Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). A Richard Wright scholar, poet, literary critic, Ward was born in Washington, DC but has spend most of his adult life in Mississippi and Louisiana. He is co-editor with Maryemma Graham of The Cambridge History of African American Literature and HBW Senior Board Member.
Guest Blogger Professor Jerry W. Ward
Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Randall Kenan. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.
“Is A Raisin in the Sun a Lemon in the Dark?” is one of the more revealing essays in this collection. Disputing Nelson Algren’s criticism of Hansberry’s play as a drama about real estate and his valuation of Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin contended “both Native Son and A Raisin in the Sun are flawed pieces of work,” because he found “a profound connection between the two works, and even certain rather obvious similarities. Wright’s flaw is…involved with [an] attempt to illuminate ruthlessly as unprecedented a creation as Bigger by means of the stock characters of Jan, the murdered girl’s lover, and Max, the white lawyer”(25). Bigger’s tortured reality precludes belief in the two. Likewise, belief is not warranted by Hansberry’s “juxtaposition of the essentially stock…figure of the mother with the intense (and unprecedented) figure of Walter Lee. Most Americans do not know that he exists” (26).
Despite his awareness in 1961 that drastic measures were needed to educate most Americans about systemic racism, Baldwin yearned for dramatic verisimilitude divorced from social data, for a certain kind of art. One profits from reconsidering Baldwin’s problematic judgment by way of reading Robin Bernstein’s “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun” in Modern Drama (Spring 1999).
Baldwin’s venial flaw was insufficient consideration of the agon of the particular and the universal in American letters. His flaw leads to a cardinal, contemporary question: should most Americans even care that the characters Walter Lee Younger and Bigger Thomas have become living human beings? An answer might illuminate something.