by Courtney Deal
One ever feels his twoness,—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.
— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
In Dutchman, Amiri Baraka splits his protagonist, Clay Williams, into two parts: the American, the assimilationist ideal of what a black person should be and the mask that society forces him to wear; and the Negro, his true black soul (Du Bois 3). For Clay, these two sides correspond with a side that wants to assimilate into white culture and another that wants to express his anger at the same white culture he is attempting to assimilate into. Throughout the course of the play, Clay struggles with trying to reconcile these two sides of himself. In addition to the internal struggle Clay goes through, there is an external struggle with Lula, who represents white culture. Clay’s struggle with Lula is representative of his struggle to assimilate, and eventually, in his final demise, Lula’s murder of Clay comes to represent Baraka’s opinion of the results of assimilation, and in effect, the attempt to merge the “American” and the “Negro.” In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois advocates for a merging of the American and the Negro souls. Baraka, in response, argues that there is no reconciliation, but instead that black men become victims of assimilation.
Baraka’s Dutchman chronicles a fatal subway ride. Clay Williams, a young black man, meets Lula, a white woman who seduces and then murders him while riding this train. Lula persuades Clay into going home with her and later drives him to show his “true” self, only to then murder him. In the time before Clay’s murder, Baraka explores stereotypization and the sanity of African Americans based on these stereotypes and limited opportunity to truly be themselves.
Du Bois’ double consciousness argument, exemplified through the American and Negro sides of the black man, is based on the idea that the black man is “shut out from [the white] world by a vast veil,” yet at the same time can only ever see himself through that veil (2). Moreover, as Du Bois admits, the black man often “[has]…no desire to tear down that veil” (2). Clay, in the “American” side of himself, shows this lack of desire in the way he dresses in a “jacket and tie” and his belief that he is “a black Baudelaire” (Baraka, Dutchman 554). However, it became impossible for Du Bois to ignore this veil because he could no longer ignore that he was “an outcast and a stranger” in his own society (Du Bois 2). Like Du Bois, Clay can no longer ignore the veil after his encounter with Lula.
Lula represents white society’s endorsement of the stereotypes and the “veil” through which Clay sees himself (Du Bois 3). As a function of this veil, Baraka indicates that “[t]he subway [is] heaped in modern myth” in the opening stage directions (Dutchman 551). This myth of the monolithic black man pervades all aspects of the play, particularly in Lula and her relationship with Clay. Lula repeatedly tells Clay she “know[s] him like the palm of [her] hand” (Baraka, Dutchman 554). This assertion comes from her belief, as a representation of white society and culture, that all black men are the same type of person, specifically black men that attempt to assimilate into white culture. Lula’s adamant claims that she does not “know anything about [Clay],” but instead that he is a “well-known type” (Baraka, Dutchman 553) reinforce “the real power of white stereotypes in black life and thought” (Bruce 301). Lula would rather that Clay see himself through the veil instead of try to discover his own person, as she has power over him while he not only believes in the veil, but agrees with its representation.
Through her seduction, Lula reinforces the veil through which Clay sees himself. Her seduction is representative of the way in which white society seduces Clay into believing he can assimilate. In a display of how persuasive, but at the same time controlling, white culture can be to black men desperate to assimilate, Lula tells Clay to ask her questions, that “those [are his] lines” (Baraka, Dutchman 553). By having Clay repeat these lines back to her, Baraka shows his audience the only way to assimilate into and be accepted by white culture is to accept their terms and conditions. Another tactic that Lula employs to make Clay believe he can have her, and therefore assimilate, is to make him dependent on her. Even as she attacks him for wearing the “three-buttoned suit and striped tie” that she says he “ought to feel oppressed by” (Baraka, Dutchman 554), she also tells him they can “pretend” they are both “free from [their respective] histor[ies]” (Baraka, Dutchman 555). In order to be free from his history, Clay has to depend on Lula to also be free from hers. However, as she displays to him in scene two, Clay cannot become a part of white culture, as his culture and who he truly is as a person is ultimately in opposition with white culture.
Although Clay and Lula are initially attracted to each other, their opposition, with Lula’s automatic superiority based solely on her status as a white woman, can only lead to Clay’s demise. Victor Leo Walker II describes Clay’s and Lula’s statuses as “opposing archetypes” as a “magnetism” that “pull[s] them together and forces them to react with each other until one is destroyed” (240). Only because Lula was able to seduce Clay is she then able to destroy him. However, Lula and Clay’s meeting does not appear coincidental from Lula’s perspective. She openly says that she was “searching [Clay] out” (Baraka, Dutchman 552). This declaration shows her purpose to lure Clay only to destroy him before the audience understands it by the end of the play.
