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In honor of American Artist Appreciate Month, we’re going to dissect Amiri Baraka’s play “Dutchman and the Slave” and discover how it, unfortunately, still relates to today’s society…

“Safe with my words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts, urging me to new conquests”

Clay from Amiri Bakara’s play, “Dutchman” 1964

African-American poets and writers have given many people a voice in their community. Usually, this involves tackling topics that other writers do not address. One of the main topics addressed in 1960’s African-American literature is racism and stereotyping. This is spoken about a lot of Black writers’ work, particularly in Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman,” which follows a Black man named Clay being overtly stereotyped by the white antagonist, Lula, on a train. Their encounter addresses many problems Black people have to face in white America. 

The Theory Behind Propositional Racism

Samy Azouz addresses propositional racism in the essay, “Existence in Black and White: Theatrical Representation of the Varieties of Racism in Amiri Baraka’s Select Plays.” Propositional racism is essentially overt, racist behavior. It is the “visibility of the racial character,” which can lead to racial disparity. With this definition, Azouz claims that white people in “Dutchman” are the face of propositional racism. Minority characters in Baraka’s play are racially described, mainly by white characters. For instance, Lula has no shame in pointing out that Clay is an “Uncle Tom Big Lip,” and even describes his friend Warren as a “tall, skinny, black, black boy with a phony English accent.” She further uses even harsher language, which not only addresses the fact that she only sees Clay and other Black people as their race, but she also has no respect for them. 

Because Lula focuses more on Clay’s race than character, she begins to make assumptions about him. For example, Lula says to Clay that his grandfather was a slave, and therefore did not go to Harvard. Also during this tangent, Lula addresses the fact that Clay is wearing a three-piece suit, which is something he “ought to feel oppressed by.” This rant about suits and slavery indicates to the reader that Lula believes Clay should not wear suits and fancy attire because the people who wore those outfits are against Black people.

Lula also questions if Clay has a “right” to wear a three-button suit and tie. She assumes that since his grandfather was a slave and not of middle or upper-class, Clay does not deserve to wear fancy outfits. Lula believes that Clay should know his place and remember where he came from. If we read Lula’s tangent in this context, then readers would also notice that Lula is only saying this because Clay is Black. She’s never met him until now and just based on the color of his skin, she thinks she knows everything about him. 

The Black Baudelaire…

Not only does Lula question Clay’s attire, but she also questions his intelligence. Azouz writes in his essay that “White characters…adhere to race to differentiate between whites and Blacks…” He then gives examples such as intelligence, morality, manners, and character. When it comes to intellect, readers can see this in a multitude of areas in “Dutchman.” For instance, Lula asks Clay who he thinks he is. In response to the hostile question, Clay says, “Well, in college I thought I was Baudelaire.” This irritates Lula to the point of calling him a racial slur and then proceeding to say “A Black Baudelaire.” The fact that Lula had to place “Black” in front of the poet’s name validates Azouz’s point.

With Lula, she uses race to differentiate and distance herself from Clay, which makes him appear to be inferior. Essentially, she does not like the idea that Clay, a Black man, identified himself at one point to Charles Baudelaire, a white poet. This is also addressed in “Existence in Black and White…” when Azouz states that Lula is the “embodiment of society’s anxieties…” Like most white people during the Civil Rights Movement, Lula was afraid of minorities and Whites becoming equal. 

…and the Brute Caricature

Amiri Baraka also pairs Lula’s racism with stereotyping. Azouz addresses that this play is about “the power of stereotypes,” claiming that Lula symbolizes general racism in the United States, and further specifies that Lula and the other passengers symbolize society’s fear of Black men. Lula is constantly hurling racial slurs at Clay, which makes the reader think that Clay might retaliate. But, in the 1960s, and even today, white Americans viewed Black men as “brute caricatures.”

The idea of the “brute caricature” is the stereotypical “angry, young, male, black predator.” This is essentially what Lula wants Clay to become. When he finally lashes out at Lula, Lula stabs him! This scene can be viewed in a couple of ways: either Clay is a brute caricature, or Lula provoked him. Baraka might have wanted readers to see the latter, however racist white people in the 1960s could have viewed Clay as the attacker because of their generalizations towards Black men.

Also, white people would have believed that Lula’s actions were justifiable because in the play, Clay said Black people should kill white people. So, white people could potentially see this “scary Black man” and assume that Lula felt threatened and defended herself. Towards the end of “Dutchman” when Lula was screaming for help, the other passengers threw Clay off the train. With that being said, this is what the other passengers symbolize. They generalized Clay and deemed him the threatening “brute caricature” and Lula as a defenseless woman. 

How “Dutchman and the Slave” Applies to Today’s Society

Clay and his monologue symbolize the Black men and women who have had enough with racial stereotyping and discrimination. This still applies today to Black individuals and other minority groups. As a character, Clay embodies the struggle Black Americans still face: Either fight and get killed, speak up and face ridicule, or say nothing and continue battling hate speech and discrimination.

Clay was able to endure the racial slurs and remarks Lula was attacking him with, and when he finally spoke up, he got killed. When Clay says, “Safe with my words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts, urging me to new conquests,” he is saying if African-Americans do not speak up, no one will die, but racism will continue.

Amiri Baraka was able to tackle propositional racism in his playwright and allow African-Americans to finally have an opinion on the world around them. “Dutchman” addresses the challenges Black people face during the Civil Rights Movement. Until the Black Arts Movement, racial stereotypes seemed unnoticed in popular literature. Now, Black artists continue to write about the Black experience and find new ways for our people to be heard.

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