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Clay and the Construction of Black Masculinity in Amiri Baraka's "Dutchman"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 19 Pages

American Studies - Literature

Excerpt

Contents

1. Introduction

2. Meeting Lula
2.1. A metaphorical context
2.2. Lula, the disruptive element

3. The Monologue
3.1. Scorn of the white institution
3.2. Arts or activism?
3.3. Black Masculinity according to Clay

4. Clay’s concept of black masculinity replaced in reality

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The 1950s and 1960s are probably one of the most exciting chapters of African American history, politically and artistically. They bore a profusion of new ideas. While leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X proposed radically opposed solutions to the problems of black people’s rights, writers and intellectuals handled the Harlem Renaissance’s heritage and music saw the hard blues from the earliest part of the century gain in popularity. It is in this period, in 1957, that Amiri Baraka – still LeRoi Jones at the time – moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and became part of the Beat Movement. He then founded the literary magazine Yugen with his wife and obtained his first critical acclaim as a poet for Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… published in 1961. In 1960, he went to Cuba. This visit changed his life. He became aware of the relationship between politics and arts and decided to incorporate his political, social and spiritual beliefs in his writing, using poetry and drama as means to educate. Baraka’s transitional period would give birth namely to Dutchman, a controversial play which premiered in 1964. The audiences were especially shocked by the political allusion to the Genesis. Baraka also transposed his own evolution in Clay: the movement from docile, assimilated and insignificant black man to proud revolutionary and marginal poet telling out loud his truth to the white institution.

The play opens with Clay, a twenty-year-old scholar, on his way to a friend’s party. Taking a look through the window of the subway car he rides in, he catches sight of Lula, a beautiful white woman. Pretending to be intrigued by his glance, she boards the train and strikes up a conversation. Over the course of the slow train ride, Lula and Clay tease each other until Lula drives Clay mad and to his fate. While reflecting the questions posed by African Americans to whites in the 1960s, Dutchman also treated the identity issue. During the whole play and especially in his monologue, Clay delivers his own vision of black masculinity. It’s no accident that he is a poet. This characteristic gives him the power to play with words, to see other dimensions of the reality he lives in, to have a vision. As much as Lula represents an image of white femininity, Clay represents an image of black masculinity. Black masculinity was not an obvious concept at the time. The traditional conception of virility as synonym of strength, toughness, robustness, and authority applied only to the white male. The American black male of the 1960s, having suffered a symbolic castration, had to deal with another heritage.

In this essay, after decoding the setting of the play, we will focus on Clay’s monologue and explain how he constructs and represents African American masculinity. After defining Clay’s concept, we will eventually study its applicability by replacing it in reality.

2. Meeting Lula

2.1. A metaphorical context

All the elements in the play - the setting and characters - were not chosen by casualty. They all represent something. Amiri Baraka chose the subway as an underground location which symbolizes the impossibility to escape. Passengers regularly come in, however it is never mentioned that anyone goes out. The subway is a machine circulating slowly and according to a perpetual plan, the passengers have no influence on the itinerary and just take it because they have to. I read here a metaphor of society as a machine[1]. It also stands for secret, hidden mechanisms, as if Baraka attended to show the spectator what really happens underneath the city’s “skin” and by extension describe the essence of the black and white interracial relationship, while also giving both parts some hints on how to behave towards the other.

The title Dutchman is an allusion to the Dutch East India Company, a chartered company established in the beginning of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. It was granted a 21-year monopoly to carry out colonial activities in Asia. Arguably the world’s first megacorporation, the company was involved in local politics, drove the British and the Portuguese from Indonesia, Malaya, and Ceylon thus taking full possession of the very lucrative trade of the Spice Islands. The company established a colony in South Africa (1652) which remained Dutch until conquered by the British in 1814[2]. After more than a hundred years of prosperity, the megacorporation declined in the late 18th century, perished by corruption. Dissolved in 1800, its possessions and debts were taken over by the Dutch Batavian Republic (Ricklefs 1991). The allusion to the Dutch East India Company reinforces the idea of a mainstream, of injustice and corruption. The subway, the society described by Baraka is an enormous and mighty machine, running according to its own idle rules. However, to take part in it each member has to accept the position it is entitled because there is simply no other choice.

