Summary – Act Two, Scene One
It is later the same day. Ruth is ironing and Beneatha comes out of her bedroom wearing the Nigerian clothes. She turns off the radio saying, ‘enough of this assimilationist junk!’ and Ruth’s eyes follow her as she puts a record on. Beneatha’s eyes are ‘far away – “back to the past”’ and she begins to dance. Ruth is dumbfounded and asks what she is doing. Beneatha tells her it is a Nigerian folkdance and is a dance of welcome (to welcome the men back to the village).
Walter comes in and has obviously been drinking. His eyes also look off – “back to the past”. He lifts both his hands and screams, ‘yeah ... and Ethiopia stretch forth her hands again’. He also says, ‘that’s my man, Kenyatta’ and pretends to be holding a spear. Beneatha becomes caught up in this side of him and encourages his behavior. He leaps on the table and pulls his shirt open; he has the posture of Belafonte singing ‘Matilda’, ‘mixed with Paul Robeson at fever pitch’. He sees himself as a great leader of his people and tells his black brothers to listen. The mood shifts from pure comedy to something larger and the lighting shifts subtly to suggest this. He asks if they hear the beating of the wings of birds and women singing ‘the war songs of our fathers’.
The bell rings and Ruth admits George Murchison and turns off the music. Walter extends his hand and calls him ‘black brother’. George replies, ‘black brother, hell’ and the lighting returns to normal.
Ruth has had enough and tells Walter to get down. He grabs his mouth and makes a quick exit for the bathroom. George tells Beneatha to change her clothes and says they are going to the theater and are not going to be in it. She pulls off her headdress to reveal her hair is now closely cropped and unstraightened. George freezes mid-sentence and Ruth’s eyes ‘all but fall out of her head’.
Ruth asks if she expects this boy to go out with her with her head ‘all nappy like that’. Beneatha says it is up to him and implies that if he does mind, that would mean he is ashamed of his heritage. George says she is being eccentric and Beneatha argues it is natural. She goes on to say that she hates ‘assimilationist Negroes’. Ruth asks what this means and George replies, ‘it’s just a college girl’s way of calling people Uncle Toms – but that isn’t what it means at all.’ Beneatha cuts him off to explain to Ruth that it means somebody ‘who is willing to give up his own culture’ and immerse himself in the dominant one ‘and in this case, oppressive culture.’
George accuses her of giving a lecture on the ‘African past’. He then says nastily that her heritage is nothing more than ‘a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts’. As Ruth pushes Beneatha towards her bedroom, Beneatha calls him ignorant as these people were the first to smelt iron and the Ashanti were the first to perform surgical operations.
Ruth and George sit as she changes and Walter enters. Walter insults George’s shoes and calls them ‘faggoty-looking’. George ignores him. Walter then talks about George’s father and how he (Walter) thinks big like he does. He then says he and George ought to meet up and talk sometime and George agrees with evident boredom. Walter spots the indifference and is offended; he calls him a ‘busy little boy’. He is then critical of ‘colored college boys’ and George tells him he is ‘all wacked up with bitterness’. Walter asks if he is not the same, and if he has seen stars gleaming that he cannot reach out and grab. He then compares himself to a giant surrounded by ants. Ruth is suddenly passionate and says, ‘ain’t you with nobody!’ Walter replies no, ‘not even my own mother’.
Beneatha enters dressed for the evening ahead and Walter notices she has had her hair cut. He calls it an African bush and George and Ruth compliment it. George says goodbye as they leave, and refers to Walter as Prometheus (but neither Walter nor Ruth know who this is).
Walter and Ruth then start arguing and she becomes sarcastic and asks why he does not just go into banking. He answers, ‘cause we all tied up in a race of people that don’t know how to do nothing but moan, pray and have babies!’
