The following Saturday morning Beneatha and Mama clean the apartment thoroughly, a regular occurrence in the Younger household. Travis asks his grandmother if he can go outside to play on the street, and Mama agrees, as long as he keeps a “good lookout” for the postman, who is supposed to deliver the insurance check that morning. After Travis exits, Beneatha asks Mama where Ruth is, and Mama says “with meaning” that Ruth has gone to the doctor, implying that Ruth is pregnant. The phone rings and interrupts their conversation.
The Youngers’ Saturday morning ritual of cleaning the apartment shows the pride that the family takes in maintaining its home. The tantalizing arrival of the insurance check creates an expectant atmosphere. Similarly, the speculation over Ruth’s pregnancy imbues the scene with a sense of anxiety and tension.
Beneatha answers the phone and has a brief conversation with her classmate, Joseph Asagai, who asks if he may visit Beneatha later that morning. Beneatha agrees. Beneatha explains to Mama that Asagai is a Nigerian student whom she met on campus and she asks Mama to refrain from asking “ignorant questions” about Africa when he comes to the apartment. Mama retorts, “Why should I know anything about Africa?”
Beneatha’s request that her mother refrain from asking ignorant questions about Africa underscores the fact that many mid-century African Americans knew little about African life and culture. Furthermore, seeing themselves as Americans, some African Americans questioned why it was necessary to have extensive knowledge of Africa.
Ruth enters “forlornly” and confirms Mama’s suspicion that she is pregnant. While Mama is overcome with “grandmotherly enthusiasm,” Beneatha and Ruth worry about the financial strain that a child will place on the family. When Beneatha asks Ruth if she planned the pregnancy, Ruth dismisses the question, and Beneatha snaps, “Where is he [the unborn child] going to live, on the roof?” Beneatha then tries to backpedal, half-heartedly saying that the baby will be “wonderful.”
Ruth’s pregnancy is immediately coupled with economic concerns. Ruth bears the responsibility not only for literally carrying the child, but also for shouldering a significant part of the accompanying financial burden. Ruth and Beneatha, part of a younger generation of women, differ from Mama in their reactions to the news.
Suddenly, there is a “commotion” in the street, and Beneatha calls out of the window and orders Travis to come upstairs. While waiting for Travis, Mama asks Ruth about her visit to the doctor, and Ruth’s use of the pronoun “she” to refer to the doctor makes Mama “immediately suspicious.” Travis enters and breathlessly describes how he and his friends chased and killed a rat in the street. Travis’ story brings his dispirited mother to tears. Seeing Ruth crying, Beneatha sends Travis back outside to play, “but not with any rats.” Just then, Asagai rings the doorbell and enters, and Mama takes a fragile Ruth to her bedroom to rest.
Travis’ story highlights the harshness of life in the segregated South Side of Chicago and reignites Ruth’s fears that the family’s current home is an unsuitable place for her son (or, now, her baby) to grow up. Ruth’s maternal responsibilities force her to consider broader social forces at play. Mama, a traditionalist, senses from the fact that Ruth saw a woman doctor that Ruth may be thinking of doing something that perhaps a male, traditional doctor would not support—get an abortion.
Asagai notices that Beneatha looks rattled and asks if something is wrong, to which Beneatha says, “Yes . . . we’ve all got acute ghetto-itis.” Asagai gives Beneatha a gift of records and traditional Nigerian robes. As Beneatha models the robes, he compliments her appearance, teasingly adding that she looks good even with “mutilated” hair. Beneatha is taken aback by this comment and explains that she straightens her hair because it is easier to manage that way. Asagai implies that Beneatha’s straightened hairstyle marks her as an “assimilationist,” which Beneatha resolutely denies. Asagai then expresses his romantic feelings for Beneatha, but about such feelings she responds, “By itself – it won’t do.”
Asagai’s comments about Beneatha’s hair make her question whether she is an Africanist or an assimilationist. Although Beneatha takes interest in her African heritage, her straightened hair projects a message of assimilation, of “managing” her black attributes to make it easier to fit in, which Beneatha abhors. Beneatha’s hair is also tied to her identity as a woman and traditional – i.e., white – notions of feminine beauty. Beneatha’s statement that the family suffers from “ghetto-itis” draws attention to the perils of life in a segregated “ghetto” neighborhood. Her reaction that Asagai’s love is not enough is an expression of her desire not just for love but for a partner dedicated to her equality and freedom as well.
Before Asagai can exit, Mama reenters and Beneatha introduces her to Asagai. Honoring her promise to Beneatha, Mama refrains from asking Asagai ignorant questions and instead parrots Beneatha’s earlier complaints about “American Negroes” who “know nothing about Africa ‘cept Tarzan.” Following her somewhat forced “recitation,” Mama relaxes and extends an open invitation to Asagai for “some decent home-cooked meals.” Asagai is “moved” by her hospitality.
Mama’s recitation shows that she, while perhaps not as interested in her African heritage as Beneatha, is willing to make an effort in order to make her guest feel at home. Mama’s hospitality is a reflection of the pride that she takes in her family and its treatment of others.
