Pan-Africanism and Black Assimilation in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"

Seminar Paper, 2015

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0

Jakub Duch (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Joseph Asagai

3. George Murchison

4. Pan-Africanism and Lorraine Hansberry
4.1 Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois as Pan-Africanist thinkers
4.2 Hansberry’s personal relationship with Africa and Pan-Africanism

5. African American assimilationism
5.1 The example ofBooker T. Washington
5.2 Assimilationism in the life of Lorraine Hansberry

6. Resume / Conclusion

List of primary sources:

List of secondary sources:

1. Introduction

The first Broadway play written by an African American woman, “A Raisin in the Sun”, is one of the all-time classics of black American literature. Apart from its witty dialogues and the realistic and authentic characters, the many issues the play comments on make it stand out. For an analyst of literature, there are many possibilities of examining it further. One possibility could be the role segregation (and the struggle to overcome it) plays in “A Raisin in the Sun”, since Lorraine Hansberry’s father fought in court for his right to move into a predominately white neighborhood. Another way of studying the play could perhaps lay the focus onto Hansberry’s feminism and the representation of gender roles in it, since it features various strong female characters. One could also analyze the play as a comment on capitalist ideology, the American dream and the poor’s desperate quest for material well-being. However, I decided to analyze the actions of two characters that symbolically stand for two different ways African Americans can choose: identification with blackness and Africa and assimilationism are represented by the characters of Asagai and George Murchison, respectively. The stark contrast between the two, the scenario of Beneatha choosing between them, and the way Hansberry employed the literary technique of personification were the reason this aspect of the play appeared the most interesting to me.

I will start by characterizing the two figures, using the play’s text as reference. Since it is ultimately a scenario of choice, these characterizations will include elements of comparison. After having taken a closer look at the two personas themselves, I will comment on the history of the two ideologies (or, in the case of assimilationism, behavior patterns), focusing on the most prominent representatives. Since the play was written in 1959, it is logical that I will focus on historical events that have happened before that date. Throughout this analysis, I will reference the play when this contributes to a better understanding of its connection to the two movements and its history. After each historical comment, I will turn to Hansberry’s personal life and views, which, in the case of Pan-Africanism, are quite well- documented, whereas in the case of assimilationism, some more indirect deductions will be necessary. The sixth and last chapter will consist of a resume of my paper and some concluding remarks.

2. Joseph Asagai

Joseph Asagai appears two times in the play, in Act I Scene II and in the third and final act. His name, especially his last name, reveals a lot about this character, as an assegai is a war spear used by the peoples of southern Africa. The symbolism is obvious, his family name stands for his support of the African nations’ struggle for independence, but it could also be interpreted as a hint on a different kind of struggle: the one for finding one’s identity. As will be pointed out, Asagai is a key figure in Beneatha’s search for herself.

Although his first name, Joseph, is less loaded with symbolism, the biblical figure of Joseph of Nazareth contains character traits that may be a play on Asagai’s personality. Joseph of Nazareth is considered Jesus of Nazareth’s “social father”, who took care of him after birth. Since the moment of independence is also called the “birth of a nation”, this could be a play on Joseph Asagai’s aspiration of participating in the construction of a new, independent Nigeria. The biblical Joseph was also a builder, which would also be a fitting metaphor for this role. In any case, Asagai’s role in the play and especially in the relationship with Beneatha involves guidance and tutelage, so that Joseph is indeed a fitting first name.

