The complex, fiercely independent, flawed, and angry protagonist of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is a first for the American stage. More articulate and moral than his 1940s Broadway predecessor, Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), Hansberry compared him to Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) who is defeated not only by his own shortcomings but also by a social and economic system that has failed him.
Walter Lee represents the dilemma of African American males who inherited the pride and hopes of the civil rights movement but who are thwarted in their achievement of full manhood in the eyes of society. On the one hand, Walter Lee wants and needs for himself and his family the material comfort that will make their lives better; but on the other hand, he risks losing his sense of dignity to rank materialism. His defining moment comes when the white neighborhood offers to buy back his mother's house at a profit, a price that would allow the family to recover its financial loss and Walter Lee regain face. But in a dramatic reversal at the end of the play, Walter rejects the offer, recognizing its demeaning aspects, and moves the family into the new house. The familiarity of Mama Lena Younger's strong, matriachal figure often competes with Walter Lee for focus, but Hansberry clearly intended A Raisin in the Sun to reflect the struggles, potential, and resilience of the working-class African American male in a racist, capitalistic society that devalues human life and aspiration. Walter Lee, a unique protagonist in the history of America's theatrical literature, is the father of more militant characters who strode the boards in the 1960s plays of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, and others.
Lorraine Hansberry, “Willy Loman, Walter Lee Younger and He Who Must Live,” Village Voice, 12 Aug. 1959, 7–8.Douglas Turner Ward, “Lorraine Hansberry and the Passion of Walter Lee,” Freedomways 19.4 (1979): 223–225.
Margaret B. Wilkerson