Thursday, May 28, 2015

Using A Raisin in the Sun to help students think about Ferguson, Baltimore

Can Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun help us think about the recent, much-publicized events in Ferguson and Baltimore?

Yes, according to Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, in his report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles.”

For language arts teachers who are (and of course should be) always seeking new ways to help our students see as relevant and therefore read and care about the literary texts we teach, this report is a great entryway into Raisin. The second volume in our Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series, which focuses on Raisin, is currently in production, but we wanted to call attention to this recent and very timely interview and policy report in the meantime.

Rothstein was recently featured on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, discussing his report (clips of this interview would also make a terrific teaching media text for students to study). In a nutshell, his argument is that ghettos (and he is deliberate in using this language, insisting that we not “sanitize” the ugly words that describe the ugly realities of our past) were “legislated into existence” by “racially purposeful policy that was pursued at all levels of government.”

He discusses several aspects of the larger issue of housing segregation at work in Raisin: redlining, blockbusting, unethical real estate practices, racially restrictive covenants. And he outlines the consequences of these government-created or government-endorsed practices: a pernicious wealth gap between white and black families, a loss of opportunities for employment, the loss of hope, and the ensuing “misbehavior” of young people.

As Rothstein makes clear, this “misbehavior” is nothing new; young people without hope make trouble, police respond with hostility, and a vicious cycle is created. In 1967, there were 100 uprisings over police actions.

Rothstein’s point is that, as we think about the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, we need to understand the underlying causes. Until we confront our history, we can’t move forward or solve these issues.

Surely, teaching Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is part of confronting that history.

But students need to understand just how difficult it would have been for the Youngers to buy a home in Clybourne Park and what was at stake in their move. A short and readable excerpt from Rothstein’s report (we suggest a piece from “How Ferguson Became Ferguson”) would begin to unpack that broader context for students.

Use this fascinating, timely, and relevant informational text along with a media clip from Rothstein on Fresh Air, and students will be more than meeting the Common Core State Standards for informational and complex text, all the while reading and thinking about why Hansberry’s 1959 play remains relevant and important to all of us in the United States today.


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  2. This NYT article, revisiting housing segregation in Ferguson and the forces that make it an enduring reality, is enormously relevant to Raisin (and reinforces why Raisin is still so relevant today):