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Critical Essay by Carla J. McDonough
SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Angry Young Men," in Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, McFarland & Company, 1997, pp. 30-2.
In the following excerpt from her Staging Masculinity, McDonough studies Baraka's treatment of black manhood in his works.
While [Eugene] O'Neill, [Arthur] Miller, and [Tennessee] Williams were produced chiefly on the main stages of Broadway, the avant-garde, off-Broadway plays of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), which were often written within and for the Black Revolutionary theater, became a powerful voice for issues of race within American culture, an issue that is at the heart of American identity. His confrontational style of theater is at the forefront of the 1960s off-off-Broadway movement that cultivated Shepard and opened the way for … other dramatists…. Baraka's theater, however, is distinctly masculine in its orientation, as Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman has so vividly and controversially demonstrated. Wallace argues that, like many other leaders of the Black Power movement, Baraka's fight for black power and black liberation in his plays and essays is focused chiefly on black manhood. Referring to Baraka's essay "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," which opens with the statement "Most American white men are trained to be fags" [Home: Social Essays, 1966], Wallace shows that "according to Jones the struggle of black against white was the purity of primitivism against the corruption of technology, the noble savage against the pervert bureaucrats, the super macho against the fags." Baraka's equation of white men with "fags" is clearly intended to be the worst insult he can think to throw at another man, a concept based on homophobia, which Wallace also critiques. This homophobia has traditionally been a key to maintaining and protecting the dominance of a certain type of heterosexual masculinity, as is apparent, for instance, in Streetcar Named Desire.
Though many critics may have been taken aback by Wallace's critique that demonstrates how the African American fight for power was collapsed by its male leaders into the black man's fight for his manhood, Baraka himself has indicated that Dutchman is first and foremost about black masculinity. In "LeRoi Jones Talking" he wrote:
Dutchman is about the difficulty of becoming a man in America. It is very difficult, to be sure, if you are black, but I think it is now much harder to become one if you are white. In fact, you will find very few white American males with the slightest knowledge of what manhood involves. They are too busy running the world or running from it.
[The first half of this] highly provocative statement regarding white males … begs for attention now.
True to Baraka's statement above, perhaps no other play within the American theatrical canon illustrates more vividly the dilemma that results from being black and male in America, a country that insists that its men enact an assertive and powerful masculinity at the same time that it crushes and even kills black men who attempt to do so. The issue of enacting gendered behavior, of gender as performance, is as crucial to this play as it is to Streetcar. The audience of Dutchman is encouraged to view Clay's actions—his masculinity—as a performance he has chosen to enact. Lula calls Clay a well-known "type," and Clay later admits to being so out of choice. When pushed by Lula's insults to take a stand for himself, Clay tells her:
If I'm a middle-class fake white man … let me be. And let me be in the way I want. I'll rip your lousy breasts off! Let me be who I feel like being. Uncle Tom. Thomas. Whoever. It's none of your business. You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart.
This self-knowledge seems to be the ultimate cause of Clay's murder. Clay is acting the part of a "middle-class fake white man," and warns Lula that he does so "to keep myself from cutting all your throats." He reveals to Lula that although he pretends to be an "Uncle Tom" he is actually hiding or repressing his anger and hatred, and it is this anger that Lula wants revealed so that she will have a reason, or an excuse, to kill him. As long as he plays the Uncle Tom "type" (as does the conductor whom Lula ignores at the end of the play) without acknowledging his performance, he is no threat to the system, but Clay both enacts a demure exterior as a defensive measure and remains aware of "the pure heart, the pumping black heart" within him. Subsequently, he is considered to be dangerous to the white patriarchal system, ironically represented (in a more vivid way than we saw in The Hairy Ape) by a white woman. Clay's "danger." as his final speech indicates, is that he might at any moment choose to perform his role differently.
Clay's self-knowledge is somewhat akin to that of Blanche, who performs a role created for her by the white patriarchy of her Southern culture, at the same time knowing it is a role. Although it is not always comfortable for her, though it is often even hypocritical, that performance is also necessary for survival, something that Blanche understands. Like Clay, it is her self-knowledge that destroys her because she cannot reconcile the performance with the reality, although Stanley manages to do so for himself by simply not acknowledging his performance as anything but reality. In a certain way, Blanche and Clay both expose the danger and dilemmas of self-knowledge if the self does not fit into neatly, predefined social categories. In Stanley's world, there is no place for Blanche because she does not fit into only one of the "appropriate" roles he envisions for women: wife, mother, or whore. In Lula's world, there is no place for Clay because he resists neat dichotomies: he is neither a white man nor an Uncle Tom.
Clay's emphasis on his performance reveals, however, the extent to which performance is necessary to his survival. In proving that his performance is a way to mask his rage. Clay's references are to professional entertainers from the black community, notably Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker, who he claims also mask their rage behind their performances. The professional "performance" of music or poetry, Clay argues, is simply channellings of the rage that all blacks, all the "blues people," actually feel towards whites. Clay, Baraka's version of the average black man, is presented as playing the same game as the professional performer, what Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson refer to in Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America as a "relentless performance … in a theater that is seldom dark." To "pass" through a while world that refuses to acknowledge a black man's right to existence and chooses to see him as a threat, he must disguise himself in a manner that will be perceived by his white viewers as nonthreatening. This image of the mask appears often in plays by African Americans that treat the difficulty of finding and knowing one's identity in a culture that seeks to take away that identity.
In addition to the theme of masculine identity that Baraka details, Dutchman provides an influential style of theater for presenting this issue. The violence and rage of his male characters, while overtly motivated by racial injustice, are covertly reflecting a confusion regarding gender identity that is apparent in the rage and violence among the men in the plays of [Sam] Shepard, [David] Mamet, [David] Rabe, and, to a lesser extent, [August] Wilson. Violence and aggression are associated with masculinity not only by these playwrights, but by sociological definitions of masculinity…. Baraka's theater is an angry theater, his men are bitter and defensive, threatened and imperilled, but fighting back. We … see similar characteristics among men in [other] plays …, indicating that certain gender issues are at the heart of the anger and violence that are so often exhibited by male characters in contemporary plays by both black and white men in America.
The vagaries, the fracturings, the insecurities of male identity are all present within plays by O'Neill, Williams, Miller, and Baraka, who serve as sometimes direct, sometimes shadowy influences on the leading male playwrights of the next generation. Although all of the playwrights … indicate that they see their plays as encompassing a wide canvas of American experience (the family, business, war, the frontier), consistently within the plays of all four dramatists, that canvas shrinks as the American myths or subjects they treat reveal themselves to be gendered as male. The plays … reveal, at times unintentionally, the "invisible" or "unspeakable" idea that masculinity is often as disempowering for the men who seek to enact it as it is empowering. This disempowerment explains in part the defensiveness and even paranoia that plagues so many male characters. Masculinity, manliness and manhood, far from comprising a stable, monolithic construct, become fractured and insecure in these plays, yet masculinity is also the territory over which these playwrights and their characters fiercely fight for mastery.
This section contains 1,513 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)