There is no direct information on Asagai’s physical features or his style of dress. But since he (although teasingly) points out that Beneatha’s hairstyle imitates the hair of a white person in Act I, Scene II, and since he takes a lot of pride in his African identity, we can assume that he does not dress in a “assimilated” way with almost complete certainty. This would be a contradiction to his actions (such as pointing out that Beneatha straightens her hair, or giving traditional African clothes to her as a gift), and in the play, there is no information that points to Asagai being a contradictory character in this aspect. Apart, Beneatha, an intelligent and confident character, would probably have pointed out his contradictions if there were any. For this reason, I consider it likely that Asagai’s Africanist views are also reflected in his attire. His family background is only mentioned implicitly: as international student in the USA in the time between World War II and Nigerian independence in I960, he is without a doubt a member of a privileged minority that has access to higher education. Asagai himself mentions in Act III that in his village “it is the exceptional man 'who can even read a newspaper” (Hansberry, 2005: p.1599), from which we can also conclude that he is from the Nigerian countryside. In the same part of the play, he refers to himself as “African Prince” who takes his girlfriend (or “maiden”) back to Africa (ibid.: p.1600). While it is true that this could also be an affectionate and romantic expression, we know that British colonialism, due to its doctrine of“indirect rule”, often looked to include local elites in its power structures, so that Asagai may indeed be a member of local nobility, which would explain his privileged position that enabled him to educate himself and to study in the United States.

Throughout the play, Asagai is portrayed as an intelligent, polite and eloquent person that also shows a lot of respect to the elderly, in this case to Mama in Scene II of the first act. Nevertheless, in the first act, he talks somewhat mockingly to Beneatha, teasing her about her seriousness of her search for her identity. Since Asagai is sure about his identity (although Nigerians were oppressed by the British, he grew up in a country in which Africans are the majority, not a minority), he talks from a position of superiority that comes close to arrogance. On the other hand, he shows that his relationship to Beneatha is something he values and takes seriously, in fact he is the one longing for something “more serious”, while Beneatha needs time. His gifts to Beneatha reflect her wish to know about her African heritage, demonstrating that despite his sometimes mocking tone, he respects her and supports her struggle to find her racial identity. This is why he made the quite extraordinary effort to bring her his sister’s clothes. His nickname for Beneatha, “Alaiyo” (meaning “one for whom food is not enough” in his native language Yoruba) is another proof of Asagai’s appreciation ofBeneatha’s intelligence, pursuit ofknowledge and intellectual qualities.

His second entrance of the play is in Act III, set a few weeks after the first act. The reason for his entrance is that he offers to help the family packing boxes, which indicates his good manners and helpfulness. In this act, Beneatha and Asagai engage in a thoughtful conversation, and the mocking tone and his desire to show his superiority, which I have mentioned in the last paragraph, is gone. We can therefore conclude that his relationship to Beneatha has developed. In this dialogue we learn about Asagai’s political views. He supports Nigerian independence wholeheartedly, but he is by no means a naive idealist who thinks that independence will rapidly cure all of Nigeria’s woes. Instead, he is aware of the difficulties that await his home country (and him, since he is determined to repatriate in order to contribute to its society), and that by returning to Nigeria he might even risk his own safety and, ultimately, his life. But Asagai still believes in Nigerian independence and in helping Nigerian society in situ, not by sending money from the US. At the same time, his intent to persuade Beneatha to come with him proves once again that to him she is not an “American episode”, as she feared in Act I, Scene II, but that he is genuinely in love with her. This act shows that Asagai doesn’t fail to take into account the difficulties his home country faces, but that his idealism persists because ofits extraordinary strength.

All in all, the character of Asagai shows a lot of qualities, he is depicted in a very positive manner. Asagai is polite, thoughtful, eloquent and helpful, and his intentions with Beneatha are sincere. As I will show in the next chapter, he is shown as the superior choice in comparison with George Murchison.

3. George Murchison

Just as in Asagai’s case, the name of this character is loaded with symbolism. His first name, George, and his last name, a dactyl just like the word “Washington”, seem to be a play on the first President of the United States, George Washington. Since George Washington was a white slave owner, this is not intended to be a compliment.

