Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
She For Whom Food Is Not Enough
By Roxanne Fequiere
For as long as I can remember, my mother was a one-woman cheer squad for all the things we might now classify as black girl magic. In our house, we warbled to the best of our ability along with Whitney Houston and yelled at the judges from our living room when they slighted Surya Bonaly. My bedroom was filled to the brim with black dolls, some in cotton eyelet dresses, others in kente cloth jumpers. We tuned in every week for Laura Winslow (not Steve), and though the doll itself cost more than my mother was willing to pay, the only American Girl stories allowed to grace my shelves were those of Addy Walker.
I was a voracious reader and my mother always made sure that I supplemented my fiction with biographies of black leaders, but, limited by the selection of our local library, I suspect my mother determined that as far as fictional towns went, neither River Heights nor Stoneybrook were ranking very high in diversity—the Ramsey and Kishi families notwithstanding. Addy was a runaway slave, and her life is described vividly before, during, and after her daring escape, but what I remember most is Addy’s bravery, her big dreams, her gold hoop earrings and cowrie shell necklace.
I thought of Addy when I encountered A Raisin in the Sun—that is, once I stopped marveling over the fact that none of my teachers or professors ever saw fit to include it on a curriculum, that it took me this long to get around to reading it myself. Beneatha Younger is smart enough to know where she stands in society on account of her working-class black womanhood and ambitious enough to aim higher anyway. Impulsive, fiercely independent, and unaffected by the notion of how a woman ought to behave, she also made me think of Sally Jay Gorce, the thoroughly modern, pink-haired heroine of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. I can only imagine how delightful it would be to tag along with Beneatha on a lengthy fictional jaunt, unencumbered by the expectations of her suitors and god-fearing relatives. Most of all, with her fresh remarks, quick temper, and unrelenting desire for self-actualization, Beneatha reminded me of myself.
The $10,000 insurance check that arrives in the mail is the catalyst for change in the Younger family. Ruth sees the money as a ticket to some far-flung place for her mother-in-law Lena, the primary beneficiary, but is happy to consider it for the purpose Lena suggests: a real home with enough space for the family to spread out and a backyard. Walter has seen too many white businessmen wheeling, dealing, and winning big to be content using the money as sensibly as all that. He wants to gamble; hitting the jackpot doesn’t seem nearly as unlikely to him as it does to the women in the house. Beneatha doesn’t seem quite as agitated as the others, a point that Walter notes resentfully. Everyone knows that Lena will put aside some money for Beneatha’s education—she wants to be a doctor, not a nurse “like other women,” as Walter advises—so it’s easy for her to remain above it all.
Of course, when that certainty dissolves, Beneatha reveals that she had been much more reliant on that money than she’d let on. The loss is a substantial one, but long before that money was to have been deposited into a savings account, Beneatha had already taken it upon herself to learn how to play guitar, to act, to ride horses, to learn the ins and outs of photography, to “experiment with different forms of expression.” The promise of financial security is hardly what drove her to chop off her hair on a whim. Beneatha’s disdain for the Murchisons’ wealth his snobbery, as well as her fairly quick recovery from the realization that tuition has disappeared indicate that, unlike the rest of her family, her quest for renewal and self-determination began long before the $10,000 check came into play.
Likewise, it will continue now that the money has evaporated—by play’s end, Beneatha is openly entertaining the idea of practicing medicine in Nigeria, much to the bewilderment of her family. I caught myself grinning on more than one occasion while reading Beneatha’s lines. She felt like an early prototype of the carefree black girl, unbothered by societal expectations and unwavering in her commitment to a look.
I stayed up late on Friday devouring every word of A Raisin in the Sun, and then went directly to my television afterward to watch Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the new American Masters documentary that had premiered earlier that day. The whole experience felt revelatory yet unsatisfyingly truncated. I will certainly be reading all the Hansberry I can get my hands on, but her collection of work is as slim as can be expected for someone who died tragically young, at the age of thirty-four. I’m curious to see what’s happening in Sidney Brustein’s Greenwich Village, but I’m dying to know what becomes of Beneatha once she moves to Clybourne Park, what happens when the times catch up with her.
Between George Murchison and Joseph Asagai, it’s clear that Joseph is meant to be seen as a better match for Beneatha, and yet he, too, pokes and prods her a bit in an effort to get her to see things his way. Beneatha admires his intellect and allows his influence to sway her, but like her many long-discarded hobbies Joseph may simply be one of many ways by which she can express herself. His nickname for her, Alaiyo, means “One for Whom Bread—Food—is Not Enough,” and the sentiment resonates with her on a level that her mother can’t comprehend. For a woman like Beneatha, there’s a good chance that Joseph’s plans for her won’t be enough, either. She is young, gifted, and black—and destined to be a woman of her own making.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.
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