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Mama Lena Younger


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A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry (1930—1965)

Langston Hughes (1902—1967) American writer

Booker T. Washington (1856—1915) American educationist

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Is a domestic worker and matriarch of the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry. Played in the original production by Claudia McNeil, a large darkskinned actress, Lena conjured up the stereotypical image of the asexual, self-sacrificing mammy. She dominates her adult children, all of whom live under her crowded roof, and decides, without consulting them, to purchase a house with the $10,000 insurance benefit paid on her husband's death.

However, Lena is not only the matriarch as immortalized in Langston Hughes's poem, “The Negro Mother,” but is also the revolutionary who sends her children to do battle in the civil rights movement. Shattering the mammy stereotype, Hansberry creates a Mama who dares to move her family into an all-white and hostile neighborhood in order to improve their living situation; who learns to appreciate, if not have faith in, her children's dreams; and who turns over the leadership of the family to her son, Walter Lee Younger, a transfer of power that implicitly endorses the growing militancy of the next generation. The Mrs. Johnson scene, cut from the original production but restored in the 1987 version, shows a Lena who rejects the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington and implicitly aligns herself with W. E. B. Du Bois. Her repositioning is further affirmed by Asagai, the young African intellectual and revolutionary who declares that Lena is the true visionary because she acts to bring about change.

[See also Beneatha Younger.]

Lorraine Hansberry, “This Complex of Womanhood,” Ebony, Aug. 1960, 40.Stephen R. Carter, Hansberry's Drama: Commitment amid Complexity, 1991.

— Margaret B. Wilkerson

Subjects: Literature.


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