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Character Analysis in Amiri Baraka's "Dutchman"


Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman,” composed in the early 1960s near the beginning of the author’s involvement with the Black Nationalist movement, was his final major work under the name of LeRoi Jones. “Dutchman” thus represents a critical juncture in Baraka’s oeuvre, and separates his Beat-influenced work from the politically minded productions that would define his subsequent career. “Dutchman” stands as an incisive critique of race relations through the sexually charged interaction of two characters on a subway.

Analysis of Lula

Lula, a beautiful white woman, enters eating an apple. An allusion to the Biblical Eve, the apple identifies Lula as a temptress and implies her understanding of her actions. Though she reveals little personal information, Lula’s knowledge of stereotypes allows her to guess a great many details about Clay in an exercise of her authority. Lula reveals her cruel nature through mockery of Clay’s clothing and intellect, and implies that he can never approach her on equal footing. Overall, Lula is a symbol of endemic racism, since her status as a white person gives her power over Clay and makes her the sexual aggressor.

Analysis of Clay

Clay represents the African-American male at a cultural crossroad. No longer legally repressed, Clay still grapples with entrenched racism and self-consciousness over his identity. Clay reveals knowledge of French literature, has a college education and wears a suit and tie, yet is easily manipulated and appears flattered over Lula’s attentions. Despite Clay’s cultured appearance, Lula’s mockery and accurate casting of him in various stereotypes makes Clay defensive and angry. Clay stands as a symbol of frustrated gains, a self-possessed, educated individual who cannot escape the stereotypes and power dynamics of his racist society.

Clay and Lula's Interplay

Clay and Lula’s banter represents the complicated nature of racial relations in 1960s America. These two figures cannot escape from one another or their history, and act out established roles. Clay fascinates Lula, who derives pleasure from her power over him. She reduces him to a sexual object, and her interest in attending a party with him symbolizes the cultural tourism of white people in neighborhoods such as Harlem. When Clay does not directly accost her for sex, Lula begins to mock his appearance, speech and passivity. This inspires a tirade from Clay, in which he characterizes black cultural segregation as an empty tactic. Clay’s hypothesis that racism can only be solved through a refusal to acknowledge it prompts Lula to stab him to death.

Secondary Characters

“Dutchman’s” supporting characters contribute much to its message. The mixed race Riders of Coach represent the wider public. They initially ignore the principal characters, but reveal their anxiety over racial relations when Lula and Clay become more intimate. That they dispose of Clay's body and leave on Lula’s command showcases their willful ignorance of racial violence. Two additional minor characters appear at the end. The young man who boards the train, presumably Lula's next victim, draws attention to the futility of Clay’s outburst. The train conductor, who dances and tips his hat to Lula, symbolizes black people who cheerfully accept their role.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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