Becoming a Man: Walter Lee Younger’s Black Bar Mitzvah
In Kristine L. Matthew’s “The Politics of Home in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun”, Matthews argues that there is no central character in the play, and that Walter, Mama, Ruth, and Beneatha are each equally complex in order to emphasize unison over individualism, as a message to African-Americans during times of extreme racial hostility (Matthews 3,4). One can agree that the family is a personification of black people’s collective struggle to attain their share of the American pie, however Walter Lee Younger is without a doubt the central figure in the play because his personal journey into manhood holds ramifications for the entire family in a way that no other character does. Every character has a dream and Walter’s is ultimately deferred, but it is the development of his personal psyche, not his dream, which decides the future for the family.
Walter desperately wants to be a man, but everything in his existence in Act I deny him of that title, so when Walter struggles to exert some form of masculinity or authority, it is thrown back in his face. At the beginning of the play the reader gets a vivid description of the constricted living conditions the Younger family inhabits, “Weariness has, in fact, won in this room” (1.1) As a man, Walter believes he is responsible for providing for his family, especially now that the former patriarch, Walter Senior has passed. Walter wants to be the man his father was but his living conditions are a constant reminder of his failure to live up to those responsibilities, “I'm thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room… And all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live” (1.1). When Walter is aware that his wife Ruth will not give Travis fifty-cents because she claims they “don't have it,” (1.1), he takes it as a personal shot to his pride, “Why you tell the boy things like that for? Here, son (He hands the boy the coin, but his eyes are directed to his wife's)” (1.1).
Walter defies Ruth’s authority to both reclaim his own and shield Travis from the harsh realities of the family’s economic situation, “(Without even looking at his son, still staring hard at his wife): In fact, here's another fifty cents… Buy yourself some fruit today—or take a taxicab to school or something!” (1.1). Walter is extremely prideful but in the wake of Travis’ departure for school reality sets in, and he is deeply embarrassed and deprived of his manhood once again when he has to ask his wife to reimburse him, “I need some money for carfare” (1.1). Even though Ruth is only playfully teasing him with her reply “Fifty cents? Here—take a taxi!” (1.1), one might suspect that it only throws salt on the psychological wound Walter is trying to close.
To make matters worse, Walter feels completely alone in his struggle, like a “giant—surrounded by ants!” (2.1). Kristine Matthews states “Walter Lee accepts a system that refuses to accept him as “a man” thereby troubling his sense of self and defusing potential challenges that he might offer to his family’s oppressors” (5). Walter is a dreamer and his mentality is a striking contrast to Ruth’s, which is “tempered by a pragmatic realism that can be ascribed to her triply bound position as a poor, black woman” (6). Walter is blinded by his ambition, making him unable to realize the complexities of Ruth’s oppression, “We one group of men tied to a race of women with small minds!” (1.1), furthermore exemplifying “the strain that socio-economic racism places on the family” (7).
Walter feels as if Ruth does not want him to succeed either, and that is especially discomforting, because society has already set him up to fail, “Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your egg… Man say: I got to change my life, I'm choking to death, baby! And his woman say: Your eggs is getting cold!” (1.1).
Walter thinks investing in a liquor store with their father’s insurance check will finally grant him the patriarchal satisfaction he craves, as well as financial stability for the family. When Mama turns down Walter’s idea he tries to guilt-trip her, as if she is responsible for his failures “Well, you tell that to my boy tonight when you put him to sleep on the living-room couch… And tell it to my wife, Mama, tomorrow when she has to go out here to look after somebody else's kids” (1.2). The words cut deep, and even though Mama hates the idea of investing in a liquor store, she see that some external force is keeping her son from flourishing, “Something eating you up like a crazy man. Something more than me not giving you this money. The past few years I been watching it happen to you” (1.2).
What’s “eating” Walter up is the fact that he is unable to realize his true potential simply because he is a victim of socio-economic and racial factors beyond his control. “I want so many things that they are driving me crazy… Sometimes it's like I can see the future stretched out in front of me… Just waitin for me. But it don't have to be” (1.2). The future is Walter’s manhood, and he can see it in his dreams but it is worthless if he cannot be counted on to provide for his family.
Mama is content with freedom but Walter wants much more, although he realizes that the White male-dominated society will not allow him to do anything other than “open and close car doors all day long,” unless he has some form of monetary reinforcement (1.2). In Act II, Mama realizes the depths of Walter’s personal oppression by society, “I say I been wrong, son. That I been doing to you what the rest of the world been doing to you,” and she gives him what’s left of the money for Walter’s sister Beneatha’s medical schooling to be put into a account, and the rest for him to be responsible for (2.2). Finally with this newfound responsibility Walter feels like a man, especially with the future of the family resting on his business decision.
Tragically, Walter invests all of the money into his liquor store scheme and it fails with cruel irony. Willy Harris (another black man) runs off with the money, denying Walter of his chance to advance his family in the white-dominated society, and stripping him of his manhood once again. Using superficial rational, Walter ponders a complete surrender of his quest to be a man, by giving into to the racist concerns of the white residents of Clybourne Street, to earn the money back, “I tell you I am a man —and I think my wife should wear some pearls in this world! (3.1). Walter knows deep inside that his wife rather have him stand up to Mr. Linder and move into their new home despite the threat of violence, as opposed to accepting morally devalued money to buy her pearls.
Throughout the play Walter petitions for a sense of accountability and manhood but when he finally achieves it, he fails to secure the family’s future, leaving him to wonder if he is even deserving to be what he has longed for, “The word "Man" has penetrated his consciousness; he mumbles it to himself repeatedly between strange agitated pauses as he moves about”(3.1). Walter knows making things right is his last chance for redemption, and his last chance to achieve his manhood. In the final scenes, Walter is chosen to speak for the family as a whole and his words represent the sentiments of all African-Americans, “We are very proud people” (3.1). Walter tells Mr. Linder that his family will not yield to the threats of racial violence and that they will move into their new home on Clybourne Street because their father earned it. As Mama, puts it, Walter “finally come into his manhood today, didn't he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain” (3.1)
In the Jewish culture, a Bar Mitzvah is a ceremony to represent a thirteen-year-old boy’s ascension into manhood, making him “morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions” (Pelaia). In “A Raisin in the Sun,” Walter Lee Younger’s “Bar Mitzvah” was the central arch of the play, making his character an example of the personal struggle for black men in the 1950s and 60s, as well as the collective struggle for black families during the time. Walter became the man of the household; a husband and a brother Ruth and Beneatha could be proud of; a son worthy of his father’s memory according to Mama; and a true role model for his young son, Travis.
Hansberry, Lorraine. "A Raisin in the Sun." N.p., n.d. PDF. 7 Mar. 2013. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2659783/A%20Raisin%20in%20the%20Sun.pdf.
Matthews, Kristin L. “The Politics of Home in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” Project MUSE 51.4 (2008): 2-18. Project MUSE. PDF. 5 Mar. 2013.