October 27

Blog #114 – What is the American Dream?

Raisin in the Sun gets its title from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”:

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

Raisin in the Sun was the first place produced on Broadway in 1959 written by a Black woman, Lorraine Hansberry, as well as having a Black director, Lloyd Richards.  Throughout the play, each of the main characters has a dream that they would like to see fulfilled.  The arrival of an insurance check for $10,000 (from the death of Big Walter Younger) could just make those dreams a reality for the main characters.  But what is to be done with the money?  That becomes the major focus and source of conflict within the Younger household.  They live in a dingy apartment on the south side of Chicago, and all of them (except Beneatha) are working in menial jobs.  When Mama decides to buy a house, the Clybourne Park Improvement Association sends over Mr. Lindner to offer to buy their house back from them in order to keep their neighborhood white.  This takes place before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act) which would have prohibited such practices.  However, the Youngers and many other urban African Americans are hemmed in by decades of redlining.

Scene from the play. Ruby Dee as Ruth, Claudia McNeil as Lena, Glynn Turman as Travis, Sidney Poitier as Walter, and John Fiedler as Karl Lindner.

The playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, drew on her family’s own experience in the 1930s when they integrated a white neighborhood in Chicago.  This excerpt comes from her autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:

“Twenty-five years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. … My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.”

Hansberry’s parents had their own American Dream, and they went to court to fight to keep it.

The American Dream has meant a lot to people throughout our history.  For many, it has meant finding a little bit of success, achieving a level of comfort that maybe their parents couldn’t afford.  The promise had always been that if you work hard, keep out of trouble, do your duty to country, then you’ll be rewarded.  Included in this is the concept of upward social mobility, something the Youngers desperately want to do but their neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, comes along to remind them what happens to African Americans who try to move on up.

Writer James Truslow Adams described the American Dream and popularized it in his 1931 book, Epic of America, thusly:

“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position… The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

During the time period we’re studying (1929 – 1991), the Dream was put on hold by the Great Depression and World War II but came charging back with the creation of the GI Bill (1944) and the pre-eminence of the American economy after WW2.  Working in a factory during the 1950s – 1970s could allow a man to afford his own home.  Many veterans went to college, and many Americans became entrenched in the middle class after WW2, but not everybody.  That’s what this play is all about – those folks, usually people of color but not always – who did not share in the American Dream.  Not sharing in the American Dream did NOT mean that these people didn’t have dreams, but in many cases, they had to defer those dreams like mentioned in the Hughes poem.  Sometimes, the emotions from not being a part of the American Dream showed themselves in anger, bitterness, or in very rare cases, violence.  In Raisin, we see what happens when that American Dream of the Younger family is threatened and to what lengths they are willing to go to get it.

Your job: 

  1. What is your American Dream?  Explain. 
  2. Describe the American Dream for each of the four main characters – Walter, Ruth, Mama, and Beneatha – in detail using specific examples from the book. 
  3.  How does the play capture the American Dream of ordinary folks?  Explain w/ specific examples from the play.  

Due Thursday, November 1 by class.  400 words minimum for all three questions.  


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Posted October 27, 2018 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs

54 thoughts on “Blog #114 – What is the American Dream?

  1. Lily Paul

    To me, the American dream is the freedom I possess to speak my truth and stand up for what I believe in. The American dream gives me the power to fight for my rights and make decisions for myself. I also believe that I am extremely lucky to live in a place where I can do whatever I strive to do. Although not all opportunities are completely equal yet, the fact that the American people have been giving the power to change that brings me hope. As a female in America, I recognize that there is still oppression and there will always people who are stuck in an old way of thinking. I also recognize how far we have come as a country in the past 100 years. For me, the American dream does not only represent the freedoms I possess, but it also represents the power I have as a citizen of a democracy to advance our freedoms and equality.
    For Walter, the American dream is his ability to create a life for himself that he was not born with. Walter dreams of a comfortable life in which he will not have to worry about money. He has big plans of investment in a new liquor store venture. For Ruth, the American dream brings the hope of being strong and independent. She never lets her emotions get the best of her which is important in her fight against poverty. Mama’s dream is similar to Walters in that she wants to move up in status. She hopes one day place a down payment on a home and finally allow her family to move up in society. For Bennie, the dream gives her hope and allows to be anything she wants. It also allows her to find herself as a person and truly determine her identity.
    The play represents and gives many examples of the American dream, this is why the play is so important. Many people can relate to this piece differently. As you read they play you meet different characters that you relate with differently which makes the story more personal and easier to learn from. The play is also prominent because it looks at feminist ideals that are still relevant today. In Addition to that, the piece teaches many lessons about the American dream. The gender and racial issues mentioned in this book are what makes this play so important and timeless. Done.

