Against the "Starless Midnight of Racism and War": African American Intellectuals and the Antinuclear Agenda

By Foertsch, Jacqueline | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Against the "Starless Midnight of Racism and War": African American Intellectuals and the Antinuclear Agenda


Foertsch, Jacqueline, Philological Quarterly


Early in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), an anxious and distracted Walter Lee Younger reads the paper, as per the playwright's stage directions, "vaguely," and announces to his estranged wife Ruth, "Set off another bomb yesterday." (1) The average postwar playgoer--and even the skilled contemporary critic--approaching this text with an awareness of its primary themes of racial identity and civil rights might assume that the "bomb" Walter mentions was one directed by racist whites against a black church or neighborhood. (2) Yet it is equally if not more likely that Walter refers to a crisis less local and more international in scope: the above-ground nuclear tests that had been conducted by the United States and Russia since the early 1950s that would continue until 1962. As vital as the subject of racial equality was to Hansberry, as were the attendant issues of neighborhood segregation and racially motivated terrorist bombing, she frequently addressed the atomic threat in her essays, dialogues, and dramatic works. In one memorable interview she insisted that we "get rid of all the little bombs--and the big bombs," (3) and in fact Hansberry, like many peace-loving African American intellectuals of the period, shifted freely between the causes of nuclear disarmament and civil rights from one project to the next, or even within the same work. While racially motivated home-bombing becomes an increasingly central issue in Raisin, the significance of the atomic bomb was so basic to Hansberry's own worldview that her characters take note of related developments almost casually, in perfect keeping with their atomic-era context.

Specifically, we might assume a nuclear referent in Waiter's opening remark because of the way he couches the topic. Instead of saying "they bombed another church today" or "there was another bombing on the South Side," Waiter's emphasis on the "setting off" indicates that this bomb's target is less significant (in the case of a nuclear test it is nonexistent) than the political and biological hazards involved with the detonation itself. Too, Walter's "vague" comment on the subject, followed by Ruth's response of "maximum indifference," pairs with another item he reports in his continued attempt to win over his wife with small talk safely removed from their immediate domestic travails: "Say Colonel McCormick is sick." His remark refers to Robert R. McCormick, the archconservative publisher of the Chicago Tribune, indicating that the Youngers' morning paper is the middle-class Tribune, where McCormick's well-being would have been front-section news, instead of the Sun-Times, favored by Chicago's South Side working classes for decades. Very likely, Hansberry's own affluent South Side family were Tribune subscribers, and Hansberry either failed to correct for the class difference between herself and her characters, or subtly indicated the sophisticated reading interests of this poor but respectable family for pointed political reasons. Not surprisingly, Ruth responds to her husband's report with "tea-party interest": "Is he now? Poor thing" and goes back to scrambling eggs for his breakfast.

While few would question Ruth's indifference to McCormick under even the best of domestic circumstances, the issue becomes whether the atomic bomb figures as similarly meaningless, as removed from Ruth's experience as a struggling but proud African American woman as is the prognosis for some oligarch. In a later scene the tables are turned when wealthy, snobbish George Murchison awaits the appearance of Ruth's sister-in-law Beneatha (who shares the Younger apartment) and Ruth must preside over her own session of small-talk, "determined to demonstrate the civilization of her family." Following a remark about the hot weather--described in the stage notes as "this cliche of cliche's"--Ruth indicates her knowledge of the atomic events she dismissed in a graver but more authentic moment at the opening of the play: "Everybody says [the heat's] got to do with them bombs and things they keep setting off. …

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