different degrees of self-consciousness. For instance, as the oldest of the Youngers, Mama speaks in the unselfconscious way of the previous generation of working-class Black people, who had extremely limited access to education and upward mobility. Ruth, who like Mama lacks a formal education, also speaks unselfconsciously.
By contrast, Walter has a slightly different way of speaking. Although he too lacks formal education and speaks in dialect, Walter also occasionally parodies the way other Black people speak. This parodying first happens when he and Beneatha play at being African warriors like Chaka Zulu in Act II, and again in Act III when Walter takes on the persona of an overly subservient or enslaved Black person: “Oh, yassuh boss! Yasssssuh!” The Younger with the most distinct speech is Beneatha, whose level of education has enabled her to master Standard English.
The differences in characters’ speaking styles indicate something important about the particular historical moment in which the play is set. More specifically, it indicates a significant difference between Mama’s generation and that of her children. Mama does not vary her speech patterns, which stems from her having grown up in a world where segregation kept Black people firmly entrenched in the working class, if not outright poverty.
By contrast, her children have greater range in their style of speaking, symbolizing their relatively greater degree of freedom. The younger generation has more access to education and other avenues to upward social mobility, and though these avenues remain full of obstacles, the family’s ultimate move into their new house in Clybourne Park indicates that their aspirations haven’t been completely destroyed. The style of speaking in A Raisin in the Sun is very much bound up with history, social status, and aspirations for a better future.
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