  2. Sydney Green

    The “American Dream” can mean different stuff to different people. It has never and will never have the same meaning to someone.My “American Dream” to me is being successful and happy. After high school I hope to go to a good college and pick up a good profession I will love. I want to be financially stable, but to the point where I won’t have to worry about money. Even though, money doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, this can provide a good life for a family. Accomplishing this is a goal I would want to achieve. Aside from making a good income, I want to be happy. Happiness is a key thing to life. Being happy can promote good health. This dream is something I want to follow throughout my whole life especially I have to start figuring things out on my own. I want to love what I do, be happy, and love the people that are close to me.
    Ruth’s idea of the American Dream is to live a better life with her family. She doesn’t believe she needs wealth to do this, she just wants the best for her son. She wants him to be happy and to grow up not to worry as much as she had to. Walter’s American Dream was very similar to lRuth’s, he wants to provide better for his family. For Walter, money is very tight. They don’t live in the best house and Walter is not proud of this. In order to get money, he decides to enter the liquor business in order to live the life he wants. Unfortunately, the man he believed to trust his money with runs away with it leaving him with nothing. Mama’s American Dream is to be able to give her family a house that is under her name. She is finally in the right financial position to do this when she gets money from her late husband. She finally purchases the home despite her still struggling with other issues, they now have a safe place to stay. Lastly, Beneatha’s American Dream is to be successful, but not in America. She wants to move to Africa, become a doctor and learn about the people of where she came from.
    For all of the characters in the play, all of their American Dreams are similar to an ordinary folks American Dream. A common theme seen in all of these characters is the hope to be successful and happy. They always wanted to give the best to the people they love just like any other American. They strived to get out of the whole that they started in and Star to do better. The story is show how you can work hard and get better to enable you see the change you want. It really shows that you can achieve anything despite the color of your skin.

  3. Nicholas Skinner

    My american dream is to live a long, fulfilled, happy life while also making a change and leaving a legacy. My american dream is to graduate from a university and go into a career that makes me happy and provides for my family. The dream to me is to live in a society where i can openly express my opinions in public, on the internet, or at the ballot. I also wish to live in a place where i can run for a political office and make changes i believe my country. I say this because i plan to run for the office of the president. I plan to do this to help insure a safe and prosperous future for my children, my country and the world

    In the book A Raisin in the Sun the main characters all have there different version of the american dream. A main part of the book is the $10,000 life insurance check the family is receiving and what they plan to do with it(their dream). Walters dream is to invest the money in a liquor store. His dream is to become his own boss, move his family out of there poor living conditions and insure a financially stable future for them. Bethenes Dream is quite different from her brothers, she plans on using the money to pay for her medical degree. This is a prime example of the american dream, a young american wishing to get a higher education to be more successful than any previous family member. Another part of her dream is to marry whoever she wants based on love not money. Ruth’s dream is very simple as it is to move into the suburbs were she can rise her child to live a better life then she had. It’s also to move out of the poor living conditions like the cockroaches everywhere. Mamas dream is to move her family into a large home with simple luxuries like a garden and a front porch. She also wants her young daughter to graduate medical school and her grandson to have a successful life.

    The play dementraights the american dream by showing four different examples of the american dream. Bethene represents self fulfilment and freedom to marry whoever you want. Walter represents being able to start a business to raise yourself out of poverty and to provide for your family. Ruth and mama’s dream represents working for the betterment of your children future.

  4. Lily Koza

    My idea of an American dream is to do the things you love. Following your passions and obtaining a happy life. My personal goals are to go to college and travel around the world. I want to expand my views on life instead of keeping my views small. As for my job i want to spend my time doing something i love. Many Americans settle for jobs they hate but are high paying rather than lower paying jobs they love. You only live one life and enjoying it and being happy are essentials.

    In the play Raisin in the Sun the four main characters Walter, Ruth, Mama, and Beneatha each have different takes on their ideas of the American Dream. Walter dream in life was to become a liquor store owner with three of this friends. His problem was obtaining the money to do so. He dreams of one day being rich and able to support his family with all the necessities such as food, clothes, and a better education for his son. His wife Ruth also believes the American dream is to support her family. She differs from walter through her views on not needing immense amounts of money to live the American dream. She just wants a better house for her son and for him to have a better life than she did. Mama’s idea is similar to Ruths. She wants a house to call her own and provide for her family. In the end she is able to achieve this goal through her receiving money from her late husband. Lastly Beneatha’s American dream is to become a doctor and move to Africa. At this time is was very uncommon for a colored female doctor, but she followed her passion she had obtained since she was little.

    This captures the American dream of ordinary people through the ideas of following your passions and providing for your family. Also it shows that in the end your dreams can come to a reality. This was shown through Mama who in the end was able to pay for her own house and provide for her family. I believe these dreams can relate to most of America. Providing for your family seems like a no brainer but for some families they struggle to do so. Also following your passions should be the dream for everyone. Like i said before you only have one life to live what is the point of not enjoying it. Everyone has conflicts and issues but it’s how you resolve and push through them that differs people from one another.

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