Table of contents
2. Womanism – A Definition
3. Beneatha’s role within the play
4. Is Beneatha a Womanist?
4.1. Beneatha and Race
4.2. Beneatha and Class
4.3. Beneatha and Gender
Definition of Womanist taken from Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose
Diagram of characters:
7. References and Further Readings
The question of discrimination has been an important issue ever since. In history there have always been human beings that were considered to be inferior to others. There are many reasons that caused people to consider other people to be less valuable and consequently made them think that these people can and have to be treated in a different, mostly unfair way due to their not belonging to the dominant majority. The most prominent forms of discrimination are due to racial, sexual, and social differences. If a person does not fit into the predominating norms he or she is often regarded as being no equal member of the society to which he or she belongs. Such people often try to assimilate into the society that oppresses them and adjust to the dominant majority as much as possible. But since there has been discrimination there have always been people who would not let anybody force them to be an outcast. They do not want to deny who and what they are and they struggle to be accepted and respected like everybody else. That is why whole movements like the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement evolved in the United States of America to improve the situation of discriminated people and put an end to their subordinate roles within their society.
Black feminists or womanists are the ones that deal with the discrimination of black women in particular. The struggles of African American women for equality can not only be seen in everyday life but in literary texts as well. Although the term womanism was not coined until the 1980’s, the “concept” of black feminism had of course appeared in many literary works before that time.
An example for that is Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun. The drama about an African American working class family, which comes to money, is a portrait of a typical black family, their dreams, and their struggles to realise these dreams. One of these family-members is Beneatha – a young, black woman who has to assert herself over the values of her family and the prejudices of her society. Although the play addresses several topics like the “[…] value systems of the black family; concepts of African American beauty and identity; class and generational conflicts; the relationships of husbands and wives, black men and women [and] feminism […]” (Hansberry 1994, p.6), it will be the aim of this term paper to focus on black feminism and Beneatha’s struggles within the play in particular.
To contribute to the understanding of how womanism is included in the play, the term and its definition shall be considered first. Furthermore it will be of interest to find out whether Beneatha is a womanist or not. Therefore a closer look at the triple impact of race, class, and gender on Beneatha and her reaction towards these concepts will be done. The major basis for this term paper is build by A Raisin in the Sun (the version as it is contained in the Heath Anthology of American Literature) and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, but also texts of Alice Walker, bell hooks, and other authors will be used as an aid to analyse and characterise Beneatha.
2. Womanism – A Definition
The term ‘womanism’ was coined by Alice Walker who defined it in her book In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose from 1983. There she described four different aspects to a ‘womanist’.
Firstly she relates the term to feminism by calling a womanist a “[…] black feminist or a feminist of color.” (Walker, p. xi) and points out that the term derives from the expression “womanish” referring to the fact that a child behaves like a woman. Characteristics for a womanist are seriousness, a huge thirst for knowledge and responsibility.
Secondly she underlines the unity and loyalty of a womanist to other women and to the culture of women. But Alice Walker also makes clear that a womanist can love a man both sexually and non-sexually but is more committed to other women often in the sense of sisterhood. Moreover a womanist can hold back her own interests and wishes to contribute to her community including men and women alike.
As a third point she includes an enumeration of the preferences of a womanist: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” (Walker, p. xii) . This shows that a womanist loves her community, its culture, and herself as a devoted member of this community. Furthermore it underlines that she likes to celebrate her womanhood.
As the fourth and final point Walker defines womanism as the black equivalent to feminism and makes clear that both can only be differentiated due the additional factor of color/race.
But there are more definitions of womanism or black feminism than that of Alice Walker. According to The Oxford Companion of African American Literature
[…] “womanism” is generally understood to address the triple impact of sex, *race, and *class on African American women and to compensate for the traditional shortcomings of feminist and African American liberation discourse that have routinely excluded the peculiar needs of African American women (Marsh-Lockett, p.785).
