The language of many of the characters of Raisin is unconventionally non-Standard English; the black characters are not merely speaking English that is ungrammatical; rather, they are speaking a dialect common in the black communities that are heavily populated by migrants from the South. Their dialect, although similar to the white southern dialect, is distinctly different in that it is mostly an outgrowth of the period of slavery. At that time, slaves were forbidden a formal education and therefore mimicked whatever English they heard, ending up with a “Pidgin English” not unlike the English spoken by many of the Native-American population.
It is natural to superimpose one’s known grammatical structure upon a language that one is attempting to learn, as in the German placement of the direct object after any interrupting phrase; it was comically noted at the turn of the century that the recent German immigrants would readily construct the following type of English sentence: Throw Mama from the stairs her hat. In the same way, the slaves, many of whom were from West Africa, superimposed their own grammatical structure upon their new master’s language, ending up with what linguists define today as “Black English.” Broadly explained, Black English has its own grammatical structure — even though it is non-Standard English. It is not solely “bad grammar,” for in some cases, the “errors” are intentional for effect.
The most prominent example of this dialect is in the “abuse” of the verb “to be.” Blacks have always “abused” the grammatical form of the verb “to be” in whatever language slaves were forced to learn — be it English, French, Spanish, or Dutch. These “abuses” are even found in Surinam, which proves the result of the African continuum, for many West African languages have a habitual tense which translates as “to be.” Note the following examples of this habitual tense:
Harry be waiting for me every night when I come home.
You can never reach Mary because she be talking on the phone.
Donald be so tired when he leaves work.
In each of the above examples, the word “be” means “all of the time.” However, in the following examples, forms of the verb “to be” are purposely omitted in order to express a different meaning:
The answer to the question: “What is Harry doing right now?” might be, “He waiting.”
The answer to the question: “What is Mary doing right now?” might be, “She talking on the phone.”
Note that in the above examples, there are distinctly different meanings. When the word “be” is used in the above constructions, the meaning is “all the time.” Omitting the main verb before the participle means the action is taking place “right now.” So, in the black dialect, “He talking” means something completely different from “He be talking.”
Hansberry had to have been aware of the semantic subtleties of the black dialect in order to have made these points in Raisin.
Note the following examples from various scenes of Raisin.
Walter: I can’t be bein’ late to work on account of him fooling around in there.
Ruth: Oh, no he ain’t going to be getting up no earlier no such thing!
Ruth: Walter, don’t be dragging me in it.
Also in the black dialect, one moves directly from the subject to its adjective, getting to the point more quickly by having eliminated any forms of the verb “to be.” For example, one might hear someone say in black dialect, “Don’t bother Lisa ’cause she tired.” One might also hear “She pretty,” “He ugly,” or “They smart.”
Note the following from various scenes in Raisin:
Walter: You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything . . .
Walter: We one group of men tied to a race of women with small minds . . .
Mama: But [Beneatha] you so thin . . .
Mama: We ain’t no business people, Ruth. We just plain working folks.
Mama: Ruth honey — what’s the matter with you — you sick?
Ruth: You think you a woman, Bennie — but you still a little girl.
In the black dialect, the word “done” means something completely different from the Standard English past participle of the verb “to do.” Note the following examples:
It’s too late to ask her cause she done gone.
Mrs. Jackson done burned the cabbage again.
I done told you — I didn’t do it!
In the above examples, “done” means “has already” or “have already.” Note the following examples from Raisin:
Ruth: You done spoiled that boy so . . .
Mama: What done got into you, girl? Walter Lee done finally sold you on investing?
Mama: And all that money they pour into these churches when they ought to be helping you people over there drive out them French and Englishmen done taken away your land.
Mama: Much baking powder as she done borrowed from me all these years, she could of done gone into the baking business.
Mama: [The check] . . . you mean it really done come?
Ruth: Girl, you done lost your natural mind?
Another intentional Standard English deviation is the overuse of the negative in order to emphasize that negative, as in the following: “Nobody ain’t never seen no ghost nowhere.”
In Raisin, this construction abounds as in the following examples taken from various scenes:
Mama: Now here come you and Beneatha talking ’bout things we ain’t never even thought about
hardly . . .
Mama: I’m waiting to see you stand up and . . . say we done give up one baby to poverty and that we ain’t going to give up nary another one . . .
Bobo: Willy didn’t never show up . . .
Ruth: Walter, that ain’t none of our money . . .
In addition to the obvious lack of formal education noted in Mama’s speech, her speech is also flavored with “southernisms” which are absent from Walter’s speech. Even though Walter does not have as much education as Beneatha, he is not as unschooled as Mama, nor does he use the southernisms that define Mama. Ruth, however, proves through her speech that she has not had even as much formal education as Walter, for her speech is as flavored with southernisms as Mama’s. Because Ruth makes far more Standard English errors than Walter does, her speech makes her sound as though she is older than her thirty years. Ruth sounds more like Mama than any of the other characters in the play. The neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, proves that her roots are also southern by her speech, and Bobo also reveals his obvious southern upbringing when he speaks to Ruth and is overly polite in deference to her gender:
Bobo: Well, h’you, Miss Ruth.
Mrs. Johnson: I finds I can’t close my eyes right lessen I done had that last cup of coffee . . .
Mama: My children and they tempers . . .
Ruth: If you don’t take this comb and fix [your hair], you better!
Mama: Who that ’round here slamming doors at this hour?
Mama: This all the packing got done since I left out of here this morning — I testify before God . . .
Mama: Tell that youngun to get himself up here . . .
The luxuriousness of Hansberry’s writing is apparent in her scene descriptions prior to Act I. An example of ordinary writing might be “The room was overcrowded with old, outdated furniture.” Note, as a contrast, Hansberry’s more poetic way of saying the same thing: “The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being. Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years — and they are tired.”
As another example, ordinary writing might be: “The furnishings of this room used to be beautiful but are now faded, ugly, and even tasteless.” Hansberry, however, says it this way: “Still, we can see that at some time, a time probably no longer remembered by the family (except perhaps for Mama), the furnishings of this room were actually selected with care and love and even hope — and brought to this apartment and arranged with taste and pride. That was a long time ago. Now the once loved pattern of the couch upholstery has to fight to show itself from under acres of crocheted doilies and couch covers which have themselves finally come to be more important than the upholstery.”
An ordinary way of describing the worn out carpet might be to say: “Although they tried, they could not hide the worn out look of the old carpet.” Now, note Hansberry’s description: “And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.”
So too, this example: Ordinary: “Everything in this room looks old and unattractive.” In contrast, Hansberry: “Weariness has, in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used, scrubbed too often. All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from the very atmosphere of this room.”