An African student, Joseph Asagai courts the attentions of Beneatha. In trying to win her affections, he is persistent but never overbearing. He flatters her with gifts (something that George Murchison has not done); in addition, Asagai’s gifts are not meaningless trinkets but are things that are both useful to and desired by Beneatha — such as the Nigerian robes he clearly has gone to a lot of trouble to obtain. Asagai’s compliments to Beneatha are sincere and therefore believable. His peaceful ways and calm manner give Beneatha an appreciation of his views even when they disagree. Contrasted with George Murchison’s abrasive put-downs of Beneatha and George’s insistence on retaining his narrow-minded views, Asagai appears as Beneatha’s savior from the potential tragedy of her eventually becoming George’s wife.
Asagai is charming, mannerly, personable, and quite intelligent; in spite of the cultural differences between him and the Younger family, he appears to “fit in” more with them than does George Murchison, who argues with Beneatha in front of her family and then clashes with Walter as he leaves.
Asagai is zealously idealistic about the future of his country and has even expressed his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the independence of his country. And, although Asagai has been afforded a Western education, his basic beliefs are grounded in his own African culture, which was, as of 1959, somewhat chauvinistic and old-fashioned. This creates an undercurrent of tension in his relationship with Beneatha, but it is something that Hansberry hints that might be overcome.
Asagai is helpful and concerned about the welfare of others. He volunteers to assist in the move to Clybourne Park and offers much-needed consolation and good advice to Beneatha when she is at her lowest. He counsels Beneatha spiritually and emotionally, helping her to get back “on track” as she rails against her brother’s foolishness in having lost the money.
Asagai’s philosophy runs counter to the Western perception of success at any cost. He questions, for example, the satisfaction of receiving money through misfortune while calling it “success.” He contrasts this view with his own that “making it” via insurance money gained through misfortune is not really “making it.” Asagai’s character gives Beneatha political focus and nourishes her idealism. Being a true African, Asagai is grounded in his “Africaness” while Beneatha is trying, almost too hard, to connect with an African past that she knows so little of. It is Beneatha and not Asagai who is constantly singing the praises of Africa.
The name of Hansberry’s African character is taken from the word “assegai,” which means a short-handled stabbing spear, famous in the successful ware of Shaka Zulu.