The multiple attempts to define coloured peoples’ situation and identity in American society have been one of the chief causes of conflict among black writers in America in the twentieth century. While the Harlem Renaissance novelists manifested their interests in defining the Afro-American identity primarily through stratifications of race and gender, it became increasingly problematic for writers to view themselves or their protagonists as either conforming to or outright rejecting these stratifications. This psychological conflict could be best seen in the 1960s, amidst the passing of the Civil Rights’ Bill in 1964 and the subsequent Black Power Movement. Since literature is often a marker of both the historical and cultural representations of a period, this paper aims to view the conflict of racial identity in America in the 1960s via Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman, also published in 1964, and the author’s own conflicting arguments about cultural assimilation vis-à-vis his well-defined political and aesthetic beliefs.
Though the passing of the Civil Rights Bill legally ended the painful politics of racial segregation, social equality was still a far cry, prompting Amiri Baraka (then Everett LeRoi Jones) to move to Harlem in March 1965 after the assassination of Malcolm X earlier that year. This exodus was considered to be the symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement. One finds that there is a substantial shift in Baraka’s aesthetic beliefs in the period that elapsed between the writing of his play Dutchman and his physical shift to Harlem.
Embedded with mythical implications, the title of the play Dutchman alludes to the myth of the ‘Flying Dutchman’, a ghost ship lost near the Cape of Good Hope that was doomed to sail the oceans forever. Historically, the Dutch sailed the first slave-bearing ship to the American colonies. These two put together suggest that White America has doomed itself through the non-recognition of blacks as humans. It could also suggest that the black male protagonist Clay, and many like him, were doomed anyway, whether they tried to assert their Black identity or chose to assimilate themselves according to their White American upbringing.
Cultural assimilation can be seen as a by-product of racial subjugation, whereby the Black subject feels a sense of inadequacy and dependency in a White world. The divided self-perception of the Black subject, who has lost his native cultural origin while embracing the culture of the Mother Country, produces an inferiority complex in his mind, which will then lead him to try to imitate and appropriate the culture of the colonizer. Such behaviour is more evident in the socially mobile upper-middle class, who use their education as a tool to master the language of the colonizer. With many Black Arts activists rejecting the integrational ideologies of the Civil Rights’ Movement, thereby refusing cultural or racial assimilation, Dutchman can be seen as a transitional work in terms of Baraka’s beliefs about Black identity. For Baraka, passivity is a by-product of assimilation that makes a community stagnant.
The play works thematically in several fields at the same time. This can be attributed to the fact that it was written at a time in which Baraka himself was in search for an orientation in American society. Baraka has accurately depicted the conflict of racial and sexual identity in his protagonist Clay, who grapples with entrenched racism and assimilation by denying his black origins and taking the white world as a model. He is dressed in a suit and tie despite the heat, prompting the white, female antagonist Lula to fit him into multiple stereotypes. She attacks him at two levels. One, she correctly predicts his place of living, his friendship with Warren Enright (“A tall skinny black boy with a phony English accent”) and a possible incestuous relationship with his sister, thus not only mocking the attempts at assimilation, but also invoking the stereotype of the Black Savage. She also questions his right to wearing a suit and tie since his grandfather “was a slave and didn’t go to Harvard”.
Further, she outwardly rejects all claims of the blacks to be American, thus negating Clay’s attempts at assimilation, and hence his character, which was a resultant product of this assimilation; she also goes one step further by questioning him about his awareness of his identity. As Clay tries to place himself away from the stratifications of race and gender, suggesting that he imagined himself to be Baudelaire (again a resultant of his cultural assimilation), she directly imposes his black identity on him, jeering at his suppression of his origins (“I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger”). Moreover, she calls him a murderer and an “escaped nigger”, thus nullifying all possible attempts (by Clay) to appropriate his origins. She not only problematizes type and stereotype, but also sets forth prescriptions for anti-assimilation and rejections of past excursions, thus stripping Clay of his borrowed identity and culture and rejecting his historical origins. She damns his progress as an erasure by saying that “the people accept you as a ghost of the future”, that they hoped he would not go back to his past and try killing everyone. This repeated attack on him reaches its climax when she asks him to dance with her:
Clay, you liver-lipped white man. You would-be Christian. You ain’t no nigger, you’re just a dirty white man. Get up, Clay. Dance with me Clay (Baraka).
According to Clay, black music and art are escape valves that would not be required if the whites were simply to be exterminated: “A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murders” (Baraka).
Lula’s accusation that Clay had escaped to her side, and that his assimilation was killing him makes Clay finally free to expunge his rage. He erupts into a devastating diatribe that avows his contempt for those who surround themselves with illusions to avoid reality, his homicidal hatred of whites, and his need to assimilate so as not to commit mass murder. He attempts to reconcile his origins and his conditioning and sees assimilation as the most non-violent tool in order to do so. This purported defence could be seen in terms of the ‘double consciousness’ of the blacks, a term coined and explained by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1897 as under:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,– an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face (Du Bois).
In this light, Clay’s dilemma about his identity becomes more complex, since his tirade at the end indicates that he does not have an accurate understanding of his identity. It also brings to light his inefficiency to mould himself into this dual-identity, a paradox that shall haunt him till his death by Lula.
