In this scene, another character is introduced, a neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. This character, however, was cut from the original stage production in order to reduce production costs. The most recent editions (the complete version) of Raisin includes this character, as did the American Playhouse presentation of this play.
When Mrs. Johnson enters, she brings the Youngers a newspaper that tells of a bombing of a black family’s home in an all-white neighborhood. Mrs. Johnson’s intent is clearly to belittle the importance of the Youngers’ getting away from the horrid conditions of their cramped apartment. Still, her warning to the Youngers was a reality in 1959, when this play opened, and, unfortunately, in some communities, even today.
Hansberry makes it clear here that George and Beneatha are not compatible. Because of their strong philosophical differences, any marriage between these two is destined to fail. George tells Beneatha that she is too much of an intellectual and that men don’t like opinionated, liberated women. He also says that Beneatha is a bit too “moody” and artistic; he tells her that he didn’t ask her to go on a date with him to discuss her “thoughts.”
Beneatha uses George’s weak attempts to change her personality as the excuse that she needs to end their relationship. Later, Beneatha is surprised that Mama agrees with her decision about George, which indicates a softening of the tensions that had previously plagued their relationship.
The “Mrs. Johnson” character brings laughter to the scene, for she is a comical figure, but she also expresses sentiments that have always been prevalent in the black community. She compares, for example, the overt racism of the south at that time with the covert racism found in the north. In 1959, when this play opened, many blacks who had only recently left the south were surprised to find a different type of racism in the north. Mrs. Johnson’s implication is that it is easier to survive the blatant racism of a 1959 southern town than it is to be prepared for the hidden, and therefore more dangerous, racism of the urban ghettos.
After Mrs. Johnson leaves and Mama learns that Walter has not been to work in three days, she feels responsible for his despair (“I been doing to you what the rest of the world been doing to you”), so responsible, in fact, that she gives him $6500, all that’s left of the insurance check after her downpayment of $3500 on the Clybourne Park house, so that he can feel that he is the “man of the house.” She stipulates that $3000 is to go in a savings account for Beneatha’s medical schooling, but it is not clear that he even hears Mama. He is overwhelmed and his sudden exuberance over this financial windfall leads him to share some of his many fantasies with Travis.
Walter’s already exaggerated dreams, however, suddenly turn into an avalanche of pitiful prattle. He says, for example, that one day he will come in from work, “home from my office downtown,” and even Travis is incredulous as he reminds his father, “You don’t work in no office, Daddy.” Walter cannot seem to stop, though, and the more he talks to Travis about his dream, the bigger the dream gets. The bigger the dream gets, the more preposterous it sounds because Walter soon begins to talk about his future gardener, to whom he has given the first name of “Jefferson.” It is then that we realize that Walter has reached a “point of no return.” He must either take action now to make his dream a reality or just give up on his dream altogether.
Drop the Garbo routine When George Murchison admonishes Beneatha to “drop the Garbo routine,” he is telling her to know her “place” as a woman. Beneatha intellectualizes everything, is clearly independent, does not defer to men, and argues whatever points of chauvinism she finds in her conversation with men. George wants Beneatha to be more quiet and submissive. He implies in his speech that men do not like aggressive, independent, liberated women, and that if she ever hopes to get married and have a family, she is going to have to “drop the Garbo routine,” meaning she will have to stop studying and thinking so much, and start acting “like a [submissive] woman.”
