Summary and Analysis
Act I — Scene 2
The following morning, Saturday, is the day that the check is expected to arrive. Beneatha and Mama are busy doing weekend housecleaning when Ruth comes in, announcing sadly that she is pregnant. Mama is upset when she realizes that Ruth is contemplating an abortion. Joseph Asagai brings Beneatha a gift of African records and some Nigerian robes. After he leaves, Travis brings in the insurance check from the mailbox, and Walter seizes this opportunity to discuss his business plans again. Mama, however, ignores Walter in the same way that Walter earlier ignored Ruth's attempts to tell him about her pregnancy. Mama eventually has to be the one to tell him about Ruth's dilemma and is surprised that his desire for the money overshadows his concern for both Ruth and his unborn child.
This scene focuses on the fierce Younger pride that Mama is constantly trying to instill in her children. Although they are poor, still their house is clean; although the furniture is old, there is still the ritualistic weekly polishing. When Asagai telephones for permission to drop by, Beneatha consents reluctantly because she knows that her mother would not want company to see the house in disarray.
This scene emphasizes the clash of cultures between the American-born black and the African. It is clear that Beneatha and Asagai love each other, but there are hints of philosophical disagreement. Asagai teases Beneatha for straightening her hair in order to conform to the European or Hollywood standard of beauty. Asagai is also more serious about their relationship than Beneatha is and appears not to fully understand or accept Beneatha's "liberated college woman's attitude." Although Asagai is not offensively sexist, perhaps due to his Western education and worldly sophistication, still his views are traditionally African, circa 1959, and, therefore, somewhat chauvinistic.
Hansberry uses this scene to express her dissatisfaction with most people's distorted perceptions about Africa. When the play opened in 1959, all that most people knew about Africa was via the broadcasts from the various colonial rulers and/or the Hollywood messages contained in Tarzan movies. Before Asagai's arrival at the Younger apartment, Beneatha sternly admonishes her mother not to say anything embarrassingly naive or patronizing about Africa. Beneatha gives Mama some facts about Africa which Mama later parrots for Asagai's acceptance and Beneatha's approval. This scene significantly dramatizes the lack of understanding between parent and child. An intellectual gap, however, also compounds the generational difference between Mama and her daughter Beneatha. Mama tries so hard to impress Beneatha's Nigerian friend that her remarks are almost comical, clearly not her intent.
Beneatha wants to know everything about Africa and is more than pleased when Asagai gives her authentic Nigerian robes, along with some recordings of African music. After Asagai leaves, Beneatha tries on her new identity. Ruth comes into the room just as Travis goes downstairs to get the mail. When Walter enters and begins talking about his plans for the money, everyone ignores him so he resorts to shouting: "WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE LISTEN TO ME TODAY?"
Even if Walter's ideas were unacceptable and offensive, someone in his family should have taken the time to listen. The frustration Walter Lee exhibits in this scene is recognizable by everyone who has ever felt ignored in spite of loud cries to be heard. It is difficult in such a crowded atmosphere as the Younger household for one person to be singled out and heard. The Youngers do not mean to ignore Walter Lee and are not totally aware that they are doing so. They are simply caught up in the excitement of the moment — the receipt of the check.
The original production of this play, as well as the original movie screenplay, does not contain the incident involving Travis' chasing a huge rat while he is downstairs playing with his friends in the street. The scene is included in the PBS presentation, however. Hansberry wrote the "rat scene" to dramatically point out the graphic terrors that daily confront the children of the poor and also to show that these children must learn to incorporate such horrific realities into their playtime activities.
behind the bureau A bureau is a piece of furniture that was usually kept in the bedroom and used for storing clothing. A dresser, in contrast, is a short piece of bedroom furniture that has drawer space, a large mirror, and a small stool or chair where one might sit in order to put on makeup. The bureau is the taller piece of bedroom furniture, containing only drawer space for clothing. Objects placed on top of the bureau often landed behind it, which, because of its size and weight, was often a difficult piece of furniture to move.
Hay-lo Beneatha answers the telephone with this greeting, a combination of "Hey" and "Hello."
Nigeria The most populated nation in Africa with more than 250 different ethnic groups. The four major groups are the Hausa and Falani people in the north, the Yoruba people in the southwest, and the Ibo people in the southeast. Nigeria was ruled by the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century, followed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Spaniards, and the Swedes. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the British gained control over the slave trade there. Nigeria finally became independent and a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and, in 1963, it became a republic. Open hostility, however, between the numerous rival factions within the country bred chaos, with several attempts to overthrow the government, civil war, and finally mass starvation. Despite its harrowing past, Nigeria has become a leader in literature, art, music, and craftsmanship.
They need more salvation from the British and the French Beneatha says this to Mama as she attempts to "educate" her mother to what Beneatha feels are political realities. She knows that Mama believes in giving money to her church for the missionary work, but the Africans, she says, "need more salvation from the British and the French," who were the dominant colonial rulers at that time.
We've all got acute ghetto-itis Beneatha says this when Asagai drops by to visit, immediately after the Younger family has had a depressing conversation about their financial station in life and Ruth's possible pregnancy. Beneatha refers to the "ghetto" in which they live as though it brings with it a disease that she calls "ghetto-iris."
Mr. Asagai, I am looking for my identity Asagai repeats Beneatha's words to her, poking fun at her desperation to connect with her African heritage. Beneatha made this statement to Asagai when they first met, a remark he had found amusing.
One for Whom Bread — Food — Is Not Enough Asagai gives Beneatha the Nigerian name "Alaiyo," which he translates roughly as: "One for whom bread — food — is not enough," meaning that his perception of Beneatha is that she is a totally developed person, both intellectually and spiritually, and that she demands answers to all of life's questions. Merely going through the motions of life is not enough for a person like Beneatha; she has to question every philosophy for herself. She is, to Asagai, a person for whom "bread — food — is not enough."
You don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar Prior to the civil rights movement, which reached its peak in the sixties, segregated facilities, separating whites from blacks, were common in the south, where "Jim Crow" laws made it legal. (Even in the northern cities, vestiges of segregation were apparent.) In the south, whites rode in the front of buses, blacks in the back. An interesting aspect of this particular "Jim Crow" law was that a black person might be permitted to sit in the front of the bus if there were no white person on the bus who needed that seat. If a white person boarded the bus and a black person was seated in the front, the black person knew, almost instinctively, that he had to get up in deference to the white person who needed that seat. During the thirties and forties, the mass exodus of blacks from the south to the northern cities was an attempt to flee segregation injustices, including being forced to ride at the back of buses. Not until Rosa Parks dramatically refused to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, an act which accelerated the civil rights movement, did most blacks in the south even think about the absurdity of the "Jim Crow" laws. Mama's generation worked hard so that their children could have a "better life," which, to her, meant a life without segregation. To those of Mama's generation, it should have been enough that Walter Lee's generation can ride at the front of a bus. Mama cannot understand why Walter Lee wants more from life than to sit anywhere he wants on public transportation. Walter, in contrast, and others of his generation, take that particular "freedom" for granted. Walter wants the larger freedom of being totally independent of everyone; he wants to be able to earn his living without having a "boss"; more important, he wants to be able to generate his own income without being dependent on a salary as a chauffeur. In short, Walter is questioning the reasons he cannot live the way his bosses live. When he asks why his wife cannot wear pearls, he is asking why he has to resign himself to poverty, being ever grateful that he no longer has to ride at the back of a bus. To Mama, that particular measure of equality is enough; to Walter, it is an outrage.