by Kara Robinson
“The self is a projection, based on other people’s projections. [But,] is it who we really are or who we really want to be or should be?” In 2011, during a TEDGlobal Conference, English actress, Thandie Newton, posed this question as she spoke about learning to embrace her own “otherness” and self. And while this is an excellent and thought-provoking inquiry, I have concluded that it was likely much easier to ask than answer. So, are the perceptions that others project onto us truly the way that we intend to be viewed, and are they even accurate? Unfortunately, more than likely, they are not. And while this dilemma of misconception may befall every individual at some point in life, for certain demographics this confrontation is a constant reality, such as the male, African American community. Regardless of how he may assert himself in society, or what his true identity is, the black male is frequently labeled, misunderstood, and prejudged by his counterparts. In his play, Dutchman, Amiri Baraka uses Lula’s aggressive and antagonistic tone toward Clay to symbolize the way that men who look like him have either been criticized for assimilating into the “white man’s culture,” or vilified as criminals throughout society’s history, primarily by affluent, white Americans. Through this extended metaphor, he further reveals the disadvantageous adversities consistently faced by the African American, male community as a whole.
The plot of Baraka’s Dutchman begins when Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman, and Clay, a twenty-year-old black man, encounter one another on a subway train in New York City. What begins as flirtatious banter between the two quickly escalates into a verbal and physical altercation, provoked by Lula. Despite his professional attire and articulate speech, the woman’s prejudices are overtly expressed from assumptions that his name is “something like…Gerald or Walter” to her conclusion that “[his] grandfather was a slave, [and] didn’t go to Harvard” (15; 18). Without any valid reasons or proof that her notions are true, it is clear that Lula draws these conclusions solely based on the color of his skin. And though he eventually realizes that Lula was intentionally insulting him, Clay, nevertheless, tries to disregard her ignorance and defend his dignity. But, as she relentlessly diminishes his value to being an “escaped nigger” and “a dirty white man,” Clay loses all tolerance for her behavior (29; 31). Finally reaching a breaking point, he harshly responds to the woman’s comments by slapping her, insisting that she sit down, and, even, threatening to murder her. Although extreme, Clay’s reaction was obviously provoked and, may have even been considered justified, but this was not the case since he was a black male addressing a white female in this manner. Instead, his defensive retorts only invited retaliation. Lula unpredictably “brings up a small knife and plunges it into Clay’s chest. Twice, wherein Clay’s self-defined expression of power and identity leads to his own death (37; Carson).
And, as if being senselessly murdered was not enough, the reader also learns that the other train passengers, both black and white, would become accessories in Clay’s murder by discarding his lifeless body from the moving train. Initially, the onlookers’ lack of concern and remorse seem peculiar, but their obedience to Lula’s instructions in his death ultimately validate the power of her supremacy. As previously mentioned, Clay was an intelligent, working-class individual looking to achieve a better lifestyle, but, his zeal and work ethic were irrelevant, even in the northern United States, as a black man during the sixties in this white supremacist society. However, Clay was merely one victim of this form of prejudice. Nearly six decades after the play’s publication, black men continue to compete for respect and success while having to cope with the false projections of others in white supremacist societies. Similar to Clay’s character, many African American males have become constituents in professional and educational domains, as the nation has gradually become more integrated. Yet, this emphasis on diversity inclusion and equal rights has yet to become embedded in the fabrics of our society (Suganya 265). On the contrary, African American males are, oftentimes, scrutinized even for the positive contributions they make to society, both by the black and white community, being labeled as “Uncle Tom” assimilationists. Lula’s character reinforces this idea during her rantings when she shifts gears from offending Clay to admonishing him to “break out [versus] dying the way they want [him] to die” (33). As ironic and paradoxical as it seems for Lula to tell Clay not to die the way “they,” referring to her own race, would want him to die, this is frequently the perspective of many people, both black and white. These persons often make the generalization that any and all black men endeavoring to achieve do so by “assimilating into mainstream, [white] American society (Suganya 265). And, while there may be individuals within the African American community who feel that assimilation is necessary in order to succeed, there are also those who simply aspire to have an impact on their fellow man and generations to come and must attain a living, simultaneously. Nevertheless, even with the best intentions they are misinterpreted; but, this is only one end of the disadvantageous and prejudice spectrum.
In addition to being perceived as assimilating, brown-noses, black men are also perpetually depicted as criminals. And, unfortunately, it persists to be a common occurrence for black males to be killed as a result of this perception. Men of color ranging in age, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Keith Scott are just some of the victims who were perceived as dangerous or threatening in incidents which ultimately cost them their lives. And, much like Lula’s disparaging remark “You’re a murderer, Clay, and you know it,” these perceptions continue to be unfounded (21). As with any group of individuals, generalizations cannot be made since they will, likely, never satisfactorily characterize the community as a whole. Being said, it is true that some African American males engage in criminal behavior; however, this cannot be said for all. Nonetheless, without taking into account the individual’s personality and ethics, many black males are labeled with the gangster or delinquent stereotype. But, why is this? In his essay on the hyper-incarceration of black males, Frank Cooper attempts to answer this question. He draws from several other scholars, such as Kenneth Nunn, who believe that this dilemma has been an ongoing and institutionalized one for quite some time. More specifically, Nunn suggests that, even, President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” was, in actuality, a war on men of color. He argues that “African American males in particular… are the real targets of the country’s drug enforcement efforts, [seeing as] police expend greater resources and time looking for drug infractions in Black neighborhoods than in white ones and focus the bulk of their energies on Black suspects than on white ones” (Nunn; Cooper). Tragically, these false perceptions are not simply honest mistakes, but they result in an increased rate of false arrests, convictions, and, as we have seen more recently, the unjustifiable deaths of black males solely because they appear intimidating or guilty.
In the end, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman did much more than entertain his audience. Rather, it sufficed as a political statement advocating for the African American male community. And, not just for the time period it was written in. Instead, the play is a timeless work which communicates the plight of black men wherein Clay’s fictional, tragic end is representative for that of many, non-fictional men like him. Clay became the voice for every African American male who aspires to be seen as an upstanding citizen in society versus a subservient or delinquent by counterparts in and outside of his race. And, although many strides have been made for this minority, among others, to obtain equality, they still seem to be grappling for the same treatment and opportunities that their fairer skinned peers receive with ease. Nevertheless, Baraka’s 1960’s play worked to highlight the friction in race relations during that era, as well as foreshadow the friction that we continue to experience in our nation presently. Now, several years later, as we continue to grieve the losses of actual men whose lives ended similarly to Baraka’s protagonist, people are able to recognize his work as a written crusade for those who fall victim to societal misconceptions and expectations. And, though Clay and those, once existent, men suffered calamitous fates, their stories demonstrated the detriment of prejudice, ignorance, and assumptions, as well as failing to practice equity of treatment among all men.
Carson, Sharon. “Dutchman.” Masterplots, Fourth Edition (2010): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
Cooper, Frank Rudy. “We Are Always Already Imprisoned: Hyperincarceration And Black Male Identity Performance.” Boston University Law Review 93.3 (2013): 1185-1204. Legal Collection. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
Suganya, B. “Racial Tensions In Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman.” Language In India 16.9 (2016): 263-266. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.