A character in the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, is a mild parody of the author of the play, Lorraine Hansberry at age twenty, and has no precedent on the American stage. The daughter of Mama Lena Younger and the sister of Walter Lee Younger, Beneatha represents the young women of the so-called silent generation of the 1950s on the verge of new and unprecedented freedom. Refusing to labor under typical racial and gender roles, she dares to “seek her identity” or “express” herself by studying guitar, learning horseback riding, and engaging in other activities considered frivolous in a traditional, black, working-class household. Her knowledge of America's rich history and revolutionary present challenge the Tarzan myths of the period. By rejecting a rich, middle-class suitor, she questions prevailing expectations that women should be satisfied as housewives or sex objects. In the original script, Beneatha chooses to wear her hair natural—in an Afro, the first ever on the American stage; however, the material was cut from the first production and later restored in 1987. Beneatha anticipates the next generation of African American women intellectuals.
Beneatha evokes critical character traits of the play's main characters, Lena and Walter Lee. Her atheistic views reveal the complex authoritarian and traditional values held by her mother. Beneatha's plans to study medicine elicit her brother's sexist comment that she should be satisfied with nursing. In the last act, Beneatha's disavowal of her brother's demeaning plans rouses Mama to deliver the most eloquent speech in the play as she reminds Beneatha that her brother deserves her love especially when he is suffering the most. Beneatha remains an unusually provocative depiction of the independent African American woman.
Doris E. Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925–1959, 1969, pp. 165–266.Amiri Baraka, “A Raisin in the Sun's Enduring Passion,” in A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, ed. Robert Nemiroff, 1987, pp. 9–20.
Margaret B. Wilkerson