Dutchman


Dutchman
by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
(1964)
   Incendiary, outrageous—if these adjectives are woven indelibly into the spirit of Beat literature, then amiri baraka’s Dutchman might be one of the most perfect literary productions of the Beat era. From Melville to Dickinson to Whitman to Eliot to Steinbeck to Ellison to Miller to Sexton to Plath to Baldwin, it is in the American literary tradition to challenge tradition, and in this way the Beat writers of the post–World War II era were delighted to fall in step with their literary forebears and contemporaries, to write comically and bitterly of America’s pressure-packed homogeneity and its paranoid racism, sexism, homophobia, and anticommunism. But where jack kerouac defies the stasis of a nine-to-five, man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit lifestyle, Baraka, in Dutchman, puts on trial the Kerouacs themselves. Where allen ginsberg pokes fun at the half-truths of such magazines as Time and Life and tells the military–industrial complex to “Go fuck [itself] with [its] atom bomb,” Baraka thumbs his nose not only at conservativism but also at liberalism, not only at racists but also at persons who fancy themselves to be racially enlightened. “You great liberated whore! You fuck some black man, and right away you’re an expert on black people. What a lotta shit that is,” screams Clay, Baraka’s aptly named hero, a usually quiet young man who reshapes himself, as the play draws toward a close, into a perfect manifestation of black American rage on the loose. In Dutchman, Baraka simply assumes the benightedness of Eisenhowerlike conservatism; thus, he scarcely addresses it, choosing instead to attack what the author appears to perceive as a more subtle, and therefore more lethal, threat: liberalism and the phoniness of its legions. A one-hour film version—directed by Anthony Harvey and starring Al Freeman, Jr., and Shirley Knight—appeared in 1966. This low-key, black-and-white adaptation more than recreates the utter joylessness of Baraka’s play. Too, the madness that is, in Baraka’s view, native to American race relations comes to monstrous life in the bizarre physical antics of Knight (Lula) and the spitfilled, maniacal tirade of Freeman, Jr. (Clay) in the play’s closing moments.
   Dutchman—for which Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) won an Obie Award in 1964—begins and ends in a speeding New York City subway car, and the suggestion here might be that the race relations manifest in this play are running swiftly and smoothly through the bowels of American life, that the interchange between Clay Williams and Lula, though altogether noxious, is sadly representative of a foundational, irreversible disconnection that always has and always will characterize black– white relations in the United States. It is possible, too, that Baraka’s underground setting references the seething distrust and enmity snaking beneath the sometimes placid surface of a country presumably on the rise, racially speaking, under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Things may appear to be nearly tolerable in the United States in the grand era of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s massive march on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but if the black man should finally, truly, comprehensively speak his mind, white America (employing the assistance of innumerable black traitors) will quickly silence him forever. It is important to note, too, the play’s obvious reference to U.S. slavery, which Baraka feels is alive and well in the latter decades of the 20th century. The dragon of slavery lies squarely at the foundation of black–white relations in the United States and prohibits a pure union between the two main characters in Dutchman. They do indeed enjoy at the close of the first act a short-lived fantasy of a one-night stand, one in which racial baggage plays no part. Sadly, however, the best they can do is “pretend” to be “free of . . . history.” America’s past and present—either faintly or directly—are everpresent, waiting and willing to spoil what might otherwise develop into an unbridled human-tohuman exchange. Furthermore, as Lloyd Brown points out, this hopelessness and its link to both U.S. history and mythology is contained even in the play’s title: “The underground setting recalls the holds of the slave ships, and this image is reinforced by the title itself: the first African slaves were reportedly brought to the New World by Dutch slave traders. . . . The Dutch reference may also be linked with the legend of the Flying Dutchman—the story of a ship doomed to sail the seas forever without hope of gaining land.” The fabled Flying Dutchman is “doomed” to sail endlessly, remaining landless, exactly because it is the ship that commenced the slave trade between Africa and the New World. Likewise, Clay and Lula—and, by extension, all blacks and all whites—are doomed for eternity in Baraka’s pessimistic world view to flounder in any effort to achieve peaceful coexistence. Speaking of slavery, Clay is a 20th-century reincarnation of Nat Turner—nearly. Turner, an unassuming and much-trusted slave, nurtured a glowing coal of hatred in his heart for the institution of human bondage and for a