Although Mama is a strong motivational force in this drama, she is not its focal point, as many earlier critics assumed. Raisin actually tells the story of Walter Lee — granted that his is a story greatly influenced by Mama. A proud woman, Lena Younger does not have much material wealth, but she walks tall, exudes dignity, and carries herself, as Hansberry says, with the “noble bearing of the women of the Heroes of Southwest Africa [a pastoral people],” as though she walks with a “basket or a vessel upon her head.” Her children are her life; she refers to them as her “harvest.” With no significant dreams of her own, she lives vicariously through her children, for even her dream of having a house is motivated only by her desire to make living conditions better for her family. She says, upon receiving the $10,000 insurance check, that, for her part, she’d just as soon donate the entire sum to her church.
Because Mama seems to be accustomed to suffering and enduring hardships, the Lindners of the world cannot disturb her inner peace, for she has previously suffered the death of a baby and, more recently, the death of her husband of many years. Her strong faith and deep religious convictions give her the psychological and physical mettle she needs in order to rise to life’s challenges. At her lowest point, she asks God to replenish her waning strength and is immediately possessed of a more compassionate perception of Walter Lee’s folly.
Mama’s old-fashioned and conservative views are evident when she speaks of her husband’s past “womanizing” and chauvinistic behavior as being something that she could overlook. Mama actually believes that accepting such behavior is a woman’s lot in life. Ruth, however, is only slightly more liberated as she, too, would accept such behavior in her man, but she would at least address the problem. Beneatha, in contrast, represents a new, liberated generation of women; she would never accept such behavior in a man and would, perhaps, have spoken out against Mama’s lack of spunk in dealing with a sexist mate had Mama reminisced about life with “Big Walter” with Beneatha instead of Ruth.
Mama’s single weakness appears to be her all-consuming love for her grandson, Travis, which causes her to spoil him and causes her also to act in a somewhat meddlesome manner with her daughter-in-law. Mama impresses us with her strength, but this strength appears to have been sublimated during her marriage. It seems that only after the death of “Big Walter,” when Mama has to become head of the household, that she can summon the herculean strength she exhibits throughout the drama.
As her name suggests, Lena’s entire family “leans on” her and draws from her strength in order to replenish their own.