The three present entities are Clay (standing for black America), Lula (standing for white America) and the other passengers, the equivalent of a chorus[3]. The symbolic meeting between both of them could also have had a less tragic connotation. We only know that the play takes place in summer, there is no exact date. However, judging by the references mentioned throughout Dutchman, we can qualify the setting as contemporary to the time it was written. Deprived of their history Clay and Lula could have been friends: a white American woman and an African American man in the 1950-60s. Both of them were victims, both of them had to fight for freedom, on different levels. Mores were quite repressive towards women at the time. The ideal of a good woman was to be a good housewife, i.e. be submissive, stay at home to take care of the children and the household. It was a return to more conservative values after World War II’s digression, a hard return especially for women. When they longed for intellectual freedom and a personal career, these dreams often had to be sacrificed for their family life, offering them two choices only: either forget their aspirations or refuse to start a family and be considered as selfish frivolous women (Chiel 2003). Lula is an example of liberal choice. Clay on the other hand is also oppressed. The 1960s saw the passing of several acts making all forms of segregation unconstitutional, the action in the play still takes place in the context of this process. Clay has fewer rights than his white counterpart and although he tries to fit in, he must constantly be careful. Solely his intelligence will allow him to survive the dialogue with Lula that long.

2.2. Lula, the disruptive element

Everything seems to be quite ordinary before Lula’s appearance. Clay reads his paper, is undisturbed in his reveries and seems to be alone in the subway car. He then looks through the window, not trying to make friends nor hitting on any woman at all but simply looking through the window like someone would do after a long while spent reading. The scene is casual, cliché, almost boring. The action starts as Lula comes into the car. She literally brings life to the setting. Still keeping in mind that the characters’ names, just like the setting, are symbolic, I want to take a look at the etymology of Lula’s name and see what it tells us about her. The name Lula is used chiefly in Spanish and English languages and has Germanic (meaning “fame,” “loud”, “fighter,” “warrior”) and Latin (meaning “bright,” “born at daybreak”) origins. These significations are mostly very positive and would suggest that Lula brings light into the subway. It is partly true because her character sheds light on a certain matter. She is also a fighter, but in the negative sense of the term, i.e. she likes to tease other people.

I think that the real essence of Lula shines through when she presents herself as Lena the Hyena. She is alluding to the comics’ character of the same name. The “world’s ugliest woman”, created by Al Capp, first appeared in 1946 in the Lil’Abner story line. An editorial note informed the readers that Lena’s face had been covered to protect the readers: anyone who had seen her face had gone instantly insane. She had remained a faceless character until Capp decided to hold a contest with Salvador Dali, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra as judges. One of the seven drawings submitted by cartoonist Basil Wolverton won the contest and instantly made him famous. The creature he had designed was so incredibly hideous that the only way to describe it was to show the picture itself. As to Baraka’s Lula, it doesn’t show in the first place because of her agreeable looks - “a tall slender, beautiful woman” (Baraka 1947) – but we discover throughout the play that she is an innerly very hideous character producing a senseless discourse with the more obvious purpose to drive the one listening mad by denying him his own identity.

[...]


[1] Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times (1936).

[2] The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th edition. 2007.

[3] According to the rules of ancient Greek theatre.

Details

Pages
19
Year
2010
ISBN (eBook)
9783656957195
ISBN (Book)
9783656957201
File size
487 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v298854
Institution / College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – American Studies
Grade
1,3
Tags
Clay Amiri Baraka Dutchman Blackness Masculinity Virility American Theater Black Masculinity

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Title: Clay and the Construction of Black Masculinity in Amiri Baraka's "Dutchman"