select crowd of whites whom he viewed as slavery’s representatives. He finally and famously enacted his longsuppressed rage; for this, he was caught and killed, but not before leaving a sensational impression of fear in the bellies of whites in and around antebellum Virginia. Like Turner, Baraka’s Clay is-throughout the overwhelming majority of his brief lifetime—a quiet, seemingly nonthreatening black man who moves rather freely, albeit separately, among white people. He is well spoken and conservatively dressed in his “three-button suit and striped tie”—clothes, Lula mockingly says, that come from a tradition that “burn[ed] witches” and “start[ed] revolutions over the price of tea.” Like Turner, Clay possesses deep-seated rage that rarely sees the light of day and that has much to do with the double life he and other blacks are forced to lead even a whole century after their emancipation. But unlike Turner, Baraka’s Clay, after verbally assaulting (and physically slapping) his white adversary, stops short of the act of murder that would, he claims, free him from a kind of lunacy. He does indeed force Lula to heed his fiery monologue, in which he explains (in foul language, at a shrill pitch) that black art—music, poetry, and so on—is a coping mechanism, that Charlie Parker, Bessie Smith, and others are moaning into their horns and singing and “wiggling” in dark rooms only to avoid having to walk out on “Sixty-seventh Street and . . . [kill] the first ten white people . . . [they see].” Black art, in other words, is black rage reconfigured. The simple, rational black person-the nonartist—randomly kills whites, who deserve it; but the black artist, Clay declares, is too decent to commit murder, and so he or she foregoes his or her own lucidity and rechannels his or her murderous passion into song, literature, and/or any other form of creative expression, the subtext of which is typically a coded notice for whites to “kiss . . . [black America’s] unruly ass.”
   Again, though, Clay chooses the non-Turner route, screaming but then sighing, retreating, and remaining (he thinks, at least for a moment) “Safe with . . . [his] words,” coiled away in repression and semimadness. The fact that he has exposed his truer feelings and the sanctum sanctorum of black semi- and subconsciousness, however, is more than enough to rally Lula into action, and she stabs and kills Clay, possibly because he has proven to be neither of the two black selves with which she is comfortable: (1) the Uncle Tom figure, and (2) the personification of raw sexual potency, a black phallus with whom she can “rub bellies on the train. The nasty. The nasty. Do the gritty grind. . . .” If Clay cannot fulfill those stereotypes, and if he can manifest the sort of resentment that engenders Nat Turner-like rebellions and Watts-like riots, he must be done away with, and mainstream America (in the guise of a beautiful but reptilian white female, a score keeper who zealously maintains a ledger of the names of her victims) must continue its quest to seek out and destroy other signs of black manhood. In accordance with absurdist drama, Clay Williams and Lula are “types,” as Baraka seems to be scarcely interested in investing these characters with individual peculiarities and multiple ambiguities. Rather, throughout the majority of the play he casts Clay as the collective black sellout who wishes to cause no public disturbances, who wears “narrow-shoulder clothes . . . from a tradition . . . [he] ought to feel oppressed by,” who fancies himself to be a “Black Baudelaire” (perhaps an allusion to the Beat poet bob kaufman being called the Black Rimbaud in France) and who falls easily and speedily for Lula, the collective white racist and emasculator, the Evelike figure who eats apple after apple, and whose sexuality is clearly a kind of forbidden fruit for the black man. One wonders if Lula is also representative of Baraka’s former Beat associates and white friends/lovers—people who were happy to thumb their noses at racist conventions and (seemingly) embrace black culture, though Baraka felt, in the early and middle 1960s, that he could continue his deeply involved relationships with whites, even counterculturalist whites, only at the risk of failing to understand and to realize his own black self. Each moment spent fraternizing with white intellectuals—indeed, each moment spent cohabitating with his white wife, hettie jones—rendered him more and more a Clay-like “Uncle Tom” and drained ever further the energy that he could have been aiming toward the cultivation of a black-nationalist spirit. Likewise, each moment that Baraka’s Clay spends flirting with Lula, sinking more deeply into her python wiles, leaves him increasingly vulnerable to white hatred and, worse, increasingly less black. For Clay, to associate with Lula is to forfeit self-awareness. Again, Baraka takes few pains to individualize these characters. Lula—at least at some level—unmistakably stands for the boundless trouble awaiting any black man who desires agreeable contact with white people, particularly white women. Clay, of course, is essentially a graphic illustration of a handful of “types”: the quiet, whitenized “would-be poet,” the black fool; the finally honest and therefore livid, homicidal black nationalist.
