114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

“Back to the Past”: History, Hair, and African Diasporic Identity in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

Raquel Kennon, California State University, Northridge

This paper explores the fascinating scene in Act II of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun (1959) when Beneatha Younger dramatically cuts her hair chemically relaxed hair and embraces her natural texture.  This paper examines Beneatha's two romantic prospects, Asagai and George, and argues that each represents her wrestling with the meaning of her African ancestry.

Proposal: 

When Beneatha Younger dramatically cuts her hair chemically relaxed hair and embraces her natural texture in Act II of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun (1959)--a scene that was curiously removed from the staged version of the play--it comes at a crucial moment when she has begun to research and explore the meaning of her African ancestry.  Some of this exploration involves investigating the cultural markers of language, music, clothing, and most significantly, engaging with the history and enduring legacies of colonization and enslavement.  Her relationships with two contrasting suitors—Nigerian student, Asagai, and African-American student George, illustrate the intriguing ways in which Beneatha negotiates the expectations of African American women in the midcentury United States with her desire to learn and actively incorporate her African heritage into her life.  In a pointed conversation with George, who harshly critiques Beneatha’s new appearance and hair, she suggests that he might be “ashamed of his heritage” (125).  George, in turn, calls her natural hair “eccentric” (125).  Similar to her professional goal to become a medical doctor, Beneatha again must justify her decision to refashion herself in opposition to dominant cultural norms and Western beauty standards.   

Beneatha’s shearing off of her chemically processed hair not only foreshadows the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the coming decade, but also embodies the significance of Black hair (“the personal is political”) and its connection to questions of assimilation, racial pride, strength, agency, culture, dignity, and history.  This paper is part of a larger project that examines representations of natural hair and hair styling in African American literature.  The paper also connects Beneatha’s process of self-discovery and self-fashioning to contemporary natural hair movements and the significance of what is popularly called “the big chop.”