Lula is portrayed as the femme-fatale and critics have made comparisons between her character and Eve since Lula passes the apple to Clay, thus making her the archetypal, devouring female. She makes the first move with Clay, be it coming to sit with him or speaking to him, or touching him physically. She does seem to posit physical strength – as Clay notices by the strength of her grip – and one wonders if this is a symbol of strength by virtue of her being superior in terms of her race. Other mentions of women are limited to Clay’s sister, who (Lula alleges) has been raped by him in their childhood. The act of Clay slapping Lula also asserts Baraka’s notions about Black masculinity vis-a-vis white womanhood, and I feel this does more harm than good. It not only conforms to patriarchal stereotypes, but also problematizes the question of identity, since such stratifications promote conformations leading to further identity conflicts when one does not fit in. If Clay tries to fit in, it becomes easy for Lula to condemn him as a savage. If he does not, his assimilation is laughed upon amidst talks of his ‘manhood’. Alternatively, the manner in which Lula’s character has been sketched out could lead to a reductionist reading of her actions, blaming it on her being female (thus appropriating prevalent misogyny) and conveniently ignoring the racial politics. Another way in which this stratification can be viewed is the assignment of masculinity to the Blacks and of femininity to the Whites, coinciding with an actual black male and a white female.
In 1897, Du Bois had asserted that the Black American could best further his cause by rejecting a servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture. Some Renaissance novelists had grappled with the problem of developing life-styles based on Afro-American values rather than succumbing completely in their artistic vision to the middle-class mores of dominant society. But much later, in 1968, Larry Neal echoed sentiments similar to Du Bois’ by saying that the Black Arts movement proposed a radical reordering of western cultural aesthetic by formulating a separate symbolism, mythology, critique and iconology. He stressed on the need to develop a ‘black aesthetic’, which he felt was already in existence: “The motive behind the black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world.”
The favouring of self-reliance and ‘black consciousness’ by Black Arts activists entailed the use of violence, both verbal and actual; as Baraka claimed in his seminal 1965 poem “Black Art”, “we want poems that kill”. Similarly, his essay “The Revolutionary Theatre” (1965) directly attacks the whites and says that it “must teach them (Whites) their deaths”. He says:
The Revolutionary Theatre must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked. It must Accuse and Attack because it is a theatre of Victims. It looks at the sky with the victims’ eyes, and moves the victims to look at the strength in their minds and their bodies. Clay, in Dutchman, Ray, in The Toilet, Walker in The Slave, are all victims. In the Western sense they could be heroes. But the Revolutionary Theatre, even if it is Western, must be anti-Western (Baraka).
While the play was performed in front of a dual audience, i.e. both black and white, it is interesting to note that it was condemned as a ‘white-hating’ play not by the white audience which saw it but by the black audience at Harlem. For the white audience, it was a confrontation with the “Newer negro”, who was different from the “de-sexed nigger minstrel, trapped in a role which combined self-mockery with an endearing musicality”.
Apart from the obvious conflict between black and white aesthetics, there also exists a more troubling conflict for the blacks, i.e. a constant appropriation and erasure of origins leading to a painful questioning of their identities. Lula’s attempt to force Clay to see in himself the negative stereotypes of the black male – as either oversexed stud or cringing Uncle Tom – goads him into a bitter tirade. In this light, Clay’s hypothesis that racism can only be solved by refusing to acknowledge it makes his character acquire a certain irony, especially since his attempts at assimilation contradict the sentiments of the movement which suggests a complete annihilation of white aesthetics. He repeatedly retreats into the safety of words from an emphasis on action, defeating himself. He concludes with a warning not to trust assimilated blacks, since they might go on a genocide rampage using their Western conditioning as a justification. As he finally succeeds in destroying Lula’s illusions, she coolly stabs him to death, which could be seen as a sample of Western detachment and ruthless precision as opposed to Black sentimentality. It is Clay’s hypothesis which is more troubling, since it shows the same passivity that Baraka detests.
One is tempted to ask if the assurance of citizenry leads to the erasure of history; that vexing promise of civil rights. Lula says, “And we’ll pretend that people cannot see you. That is, the citizens. And that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history.” These two figures cannot escape from one another or their history, and, as his answers shift from machismo to defensiveness, Clay’s insecurities about his race, class and social prowess are laid bare and he becomes the target of Lula’s increasingly direct taunts, amplifying the dimensions of racial conflict in the play. To conclude, I would like to state that Dutchman serves as an important site of conflict, bringing forth questions of racial assimilations into stratifications created during a turbulent period, highlighting problems arising by a conformation to those stratifications. At the same time, it also serves as an important interlude in the playwright’s progress from a poet and playwright to the forefront of the Black Arts Movement.
Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman. African American History. Web. <http://www.africanafrican.com/Dutchman.pdf>.
Bigsby, C.W.E. A Critical Introduction To Twentieth-Century American Drama: Beyond Broadway. Vol 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 375. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co., 1903. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles L. Markmann. France: Grove Press, 1952. Print.
LeRoi Jones, Everett. “The Revolutionary Theatre”. National Humanities Centre Resource Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity, 1917-68. Vol. 3. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Larry, Neal. “The Black Arts Movement”. National Humanities Centre Resource Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity, 1917-68. Vol. 3. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Nishtha Pandey is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.