Striver and Survivor

Weekly column written for the Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

This spring I started teaching Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun to my VII's (the equivalent of Singapore's Secondary One) with some trepidation. The play, about a Black family living in the segregated Southside of Chicago, required careful contextualization, much of which was new to me. I had to prepare my students to read aloud with accuracy and respect the African American Vernacular English spoken by the Younger family. Throughout the study, I had to be mindful not to make the one Black student in my mainly white class feel either invisible or hypervisible.

After reading just the first twenty pages, the students have fallen in love with the play. They identify with young Travis who is about their age. When Travis has to ask for an extra 50 cents for school, they understand why his mother said no, constrained as the family is by financial precarity. They also understand why his father gives him the money, because he wants his son to have the world. When Ruth and Walter quarrel over Ruth's scrambled eggs, the quarrel is not just about breakfast. Behind it lies a clash between two different temperaments, one a striver, the other a survivor, as a student put it neatly. The student who wrote that in her reading journal was my Black student.

A different student, a Latina, expressed the feeling of the class when she praised the play for being "so real." I think what she meant was that the dramatic situation—both familial and social—was still so contemporary, although the play was written in the 1950's. Her comment was an unintended indictment of America and racial capitalism. We read Dickens' Great Expectations just before, and as in past years, this class relished the plot surprises, the vital characterization. In Raisin, they found new uses for the critical skills and sympathies developed previously. They make me wonder why I did not make the change in the curriculum earlier.


Last day to submit your poems based on the theme "the sweetest fruits" for the 7th Singapore Poetry Contest. Cash prizes of USD100, 50, and 20. No entry fee.

Jee Leong Koh
April 15, 2021


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