   Like so many literary pieces of the Beat period, then, Dutchman offers insight into the life of its author. The play appeared in 1964, the year before Baraka left Greenwich Village for Harlem and his white wife (and their three children) for the nonattachment that he might have felt necessary to develop his ever-growing, ever-fervent politicism. In subsequent years, he would also leave his old name, Everett LeRoi Jones, for a newly adopted one: Amiri Baraka, which means “Blessed Prince.” He would, moreover, leave his white friends, the Beats, for his black brothers. In fact, the text of Dutchman, in undertones and overtones, documents Baraka’s break from the white Beats. The author seems to have in mind Ginsberg—the Beat pontiff—when he bitingly derides, through Lula, “all those Jewish poets . . . who leave their mothers looking for other mothers, or others’ mothers, on whose baggy tits they lay their fumbling heads. Their poems are always funny, and all about sex.” Of course, Clay’s fierce monologue provides an even more cutting, crystal-clear departure from Ginsberg and company: Very near the play’s conclusion, Clay morphs into a newly minted mouthpiece for black nationalism and decries the stunning irony of white people’s love for black cultural icons—Charlie Parker, especially-who seethe with hatred for Euro-America. There can be no doubt that Clay, in this sudden fury, is voicing Baraka’s newfound distaste for the white Beats, almost all of whom openly celebrated the Harlem music scene in general and Parker in particular: “Charlie Parker? Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, ‘Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass.’ ” It is difficult to overlook the coldness of these divorces, but before we condemn Baraka utterly, it is wise to remember that Melville was a less-thanresponsible husband and father, particularly during the months he spent laboring over Moby-Dick in the Berkshires—in relative solitude, in varying moods of irritability, unhappy to be burdened by the distracting needs of his wife and children whom he uprooted (from a somewhat more convenient life in New York City) and dragged along. In fact, it is not inappropriate to reference Melville here. The latter’s interest in residing in the Berkshires during the composition of his masterpiece was largely rooted in the fact that Hawthorne, whom Melville viewed as a kind of demigod and literary soul partner, lived nearby. Baraka’s relocation to Harlem, the center of black American life, was also a separation from a circle of persons who (presumably) misunderstood him to a newer, more empathic circle, and this was a milieu in which he could, he felt, create without impediments. This is to explain, not to justify: It is not, as we know, uncommon for artists to forsake their human ties and to immerse themselves bodily into their respective obsessions. In an ironic but very real sense, Baraka’s break from his family and his Beat associates crystallized his Beat stature, for nothing is more Beat than this: to live, as Clay does in Dutchman, as a changing organism, whatever the cost; to decry the restrictions inherent in the traditional institutions of commitment; to voice—and to stand for and live out—a principle, whatever it might be.
 Bibliography
■ Baraka, Amiri. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Edited by William J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.
■ Benston, Kimberly W. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
■ Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Barka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for aPopulist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
■ Williams, Sherley Anne. Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature. New York: Dial, 1972.
   Andrew J. Wilson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • Dutchman —    Drame d Anthony Harvey, d après la pièce de Le Roi Jones le Métro fantôme, avec Shirley Knight, Al Freeman Jr., Frank Lieberman.   Pays: Grande Bretagne   Date de sortie: 1967   Technique: noir et blanc   Durée: 56 min    Résumé    Dans une… …   Dictionnaire mondial des Films

  • Dutchman — [duch′mən] n. pl. Dutchmen [duch′mən] 1. a person born or living in the Netherlands; Hollander 2. a Dutch ship 3. Obs. a German …   English World dictionary

  • Dutchman — n. (pl. men; fem. Dutchwoman, pl. women) 1 a a native or national of the Netherlands. b a person of Dutch descent. 2 a Dutch ship. 3 US sl. a German. Phrases and idioms: Dutchman s breeches US a plant, Dicentra cucullaria, with white flowers and… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Dutchman — Le Métro fantôme Le Métro fantôme (Dutchman) est une pièce de théâtre écrite par Amiri Baraka sous le nom de plume de LeRoi Jones. Elle a obtenu en 1964, à New York, l Obie Award, récompense décernée à la meilleure pièce de l année et a rallié à… …   Wikipédia en Français