the nature of quiet desperation The complete quotation to which George refers is “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” a line from Thoreau’s Walden. George proves to be as pedantic as Beneatha, peppering his arguments with literary allusions and oftentimes esoteric references — for example, calling Walter “Prometheus.” George is trying to persuade Beneatha to abandon her feminist principles when he utters this philosophical truth, but throughout the play, Hansherry shows that many of the characters in Raisin do indeed lead lives of quiet desperation: Mama, although outwardly strong, is consumed with anxiety over the various, disparate directions her children are going; Walter Lee is clearly a desperate man, trying to secure a dream that eludes him; Ruth is pregnant but afraid to have this child (one more mouth to feed), especially since it will be born into a marital relationship that is deteriorating from within; Beneatha is desperately seeking her own identity while simultaneously attempting to escape the stereotypical barriers of her class and gender; and last, even Karl Lindner is a desperate man, rationalizing his rigid beliefs in a rapidly changing world. Of all the characters, Asagai appears to be the most serene, even when his is contemplating justifiable reasons for anxiety — that is, the political turmoil within his homeland and the possibility of his own death in his desire for his country’s independence. Note that Asagai calmly accepts whatever his fate might be and even becomes an inadvertent peacemaker when he diffuses Beneatha’s vitriolic reaction to Walter’s loss of the family’s money.
He’s got a conked head A “conked head” refers to a hairstyle adopted by some black men during the forties and early fifties. Because of what was defined as “self hatred” by psychologists who studied the phenomenon, oftentimes a group that believes itself to be oppressed will mimic the life-style and, sometimes, even mimic the appearance of the “dominant group.” During this period in history, some black men (especially those connected with show business) would have their hair straightened through a chemical process that was both demeaning and extremely painful. Looking at old photographs of Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and other entertainers of that period, we see that they adopted this style. Many times though, men within the criminal element in the black community also wore their hair in this “conked” style when the style became a symbol of affluence. As a result, people within the black community often had negative perceptions about those who adopted this style. If those men were not a part of the entertainment industry, they were either denizens of the underworld or full-fledged or potential gangsters. The person whom Walter Lee describes as having a “conked head” is a part of the entertainment world; he is a musician at the Green Hat, a bar that Walter Lee frequents.
the best little combo in the world This phrase refers to the band of musicians that Walter admires in the Green Hat. “Combo” is a synonym for “band.” Clearly, we can see by the way Walter talks about them that he appreciates their music very much.
peckerwoods no-count riff-raff; poor, shiftless, racially prejudiced whites.
Booker T. Washington Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was one of the most influential black leaders during the period immediately following Reconstruction (1865-77). Extremely hard working, he attended school at night. When he heard about Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school for blacks, he enrolled in order to study brick masonry, paying for his education by working as the janitor. Known mainly for his founding of Tuskegee Institute, Washington believed that blacks should be educated only by trade schools. He felt that they should develop manual skills and improve their craft at the building trades and that blacks should become experts in farming. (One of Washington’s first staff appointments was Dr. George Washington Carver, whose brilliance in the field of agriculture is not as well documented as his “peanut” discoveries.) Washington believed strongly that artistic endeavors and intellectual pursuits were not in the best interest of black people trying to emerge from a long period of slavery. Washington felt that having a trade was more logical for black people than painting or poetry. In his “Atlanta speech,” Booker T. Washington urged blacks to cultivate friendly relations with white men. He suggested that blacks devote themselves to agriculture, mechanics, domestic service, and the professions — placing more value on acquiring an industrial skill than on attaining a seat in Congress. Washington’s long-time opponent, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), was a man who dramatically espoused the opposite of Washington’s philosophy. Du Bois, educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin, was a writer and political activist, activities which Washington perceived as frivolous. Black writers tend to side with W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed in the importance of artistic endeavors (which Washington believed to be a frivolous activity). Hansberry has one of her characters call Booker T. Washington a “fool,” which is an elitist comment since only the very well read of her audience would even have known of the political rivalry between the two men. Blacks began to “choose sides,” debating constantly over who was right, and over which philosophy was actually in the best interest of black people. Hansberry has the comical character of Mrs. Johnson act as the defender of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, as she says, “I always thinks like Booker T. Washington said that time — ‘Education has spoiled many a good plow hand.'” Hansberry, herself, speaks through Mama, who dismisses Washington as a “fool.” And when Mrs. Johnson goes on to say that Washington “was one of our great men,” Mama counters, almost angrily, with, “Who said so?” The debate does not continue and, at this point, Mrs. Johnson concedes by saying, “You know, me and you ain’t never agreed about some things, Lena Younger. I guess I better be going — .”