Chasing the American Dream through Harlem


As the introduction to the Edsitement lesson “Quest for the American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun” states, “People of all backgrounds live in America and come to America dreaming of social, educational, and economical opportunities as well as political and religious freedoms.  Consequently, the notion of the American Dream has appeal and meaning to most […] students.”  A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry serves as a fantastic centerpiece in a unit dealing with this theme because it is a stellar example of American drama and because it addresses the American Dream from a minority perspective.  Because, in high school, many young adults begin thinking about their own identities and how they fit into society, it is important to have dialog with them about identity, goals, and opportunity.  Studying diverse perspectives of the American Dream will allow students to begin forming, modifying, or solidifying their own ideas about their dreams and goals for life.  

Besides the American Dream, A Raisin in the Sun deals with many other universal themes including family relationships, financial choices, and education.  Therefore, it can be paired with nearly anything – a classic like The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, or non-fiction text on how to start a business.  In addition to that, it has a direct link to Langston Hughes poetry – opening the door to a discussion of the genre of poetry, metaphorical language, and the history of the Harlem Renaissance. 

As can be seen, there are endless possibilities for this play.  Any one aspect of it can lead to a thousand different possible connections.  Depending on the students, the intention, and the other literature to be done before or after this unit, teachers can direct the analysis of this play however they need to. 

The following resources are barely the tip of the iceberg.  For greater organization, I have compiled them into four main categories: understanding the play itself, understanding African American culture and history, understanding the American Dream, and a fourth category with other related readings.  The annotations provided for each work are adapted from information found in the works themselves with the exception of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes and The Collected Works of Maya Angelou.  Annotations for these works are adapted from the editor’s review at



Understanding the Play…


Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.

A play about the hopes of an African American working-class family in Chicago.  The title is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes called “Harlem” which compares a deferred dream to a “raisin in the sun.”  This play touches important issues such as the American Dream, social status, family relationships, the generation gap, financial choices, and the African American experience in the United States.


Hansberry, Lorraine, et al. A Raisin in the Sun and Related Readings. New York: McDougal, Little/Houghton Mifflin (NEL), 1997.

An anthology of poems and short stories dealing with the themes of racism and identity.  This anthology also has a copy of the play included.  A teacher sourcebook is available as well.  This is great for first year teachers who don’t have anything to start with.  There are handouts, which are designed to be reproduced, and advice on how to differentiate teaching to different skill levels.  This is a key work to have if you teach this play.


Chicago Public Library. “Chicago Timeline”. Ed. Joyce Malden. (July 2004).

This website provides links to Chicago history between 1673 and 2004.  There are brief descriptions of important events by date.  There are also brief histories of other topics like the Chicago Police Department, African Americans, weather, etc.  Many of the links go to Deaths, Disturbances, and Disorders in Chicago: A Selective Bibliography of Materials in the Municipal Reference Collection of the Chicago Public Library.  Other links go to A Millenium Bibliography – Chicago in 1900.



Teaching the Play…


Bell, Brenda. “A Raisin in the Sun”.  URL: (December 21, 2000).

This page is a unit plan with a linked student page.  This unit directs students to do a Webquest to find out more about the play.  The project presented on the student page could be paired with a persuasive essay or a discussion about conflict.  The teacher page includes overall unit objectives as well as correlations to the state standards.


Collins, Mary B. “A Raisin in the Sun: A Unit Plan”.  URL: Teacher’s Pet Publications, Inc., 1996.

An entire, complete unit plan with day-by-day lessons, activities, tests, quizzes, handouts, etc.  This serves as a great baseline.  The daily lessons look a bit dry but the extra activities look like fun.  Some of these extra activities include having the students do projects on how to live on a budget, prospects of African Americans then and now, and designing a playbill.


National Endowment for the Humanities.  “Quest for American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun”.  EDSITEment. URL: (January 20, 2003).

Another great lesson plan to use with the play.  This unit includes information relating to the American Dream, understanding the author, a “dream deferred”, Jim Crow laws, and Brown vs. Board of Education.  Also contains links to other useful information.


Web English Teacher. “Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun”.  URL: (February 22, 2005).

A website with its own annotated list of related websites.  The links include really great teaching tools with projects, background information, and lesson plans.



Understanding African American Perspective…


Clinton, Catherine, ed.  I, too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

This book is an anthology of thirty-six poems by African American writers.  The poems address issues of black America, resistence, hope, and despair.


Hansberry, Lorraine.  To be Young Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in her own words.  Ed. Robert Nemiroff.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1969.

This book is a collection of Lorraine Hansberry’s published and unpublished writing.  It collects her statements on the black experience in America.


McKissack, Patricia C. and Fredrick L.  Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.  New York: Holiday House, 1998.

This biography covers the life of Lorraine Hansberry paying specific attention to her contributions to society.


Sullivan, Charles.  Children of Promise: African-American Literature and Art for Young People.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.

This book includes work from over 60 writers, poets, artists, and historical figures.  It is visually appealing and presents a brief overview of African American history from colonial times to the present using a variety of media including visual art, poetry and prose.



Understanding the American Dream


Reuben, Paul P.  "PAL: Appendix S: The American Dream."  PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: (June 16, 2003).

This website has an extensive bibliography of books and links relating to the American Dream.  References include mostly nonfiction but relate to popular culture and fiction.



Extended/Related Readings


American Library Association – Young Adult Library Services Association.  "Poetry” Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners. URL: (April 30, 2005).

This annotated bibliography of poetry for young adults contains many multicultural works that could be easily connected to the theme of the American Dream like Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry by Maria Mazzioti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan.


Angelou, Maya.  The Collected Works of Maya Angelou.  New York: Random House, Inc., 1994.

A collection of her poems that spans her career.  The poems comment on love, traveling, and aging.


Any Song Lyrics.  "Afroman - The American Dream."  URL: (April 23, 2005).

This song begins to get offensive toward the end, but the first half discusses how this African-American man believes he is still the American Dream despite his hardships.


California Raisin Marketing Board.  "Raisin Facts."  URL: (2005).

This website with fun facts about raisins.


Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1925.

The story of a wealthy man named Jay Gatsby trying to win the love of a beautiful woman named Daisy Buchanan.  This story centers on multiple visions of the American Dream.


Hayn, Judith and Deborah Sherrill.  "Female Protagonists in Multicultural Young Adult Literature: Sources and Strategies."  The ALAN Review Volume 24, Number 1 (Fall 1996). URL: (September 11, 2001).

This article discusses the necessity of including the female perspective in our concept of diversity, especially in relation to young adult literature and teaching it.  This article contains an expansive list of multicultural novels with female protagonists.  The novel Luisa’s American Dream by C. Mills would work well with the Raisin unit.


Hughes, Langston.  The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.  New York: Vintage, 1991.

A collection of 860 poems written by Langston Hughes during his lifetime.


Miller, Arthur.  Death of a Salesman.  New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

The story of Willy Loman – an aging failing salesman – trying to pursue his dreams of success.


"The Jeffersons Theme Song Lyrics."  URL: (April 23, 2005).

This song is about an African American family who finally become “successful” by moving to the east side of their inner city.