Information on his family background is introduced indirectly, in a conversation of Ruth, Mama and Beneatha in the first scene of the play. Beneatha describes Murchison as “probably the richest boy I will ever get to know” (quoting Ruth), but during the conversation we learn that the Murchisons are not only well-off, but also snobbish (Beneatha: “...the only people in the world that are more snobbish than rich 'white people are rich colored people. ” (Hansberry, 2005: p.1555), a comment aimed at the Murchisons), and Beneatha would not feel welcome in their family. In the same conversation, we also get to know that Beneatha does not consider George Murchison a true love of hers, as she points out quite directly: “Oh I just mean I couldn’t ever be really serious about George. He’s - he ’s so shallow ” (ibid.). Additionally, when asked with whom she is going out, she says his name with displeasure. In contrast to Beneatha, her family is quite fond of the idea that their daughter or granddaughter could marry such a rich person. Beneatha, on the other hand, confidently assumes that as a future doctor she will not need to take money into account when choosing a husband.

Compared to Asagai, George Murchison doesn’t reveal a lot about his thoughts and political or intellectual positions. On stage, he doesn’t speak as much as Asagai and mostly reacts to other characters with one-liners. As I will point out below, this contributes to his appearance as a “shallow” character that lacks the “deepness” of, say, Asagai.

Physically, he is described as good-looking, without any more precise information. He wears elegant clothes that reveal that he is coming from a wealthy background and are considered typical of “college boys” by Walter. He orders Beneatha to change her hairstyle back to the one she wore before Asagai convinced her to switch to a more natural one, and to change her clothes, since she is wearing the African robes Asagai gave to her. In doing so, his tone is downright disrespectful ( “Look honey, we’re going to the theater, we’re not going to be in it...” (ibid.: p.1571). He tries to prove his superior culture and knowledge to the family, acting condescendingly (he rejects the “Black brother” salute by Walter and mentions the different starting times of theater plays in Chicago and New York merely to impress the Youngers). When Walter tries to provoke him, he ignores him completely. While this could also be interpreted as a try to calm down the situation, his overall attitude and the depreciative and bored response of his to Walter (“Yeah - sometime we ’ll have to do that, Walter, ’’(ibid.: p.1573)) indicates that arrogance is a more convincing reason for this.

Regarding Beneatha’s quest for knowledge on African culture, Murchison also shows an arrogant and dismissive attitude. This goes beyond the discussion about hairstyles, as Beneatha shifts the topic to a more general one, exclaiming that she “hates assimilationist Negroes”. Murchison reacts by mocking her, paraphrasing the Pan-Africanist discourse of pride in the great West African civilizations. Thereby he reveals a crucial characteristic of his: his rejection ofhis African roots is not fueled by ignorance, he knows the terminology ofPan- Africanism. Rather, he openly dismisses it because he thinks it has no value. He is somebody who does not -want to know more, since his ideal is adapting to mainstream American society. This first impression is deepened in the second scene of Act II, when Murchison and Beneatha enter the stage again. In this scene, we learn that Murchison is in fact not interested in getting to know Beneatha’s personality. He openly states that he wants her to “cut it out” and that “guys [...] are going to go for what they see. Be glad for that.” (ibid.: p.1579). His shallowness and anti-intellectualism is best summed up by his last statement in the play: “You read books - to learn facts - to get grades - to pass the course - to get a degree. That’s all. It has nothing to do with thoughts.”. This statement shows the stark contrast to Asagai’s idealism and intellectualism, and shows why Asagai and Beneatha are clearly a better and more fitting match for each other. If we consider the two men representations of Pan­Africanism and assimilationism, then we must conclude that this representation is not neutral, but an endorsement of Pan-Africanism and the idea of black cultural emancipation. George Murchison is not merely presented as somebody who doesn’t know about his heritage, but as somebody who doesn’t -want to know anything about it. His pursuit of money and an educational degree is fueled by egoistic and material desires, not by idealistic motives, as in the case of Asagai. Amid the era of the Civil Rights Movement, Hansberry’s play is a powerful statement against assimilationism, which is not only portrayed as something that lacks positive sides, but as an ideology hostile to a majority of black people.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Pan-Africanism and Black Assimilation in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"
University of Hamburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Theatre, African American Literature, American Authors, Civil Rights Movement
Quote paper
Jakub Duch (Author), 2015, Pan-Africanism and Black Assimilation in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Pan-Africanism and Black Assimilation in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free