This explanation underlines the special position of black women and emphasises the fact that black women in contrast to white women, additionally to their suppression in terms of gender and class, have to overcome disadvantages because of their race. It also emphasises that black women do not only have to face discrimination because of their cultural and social background like black men but they are discriminated because of the fact that they are women as well. This can be summarised as the triple oppression of African American women. The black feminist and writer bell hooks writes in her book Ain’t I a Woman “[…] that conversations about black people ‘tend to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women’” (Holloway, p.313) and thus makes clear that African American women are often excluded from debates about discrimination. African American women as well as their achievements and contributions to the whole American society were almost entirely unseen and not noticed.
Womanism means to challenge this exclusion and to fight against discrimination because of race, class, or gender. The Handbook of African American Literature provides a definition of black feminism by mentioning that it is
[…] family-based and community-based. Other key features include ‘self-namer, self-definer, genuine sisterhood, strong, in concert with male in struggle, whole, authentic, flexible role player, respected, recognized, spiritual, male compatible, respectful of elders, adaptable, ambiti[ous], mothering and nurturing’ (Ervin, p. 7)
The three fields in which black women are discriminated are so strongly related to one another that they can hardly be separated.. Regarding the social status of a black woman, for example, bell hooks points out that although black and white women are
[…] subject to sexist victimization, as victims of racism black women were subjected to oppressions no white woman was forced to endure. In fact, white imperialism granted all white women, however victimized by sexist oppression they might be, the right to assume the role of oppressor in relationship to black women and men (hooks 1982, p.122/123)
This statement shows that, despite the discrimination every woman has to cope with because of the fact that she is female and thus considered to be inferior to men, racism will always separate black and white women in their struggle for emancipation and equality, as black women (and black men alike) are, for historical reasons like slavery, often regarded as being in an even more subordinate position compared to men than white women are. As a consequence black women automatically have a lower social status. This makes clear that racism, sexism, and a lower social status are interdependent. Thus an African American woman is disadvantaged because she is a non-white but black, non-male but female subject who belongs to a lower social class instead of being well-off within a white, male-dominated, capitalistic society. While many of these disadvantaged women give up in view of their seemingly hopeless situation and finally try to assimilate into their surrounding society by which they are discriminated, womanists struggle for emancipation, fight racism, and try to avoid that their original culture falls into oblivion. In this fight the well-being of their community has a higher priority for them than the improvement of their own situation.
This definition of womanism should be kept in mind while considering Beneatha’s coping with the triple oppression of African American women which will lead to the answer of the following question: Is Beneatha a womanist?
3. Beneatha’s role within the play
Beneatha Younger is a 20 year-old college student. She is the daughter of Lena Younger and Walter Lee Younger Senior and the sister of Walter. She has to share her room with her mother due to the fact that they belong to the rather poor working class and therefore have to live in a small apartment. When she appears for the first time she is described as slim girl with wild, thick hair and an intelligent-looking, and thus beautiful face. It is also mentioned that the English she uses is different from that of the rest of the family, as it seems to be influenced by her education.
In spite of her family wanting her to marry a financially well-situated man Beneatha plans to study at a medical school after she will have finished college. It is her biggest dream to become a doctor and thus to help other people. This is only one of her high ideals and aims. The fact that she has such high aims is also represented by her name which sounds like “beneath her” and thus might stand for the fact that “[o]n the one hand, Beneatha has very high ideals, leaving most people’s ways of thinking ‘beneath her’. On the other hand, these ideals can tend to make other people feel uncomfortable in her presence […]” (Morrin, p.20). Her name seems to underline that she does not fulfil the conservative expectations. This can be proven by the definition of ‘beneath’ given in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English which says that if something is beneath somebody, it is “not suitable for someone because [it] is not good enough”, which specifies that Beneatha is no ordinary woman who is satisfied with what she gets but who struggles to get what she wants.
On her way to become the woman she wants to be Beneatha is involved in a lot of conflicts. Not only that she has to fight against what is expected of her as a woman, for instance in discussions with her brother Walter or her suitor George, moreover she has to cope with racism and conflicts caused by the generation gap between her and her mother such as their conversation about their different perceptions of religion. There is also an inner conflict with regard to Beneatha, which is a consequence of her position between her African heritage and the assimilation into her surrounding society. The next three chapters shall clarify Beneatha’s situation as an African American woman in terms of race, class, and gender.
 A complete version of the definition can be found in the appendix.
 A diagram of all characters and their interrelations is included in the appendix.