Analysis – Act Two, Scene One
This section centers on Beneatha as she begins to challenge what she sees as assimilationism. Her new, natural hairstyle and Nigerian clothing are used to highlight this and her appearance leads to George revealing his ignorance about any of the rich history of the continent of Africa.
The dialogue between the two is also a means for emphasising a shift in understanding about cultural identity as Beneatha demonstrates that notions of beauty that have been tied to Western appearances, such as straightened hair, can be challenged. Ruth and George are initially astonished at her new style, but they come to accept and praise it after Walter refers to it as an ‘African bush’.
Walters’ bitterness comes to the fore once more in this section as he tries to talk to George about his ‘big’ vision. He sees himself as doomed to being tied to his ‘race of people’ that he is only able to understand in negative terms, and to some extent George’s insult (by referring to him as the perennial victim, Prometheus) holds. At this point, it is as though he has succumbed to the inherent racism in society.
Ruth asks Walter why he cannot stop arguing with her and unthinkingly he says, ‘who even cares about you?’ More or less to herself, she says she is sorry about the baby and had better do what she has started. She offers to get him some hot milk or coffee. He says no and asks why she is always trying to give him something to eat. She asks rhetorically what else can she give and turns to go out again. Walter says how it has been rough and she stays still and only turns when he says that there is not as much understood between them as people would think there is. He then asks what it is that gets into people when they should be close and wonders about how something has come down between them.
She asks him to try to be with her, even a little, and he tells her that sometimes he does not even know how to try. She reminds how they used to talk when Travis was born. She strokes his head and points out that this is slipping away.
Mama enters and Walter jumps up and shouts at her as he asks where she has been. She ignores him and asks Ruth how she is feeling. Walter repeatedly questions her to find out what she has been doing and she finally tells him she has been tending to business downtown. He rises and bends over the table. He then brings his fist down and asks if she has done something crazy with the insurance money.
Travis enters and Ruth scolds him for going off. Mama tries to interfere and then holds her arms out to him. She says she wants him to be the first to hear her news. She says how she bought him a house with the money and Walter explodes and turns away in fury. Mama continues to talk to Travis and asks if he is glad about it. Ruth makes Travis go in her bedroom and then praises God for the news. She crosses to Walter and lays her hands on his shoulders. She wants him to be glad for her and himself, but he shakes free and does not look at her.
Mama explains that they are to move on the first of the month and describes the new house (which has three bedrooms). Her voice has an imploring quality (and is imploring to her son) and she sounds almost like a girl. She tells them it is on Clybourne Park, and Ruth’s radiance fades and Walter looks at her with incredulity and hostility. Ruth says there are no ‘colored people’ there and Walter adds, ‘so that’s the peace and comfort you went out and bought for us today!’
Mama tells them that the houses in the areas for ‘colored people’ cost twice as much as other houses. Ruth recovers and says goodbye to misery; she also lets her arms slowly come down to her abdomen. She asks if there is a whole lot of sunlight there, and Mama tells her there is.
Ruth exits to chastise Travis and Mama talks to Walter. She says how she has seen her family fall apart today and thought they were going backwards instead of forwards. She thought she had to do something ‘bigger’. He crosses to the bedroom and turns finally to speak in measured tones. He asks why she wants his approval when she is the head of the family. He tries to hurt her as much as she has hurt him, and accuses her of butchering his dreams.
The faith in aspirations and thinking ‘bigger’ is apparent as Mama explains to Walter why she thinks the family need to move. It is of note that in the previous section Walter makes a similar point to George, but is ignored by him. Both the mother and son have the same values at this point, but differ in the way they think their lives may be improved.
At the end of this scene, Walter accuses his mother of butchering his dreams and points out that she is the head of the household and so does not require his approval. This may be interpreted as both a point of dramatic conflict and a vehicle for dramatizing the concept of emasculation. Without any say in the family affairs, it is possible to see that Walter is being infantilized (which unwittingly is also in keeping with racist ideology). From his perspective, his wife and mother have played a part in his lack of status.