Summary – Act One, Scene Two
Scene Two begins the following morning and Mama and Beneatha are cleaning while the radio is playing ‘a rather exotic saxophone blues’. Beneatha is spraying insecticide and Travis is the only idle one as he is looking out of the window. He asks where his mother is and Mama says she has gone on business. Walter comes in and as he talks to Willy on the telephone about the check not coming yet, and mentions the papers from the lawyers, the two women discuss getting rid of the cockroaches.
When he finishes his call, Beneatha asks him where Ruth is and he says, ‘how should I know!’ He leaves and Mama says she thinks she has gone to the doctor. The two women exchange glances and Beneatha says, ‘you don’t think ...’ With her sense of drama, Mama tells her she is not saying what she thinks, ‘but I ain’t never been wrong ‘bout a woman neither’.
The telephone rings and Beneatha answers. She invites the caller over and when Mama questions her for doing this as they are cleaning, Beneatha says Asagai does not care about how it looks as he is ‘an intellectual’. She explains his full name is Joseph Asagai and he is an African boy she met on campus. She explains he is from Nigeria and at first Mama confuses this with Liberia. She then says she has not met an African before and the conversation turns to how she gives money at church for missionary work, ‘to help save people’. Beneatha argues that they need more salvation from the British and French than heathenism.
Ruth enters and tells them she is two months pregnant. She tries to suppress a scream that has been rising in her and collapses into a fit of heavy sobbing. The bell rings and Mama takes her to lie down.
Beneatha invites Asagai in and after chatting with her, he gives her the package he has brought with him. In it there are records and ‘the colorful robes of a Nigerian woman’. She holds the robe against herself at the mirror and he admires her. He says she wears it well except for her ‘mutilated hair’. She looks in the mirror disturbed and tries to explain herself, and he laughs at her seriousness. He then reminds her of when they first met and how she told him she wanted to talk about Africa as she was looking for her identity. They both laugh, ‘but her face is quizzical, profoundly disturbed’. He carries on teasing her and then and says it is true that her profile is not so much as that of a Hollywood queen but the queen of the Nile and asks what does it matter as ‘assimilationism is so popular in your country’. She refutes this point passionately and his laughter fades.
Before he leaves, she says there can be more than one feeling between a man and a woman. He argues against this and says there need only one be one, which he has for her, and this should be enough for a woman. She questions this and says, ‘I know – because that’s what it says in all the novels that men write. But it isn’t.’ She also says she is not interested in being someone’s ‘little episode in America’. He laughs and tells her every American girl (white and black) has said this and claims this shows that ‘the world’s most liberated women are not liberated at all’.
Mama enters and says how he must come again and that she wants to hear all about his country. She adds that she thinks it is sad that ‘American negroes’ pour money into churches when they should be helping to drive out the English and French. He is surprised at the sympathy and moved when she invites him to come and eat with them from time to time.
As he says goodbye, he calls Beneatha ‘Alaigo’. They ask what this means and he explains that it is Yoruba for ‘One for whom bread – food – is not enough’. When he leaves, Beneatha holds the dress against herself once more and puts on the headdress as she looks in the mirror. She also notices her hair and clutches it.
Analysis – Act One, Scene Two
The introduction of Asagai and the news that Ruth is pregnant are the two dominant features of this section. Ruth’s reaction to this news is one of suppressed hysteria and is referred to in more depth as the play progresses. This reaction is also a useful plot device as Mama takes her to her room and this allows Beneatha and Asagai to have time to talk alone.
As a Nigerian concerned with independence from colonial rule, Asagai may be seen to confirm Beneatha’s interest in civil rights and is the means by which the play is able to explore ideas concerned with the identity of African Americans with more depth. At the time of writing in 1959, the interest in looking to Africa as a source of meaning was becoming a prevalent idea in the civil rights’ movement and Beneatha’s friendship with Asagai helps to symbolize this.
Travis enters and he asks Beneatha if she is cracking up. She pulls off the headdress, clutches her hair again and prepares to rush out. Mama asks where she is going, and she tells her she is going ‘to become the queen of the Nile’.
The bell rings and Travis goes for the post. They are all excited as despite the distractions they have been waiting for the check. Mama opens it and her eyes seem to be seeing something very far off. She asks Ruth to put it away somewhere and Travis is sent out to play.
Mama then asks Ruth where she went to earlier, and questions if it is true that she went to a doctor. Walter enters and asks to see the check and frantically pulls out his papers. Mama says he ought to talk to his wife and he says he can do that later. He then yells at her and asks somebody to listen to him.
She reprimands him and also says there will be no investment in liquor stores. She adds that she will not speak of this again. He tells her to say that to his boy who sleeps on the couch and to his wife who has to look after other people’s kids, and to herself when she has to work in someone else’s kitchen. He then argues with Ruth and she goes to their room.
He is about to leave the apartment and Mama tells him it is dangerous when a man goes outside his home for peace. She also points out that for the last few years he has been tied up in knots. He says he wants so many things and does not think he can make her understand: ‘Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me – just as plain as day.’ He sees this future as ‘a big, looming blank space – full of nothing.’ He refers to the white men of his age that he sees when he passes restaurants and they are turning deals worth millions of dollars.
Mama asks why he talks about money so much and he says, ‘because it is life, Mama!’ She says it used to be freedom and he says, ‘no – it was always money. We just didn’t know about it!’ She questions this and says how in her time they were worried about lynchings, getting to the North and staying alive. She points out how different her children are from her.
He tells her she does not understand and she informs him that his wife is pregnant. He is stunned and sinks into a chair. She adds that she thinks Ruth is going to get rid of it. He says she would not do this and Ruth enters (beaten down) and says she would – and has given a five-dollar down payment. There is silence. Mama breaks it and tells Walter she is waiting for him to stand up ‘and look like your daddy’, and not let poverty take another child.
He just says ‘Ruth’ and Mama pushes him again to talk to her. When he says nothing, she tells him he is a disgrace to his father’s memory.
The division between Walter and Mama reaches a climax in this section which makes up the end of Act One, Scene Two. As they talk, it becomes apparent that they are divided by different aspirations, but are united in their fight against racism. Whereas Mama had the material struggle of moving to the North and the fear of lynchings to contend with her, the next generation of African Americans who migrated North (as embodied in Walter, Beneatha and Ruth) are seen to have to challenge the less overt forms of racism; that is, the economic inequality rather than outright violence. This more insidious form is the one that makes Walter believe he has no future, just a ‘big, looming blank space’.
Walter argues this oppression has always been about money and although Mama questions this, it is possible to see a critique of capitalist forces as he argues that money is at the root of racism. When Mama attempts to make him persuade Ruth to keep the baby, and not lose it to poverty, she becomes a cipher for criticizing the social consequences of living in a capitalist society.