Interpreting the Dream: Connecting Hughes, Hansberry, and Lim

The phrase “a dream deferred” connects Hughes’ poem “Harlem” to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. While the play takes its title from another line in the same poem, the idea of deferred dreams becomes one of several themes in A Raisin in the Sun. Hughes’ use of the title “Harlem” appears to provide the answer to the question, “What happens to a dream deferred.” Considering the themes Hughes primarily wrote about, the dream discussed in this poem is most likely the deferral of the individual American dream of wealth and success as well as the collective African American dream of racial equality. This is supported by the fact that Harlem represented, at one time, a model of racial indifference which Hughes described as “…a place where the bold eyes of white girls called to black men, and ‘dark brown girls’ were found ‘in blond men’s arms’…” However, Hughes would later write of a new Harlem that contrasts the utopian Harlem he had arrived in during the 1920s. This new Harlem represents the frustration of the African American community; Hughes explains in his poem “One Way Ticket” (1949) that, like the African Americans who inhabit the city, this new Harlem is frustrated with “the old lies” (Davis 1952, pg. 277).

Variations of the Dream
Hansberry’s title, A Raisin in the Sun, demonstrates that throughout America there were various representations among African American communities of “what happens to a dream deferred.” In Hansberry’s play, Hansberry intertwines both the American dream and the African American dream in order to demonstrate racial inequality in America. Ultimately, Hansberry critiques the dream of nation by suggesting that the American dream is a folly if African Americans are denied basic rights as citizens. Hansberry then extends this idea by focusing on the ways in which African American women are further restricted by gender inequality, arguing that women are also a muffled voice in the discourse of nationhood. Hansberry’s treatment of the deferred dream allows A Raisin in the Sun to be read, as the title suggests, as another answer to the question of the deferred dream. Like Hughes’ Harlem, frustrated with “the old lies,” the characters in Hansberry’s play—particularly Walter and Beneatha Younger—are also frustrated with the lies of a nation that includes them via exclusionary practices.

Connecting the U.S. & Malaysia
Reading Hughes’ and Hansberry’s texts in this manner and understanding America as a multi-ethnic postcolonial nation, these concepts can be connected with postcolonialism and Malaysia. Because Hansberry demonstrates that “Harlem” could be Chicago, it is arguable that the title “Harlem” could also be replaced with “Malaysia.” Though a multi-ethnic country that perpetuates unity, the Malaysian government—much like the pre-civil rights United States in A Raisin in the Sun—is willing to assimilate but not integrate citizens of the non-dominant race. The favored Malay race is granted privileges because of racial preference, while the Chinese, Indians, and orang asli are relegated to the position of other, much like African Americans.

(above) Movie Trailer for SEPET (2005). Set in Malaysia, the film tells the story of a Malay girl & Chinese boy who fall in love.

Assimilation vs. Integration
Race Relations
This concept of assimilation versus integration is visible in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Joss and Gold (2001). In the novel, Lim displays how cultures intermingle in Malaysia through food, the sharing of similar ideals, and language (Lim 2001, pg 34). However, Lim reveals that Malaysia is not a homogeneous nation as the lines of separation are clearly drawn by Malay characters like Abdullah. Abdullah proclaims that English is a “bastard language,” and believes that Malaysians should speak Malay (Lim 2001, pg 56). Abdullah appears to incorporate Li An in this discussion by using the term Malaysian, however Abdullah also believes that only Malays are the true Malaysians, and even suggests that those who disagree return to their country (Lim 2001, pg 56). Similarly, in A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha appears to live in a progressive society in which she can enjoy the privilege of a college education. However, the reality of social divide is evident when Beneatha and the rest of the Younger family are discouraged from moving into a predominantly white neighborhood by a representative from the communitiy’s “Improvement Association” (Hansberry 1959, pg 114). The representative informs the Younger family that “for the happiness of all concerned…our Negro families are happier living in their own communities” (Hansberry 1959, pg 118).

Gender Roles
Both Joss and Gold and A Raisin in the Sun apply the concept of assimilation versus integration/‘inclusion by virtue of othering’ to the role of women concerning the development of nation. Li An’s husband informs her that she ought to use her intelligence “for agreement” (Lim 2001, pg 57). Similarly, Hansberry’s young female character, Beneatha, is informed by a male companion that she does not need more than her looks because men are more interested in her body than her mind (Hansberry 1959, pg 96). In addition to gender, a somewhat minor theme within Lim and Hansbery’s texts is the concept of the “Talented Tenth” or top ten percent of the nation that was thought to be the most capable to lead, an idea that was most notably created and supported by African American theorist W.E.B. DuBois. Although the Talented Tenth specifically refers to the educated, it is arguable that education is a privilege associated with the middle and higher socio-economic classes. Therefore, this notion of the Talented Tenth is actually suggesting including or excluding individuals from nationalist discourse based on socio-economic status.

The Talented Tenth
Interestingly, Hansberry was influenced by W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of the Talented Tenth: the idea that one out of every ten blacks could form an elite class, via higher education, and lead the rest of the race. However, Du Bois’s theory did not incorporate women into this elite class. Therefore, it is arguable that the character Beneatha allows A Raisin in the Sun to serve as a commentary on Du Bois’s theory and, moreover, the general notion that only a certain group (the formally educated) should make contributions to the society in which they live. Hansberry suggests that individuals who desire to be a part of constructing nation should have the opportunity to do so, especially if they are to be truly incorporated into the infrastructure of that nation.
In Joss and Gold, Lim proposes a similar idea through Li An’s questioning of Abdullah’s beliefs when Abdullah suggests that only the formally educated who hold “top” jobs should learn English (Lim 2001, pg 57). Li An asks why should everyone not be allowed to learn English, what if uneducated people come to desire an education and a higher job position. Here Lim, like Hansberry, questions the stagnant notions of identity associated with racism, sexism, and class hierarchy. Lim and Hansberry argue that proposed markers of inferiority–race, gender, and class status–are not based on the actual nature of an individual or a group of people, but they are, instead, social constructs meant to justify restrictions imposed on certain social groups in an effort to legitimize the privileges of others.


Image Sources:
1. Self-Created Image
3. (video)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.