As he goes to exit, Asagai calls Beneatha by a Yoruba nickname, “Alaiyo.” Mama and Beneatha ask about the meaning of the nickname, and after thinking for a moment Asagai answers that it means, “One for Whom Bread – Food – Is Not Enough.” Beneatha understands the significance and thanks Asagai for the nickname. He exits.
With the nickname, Asagai acknowledges and celebrates Beneatha’s aspirations and desire for something more than just the basics, whether in love or life, which she deeply appreciates. Beneatha takes pride in her African nickname and its ability to accurately represent her dedication to her dreams.
Beneatha gazes at herself in the mirror and “clutches at her hair,” squinting her eyes “as if trying to imagine something.” Suddenly, she grabs her coat and heads for the door, telling a confused Mama that she is going out, “To become a queen of the Nile!”
To honor her African identity, Beneatha realizes that she must allow her hair to display its natural, unassimilated form. She embraces natural hair as an alternative ideal of beauty, and sees herself as embracing her African heritage.
Ruth reenters from the bedroom and, soon after, the doorbell rings, a sudden sound that signals that the mailman has arrived with the insurance check. Ruth sends Travis downstairs to get it. Travis returns moments later and Mama opens the envelope. As she sees the check, Mama’s face “sobers to a mask of unhappiness.” Mama grows thoughtful and thinks of her late husband. Abruptly and “angrily,” Mama again asks Ruth about her visit to the doctor. Ruth “avoids her eyes” and evades her questions, confirming Mama’s suspicion that Ruth is considering an abortion.
Mama’s reaction to the check shows the negative consequences of money, as the question of its use weighs heavily on Mama, as well as the fact that this money was “earned” through the death of her husband, and as such can’t possibly be worth what it “cost” to get it. The issue of abortion, which Ruth considers and Mama implicitly rejects, highlights the generational differences between the women. The fact that Ruth considers an abortion, an illegal practice at the time, shows the lengths to which she would go to protect her family from further financial strain.
Walter rushes into the apartment and immediately asks to see the insurance check. He launches into a discussion of his proposal to use the money as an investment in a liquor store. Mama stops Walter and suggests that he speak to his wife privately, but he ignores her. Mama tells Walter that she will not invest any of the insurance money in the liquor store and this refusal to even consider the proposal makes Walter angry. As Mama tries to persuade Walter and Ruth to have a “civil” conversation, Walter and Ruth hurl insults at each other, with Walter shouting that Ruth was his “biggest mistake” as she exits and slams the bedroom door.
Mama’s refusal to support Walter’s dream frustrates and emasculates him, eroding his sense of his worth in being what he feels he should be: a husband and father, a man, who can support his family. The insurance check prompts intra-family conflict, as arguments about money quickly become larger struggles concerning personal identity, personal dreams, and family dynamics.
Mama asks Walter what’s troubling him, commenting that for the past few years “something [has been] eating you up like a crazy man.” She calls him out on his constant combativeness and binge drinking, imploring him to be kinder to his wife. Walter responds, “I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy.” Mama replies by saying that Walter should value the “nice wife” and good job that he has, to which Walter answers, “Mama, a job? I open and close car doors all day long. . . . Mama, that ain’t no kind of job . . . that ain’t nothing at all.” Walter explains that he sees a future that is “full of nothing” looming before him.
To a great extent, Walter’s dreams center on the “many things” that he wants, highlighting the centrality of material wealth in his formation of a personal identity. Walter explains that his work as a white man’s chauffeur is emasculating and limits his hopes for a better future. Walter’s statements show how racial discrimination regarding job opportunities curbed many African Americans’ dreams for social advancement, and locked them into the role, essentially, of servants.
Mama critiques Walter’s overriding emphasis on the importance of money, to which he responds that money “is life.” Mama disagrees, saying, “Once upon a time freedom used to be life. . . . In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too.” Mama laments that her children have no pride in the accomplishments of her generation.
Mama attempts to discredit Walter’s money-centric worldview by reminding him of the life-or-death struggles endured by earlier generations of African Americans. In Mama’s mind, dignity and freedom are virtues far more precious than material wealth. Walter cannot accept Mama’s views, which he finds naive.
Mama finally tells Walter that Ruth is pregnant and considering an abortion. Walter is shocked but insists that Ruth would never think of doing such a thing. Mama disagrees, saying, “When the world gets ugly enough – a woman will do anything for her family. The part that’s already living.” Ruth reenters and confirms Mama’s statement. Mama begs her son to convince his wife to keep the baby, pleading, “I’m waiting to see you stand up and look like your daddy and say we done give up one baby to poverty and that we ain’t going to give up nary another one.” Walter cannot bring himself to say anything and exits. Mama calls Walter “a disgrace to your father’s memory.”
Mama implores Walter to honor his father’s memory and take pride in his own manhood by convincing Ruth to not have an abortion. However, Walter is unable to rise to the challenge, dejected as he is by Mama’s refusal to support his dreams. He finds it hard to act as a man in the way his mother wants when she does not treat him as a man in the same way she treated his father. Also, Mama is asking Walter to save his unborn child from a death inflicted by “poverty,” but Walter’s obsession with material wealth prevents him from taking such a stand because the baby will only make that poverty worse and make his dreams even less achievable.