A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Joseph Asagai, Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend, calls her "Alaiyo," which means something like "One for Whom Bread – Food – is Not Enough." Beneatha is very touched by this, because it shows that he really understands her. She wants more than to just get by; she wants to find ways to truly express herself. The other Youngers tease her about her journey of self-expression, but Beneatha remains determined to broaden her mind
Unlike the rest of her family, Beneatha looks beyond her immediate situation in an effort to understand herself as a member of a greater whole. As she becomes more educated, it becomes increasingly hard for Beneatha to relate to the rest of her family. Sometimes she can be a bit condescending and seems to forget that her family members (especially her mother) all work very hard to help put her through school. However, this character flaw only serves to make her seem all the more understandable and human. Ultimately, Beneatha is a kind and generous person, who seeks to become a doctor out of a desire to help people.
Beneatha's college education has helped to make her progressive, independent, and a total feminist. She brings politics into the apartment and is constantly talking about issues of civil rights. Over the course of the play we see her wrestle with her identity as an African-American woman. Asagai criticizes her, saying that she's "assimilated," meaning that she tries to hide her African-ness by acting white. He uses her hair as an example. Asagai can't understand why she and most other black women in America straighten their hair instead of leaving it naturally curly.
Asagai urges Beneatha to embrace her African roots. Over the course of the play we see her explore her identity, when she takes a cue from Asagai and lets her hair go natural. She also tries on the Nigerian robes he brings her and dances around to African music. Although Beneatha's family has been in America for several generations, and Beneatha has never been to Africa, Asagai insists that once in Africa, she will feel as though she has been away for only one day. Historically, this attitude gained some popularity among black Americans as they felt that no matter how long they had been in America, they could never truly call it home.
On the total other end of the assimilation debate is Beneatha's other (rich) boyfriend George. He's a black American as well, but sees absolutely no reason to honor their African heritage. George sees himself as an American first and foremost and thinks that blacks who spend a lot of time worrying about Africa are wasting their time. Unsurprisingly, Beneatha seems to not be into George at all by the end of the play. When we leave Beneatha at the play's conclusion, she is even considering marrying Asagai and practicing medicine in Africa. We never get to find out what ultimately happens to Beneatha, but we here at Shmoop hope somehow she finds that thing she's looking for.Timeline