To truly destroy Clay, Lula must make him see through the veil white society has put in place for him; she must make him remove “the mask of the African American that has adopted the ideology of white America” (Walker 240). She does this by continually calling him out on his attempts to assimilate, calling him “Uncle Tom” and a “dirty white man” (Baraka, Dutchman 557). By telling Clay “[he] ain’t no nigger, [he’s] just a dirty white man” (Baraka, Dutchman 557), Lula plays right into his insecurities much in the same way that Du Bois says “the Nation echoed and enforced [blacks’] self-criticism,” making them believe they would never be on the same level as white people ( 7). Lula, as the external representation of the veil and the American side of Clay that yearns to assimilate, makes Clay delve into an exploration of his Negro side—the truest version of himself. With this exploration, it is possible to see the internal struggle that is involved in Clay’s double consciousness.
Clay’s last speech before Lula kills him exemplifies the internal struggle he deals with as he tries to form a personal identity in a white culture that wants him to assimilate, but at the same time denies him the right to do so. Clay tells Lula to let him “be who [he] feel[s] like being,” even if it is a “middle-class fake white man” (Baraka, Dutchman 557). This is a declaration of his right to choose who he wants to be, fully aware of the veil he sees himself through. However, in the same speech he tells her she only sees “an act” and not “the pure…pumping black heart” (Baraka, Dutchman 557), showing his awareness of who he is beyond and in spite of the veil. These two sides, “Clay’s “dual personalities,” “[a]re not just different from each other but [a]re inevitably in opposition” (Bruce 304).
Clay says that he would rather be “insane” and attempting to assimilate than murder and become sane (Baraka, Dutchman 558). This particular dilemma exemplifies Clay as a “by-product of the neurotic, white culture which insists that he hide his inner feelings while it goads him into revealing them” (Piggford 78). To further his case, Clay calls black people “a whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane” (Baraka, Dutchman 558). Clay continues, saying “the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be…murder” because then white people would begin to understand him (558). This moment is significant in that Lula goes to lengths to tell Clay that she knows his type and understands the person he is, and Clay is telling her plainly that she does not. He takes this moment to talk to Lula clearly without any metaphors or hidden meanings; this is his attempt to make himself sane. Clay’s insanity can be described in terms Baraka used to describe his own experiences at Howard in an interview with Judy Stone. He calls this insanity “the Negro sickness,” saying that at Howard “they teach you how to pretend to be white” (Stone 9). When Clay breaks this act, he has broken free of the restrictive veil and is able to recognize the game that Lula is playing. Ironically, even after Clay is able to recognize his double consciousness and how it makes him “insane” (Baraka, Dutchman 558), he still makes the choice to assimilate.
With Clay’s decision to assimilate, he warns Lula about “preach[ing] so much rationalism and cold logic to…niggers,” telling her, “one day…they [will] actually understand exactly what you are talking about” and will turn these lessons on white America and will “murder [her] and have very rational explanations” (Baraka, Dutchman 558). In Baraka’s words, they will be cured of the Negro sickness, and then develop the “white sickness” (Stone 9), a phrase he coined in an interview with Judy Stone and explains through Clay:
…the Air Force made me understand the white sickness. It shocked me into realizing what was happening to me and to others. By oppressing Negroes the whites have become oppressors, twisted in the sense of doing bad things to people and finally justifying them, convincing themselves they are right—as people have always convinced themselves. (Stone 9)
Coupled with Baraka’s personal statement, it can be deduced that Clay’s final speech before his death was the removing of the veil, even as he has still decided to assimilate. However, the danger in Clay understanding what the veil means and what it does to black people is not lost on Lula. Once she has “heard enough,” she kills Clay (Baraka, Dutchman 558). Through becoming Lula’s victim, Clay becomes a victim of white culture by way of assimilation. Clay serves as an example to Baraka’s audience, as Baraka is trying to make them “better able to understand that they are [not only] the brothers of victims, [but also] that they themselves are victims” (Baraka, “Revolutionary Theatre” 559). Clay’s death is Baraka’s way of showing the audience that assimilation into white culture only leads to loss of identity and eventual demise.
Baraka makes a statement with Clay about the impossibility of assimilation into the white world. Through Lula, he also makes a statement about “the scheming and conniving racism of white America” in that the culture teaches black people to be white, but at the same time constantly reminds them that they are Other (Walker 240). In his decision to speak honestly about his feelings despite his attempts to assimilate, Clay breaks the mold made for him as an assimilated black man, and therefore is punished. Lula’s seduction and murder of Clay is meant to “expose the victimization of the socially assimilated African American” (Walker 238). Not only does Baraka reject Du Bois’ idea that the American and Negro sides of the black man can be reconciled, but he also argues that a reliance on the American side can only lead to death.
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Stone, Judy. “If It’s Anger…Maybe That’s Good: An Interview with LeRoi Jones.” 1964. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Ed. Charlie Reilly. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1994. 8-11. Print.
Walker II, Victor Leo. “Archetype and Masking in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman.” Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora. Ed. Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002. 236-243. Print.