Language forms part of the backbone of the manifestation of social injustice in literature in two plays that address similar themes, although in vastly different ways and, for that matter, in completely different contexts. The plays in question, “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry and “The Story” by Tracey Scott Wilson both revolve around racism as a major form of social injustice, although they take place in different settings entirely.
Still, despite these general contextual differences, both of these plays’ roots in talking about social injustice are based on language differences. While the language issues certainly are not operating alone, they do offer an interesting and narrow point of examination between two texts that while thematically similar, are different in far too many ways to address together in a general way.
In terms of the creative thrust behind the exploration of the issue of social injustice in A Raisin in the Sun, the way characters use language is the most revealing and in fact, indicates how they view their position in their societies. All of the main characters in “A Raisin in the Sun” have their own unique “voice” that is aligned with their personality. For example, as people who strive toward and greatly value education, characters such as Beneatha and her suitors speak with an emphasis on using language derived from their education, just as being people with experiences rooted in the everyday, Mama, Walter, and Ruth all speak clearly, although in ways that are influenced by vernacular.
While this characterization through dialogue and distinct voices comprise an expected component of drama, the way language functions in terms of representing social injustice in black America in A Raisin in the Sun is a bit less expected and are especially cutting during dialogue by Linder. For the main characters in A Raisin in the Sun, these expressions of individuality in the form of language are meant to convey certain truths about the speaker and although this is consistent as each character has his or her own “voice” that corresponds to the personality, there is no contrivance behind it–the language is not simply for show and meaning can always be derived from it with minimal digging. However, in the case of Linder this is not at all how language operates and in fact, his language is representative of the sneaky form of injustice, not to mention the overt form of it that the family is victim to.
The meanings of Linder’s words are clouded and submerged under layers of double-speak and it is difficult to understand his point clearly, thus making the entrance of his “voice” highly contrasting to the voices of the characters introduced up to that point. Instead of being clear and open, even though he speaks eloquently, unlike the eloquence of Asagai or Beneatha, it is for the purpose of confusing the people he is speaking with and making the impact of what he is saying sound less severe, humiliating and unjust. ). For example, instead of simply getting to his point about not wanting Mama and her family buying a house, he spend a long-winded paragraph before getting to his point, which is unclearly stated, “at the moment the overwhelming majority of our people out there feel that people get along better; take more o a common interest in the life of the community when they share a common background” (100).
Using this kind of manipulatively innocent language to convey deeply-held racist views on the part of his community, Linder is at once insulting the members of the Younger family by trying to use double-speak and confusing language to mislead them and although it does not work, it is nonetheless representative of the ways in which buried meanings packaged in niceties is used as tool to manipulate people, thus leading to social injustices such as barring a family from a community because of their color. He presents his racist proposition from his community to buy the house as being “at a financial gain to [the] family” (100) since people “get awful worked up when they feel their whole way of life and everything they’ve worked for is threatened” (101). While he tries to use persuasive speech cloaked under the rather transparent veneer of civility, it is clear that this is a major act of injustice and it is made all the more infuriating because of the way it is masked in polite, eloquent language.
Language is a paramount issue in terms of addressing social inequality in the play by Tracey Scott Wilson, The Story as well although as stated, in a different context. Interestingly, it is someone who likes to consider herself a victim of inequity who is doing the manipulating through language. Words are Yvonne’s business and her construction of well-crafted eloquent works of journalism speaks volumes about her ability to lie; to construct an identity through words. However, in doing so, she is both revealing issues of social inequity and is creating her own. When Yvonne says of her co-workers Neil and Pat, whom knows realize that she is fraud “it’s like grammar school all over again and all the cool black kids hate me….something in my walk. Something in my talk tells them I’m not ‘down’” (Wilson 62) she is seeing the relationship between the way she talks and how she is perceived unjustly. There is pressure on her, as in the case of Beneatha, to be like those around her and not conforming to this expectation creates a situation of double-inequity; blacks who suffer from a lack of equality are subjecting other blacks to stereotypes and railing against them if they do not make a conscious effort to fit in. As she suggests by saying it is something in the way she talks, it is clear that language for her is creating this unjust situation, even if she is a liar and a cheat.
In the play by Tracey Scott Wilson entitled, The Story, language serves as a different kind of marker for different social groups who are constantly the victims of social inequality in the form of stereotyping. It should be noted that this is a particularly complex social inequality situation because this stereotyping, which leads to injustice, is perpetuated by the same media where Yvonne, herself a black woman who works against stereotypes in her own way. For instance, in the case of Latisha, who is confused about her identity as an educated black woman who is constantly kept down by low expectations of black women says, “I look around my neighborhood and I wish I could move. Everybody acts so stupid, But they’re not stupid. They just act stupid…the oppressed are taught to believe the worst about themselves. So I just wanted to see. I spoke Italian and German to you and you still believed I was in a gang” (Wilson 46). In some ways, this offers a varied approach to the importance of language in the context of social injustice; in A Raisin in the Sun elevated language dictated a higher level of education and self-worth, whereas here it has been rendered virtually meaningless because stereotypes are so strong that even being multi-lingual and having an above-average grasp on the English language is not enough. In other words, the stereotypes have won and the language has become a form of trickery or manipulation—the victims of injustice now must resort to the same double-speak tactics used by Linder, for example.
Both of these texts, due to their degree of variance in terms of context, setting, and other important features are difficult to compare, even though they explore the same theme of social injustice. What emerges is interesting, however, as it offers two ways of thinking about the interaction of language and social injustices; language reflects the self in A Raisin the Sun whereas in The Story, languages helps to create the self, even if that self is entirely devoid of truth or pure meaning. What happens with this interaction is that injustices are far more nuanced than in plays such as To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, where the racism is overt and unhidden. In this new territory, language tries at once to be a way out of injustice, although in doing so, in some cases, only creates more resentment.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Samuel French Inc., 1984.
Wilson, Tracey Scott. The Story. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2004,