Amiri Baraka | Critical Essay by George Piggford

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Amiri Baraka.
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Critical Essay by George Piggford

SOURCE: "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race," in Modern Drama, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 74-82.

In the following essay, Piggford explores Baraka's psychological analysis of black American men in Dutchman.

Houston A. Baker, Jr. has rightly observed [in The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, 1980] that "the radical chic denizens of Bohemia [and] the casual liberals of the academy" have never recognized LeRoi Jones's/Amiri Baraka's achievement as a playwright and a poet because his "brilliantly projected conception of black as country—a separate and progressive nation with values antithetical to those of white America—stands in marked contrast to the ideas set forth by Baldwin, Wright. Ellison, and others in the fifties." That is, according to the integrationist politics that continue to dominate discussions of race in the United States, what we might in the 1990s call the "African-American problem" is indeed seen as the African-American's problem to examine and solve, not the white's. Baraka's Black Power political agenda, which perceives the United States as a society at least as black as it is white, a country built on "oppression and destruction," stands in marked contrast to the general integrationist bent of American racial politics. The call to revolutionary action inscribed into his drama demands a rethinking of both the American social system and the ways that it is typically examined in the generally liberal critical discourses of the predominantly white academy.

Baraka's one-act play Dutchman (1964) amply illustrates the persistence of racial tension in the United States in the 1960s and represents an emerging militant attitude on the part of American blacks, and on the part of black American playwrights. According to Samuel A. Hay [in African/American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis, 1994], the African American Protest Drama of W. E. B. Du Bois, which viewed theatre as an integrationist "political weapon," was transformed by Baraka into the separatist Black Revolutionary Theatre of the 1960s, which "no longer represented appeals to share power," but depicted "seizures of power." Baraka himself has claimed that his play is an early example of "The Revolutionary Theatre," a theatre, like Artaud's "theatre of cruelty," that "should force change; it should be change" [Baraka, Home: Social Essays]. Baraka continues:

The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE! Show up the insides of these humans, look into black skulls. White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them. Because they themselves have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating. For presuming with their technology to deny the supremacy of the Spirit. They will all die because of this.

Baraka's strong words point emphatically toward the end of this theatre: a revolutionary change in social structures. The idea that theatrical performance should attempt to force social change was initially articulated by Antonin Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double: "our present social state is iniquitous and should be destroyed. If this is a fact for the theater to be pre-occupied with, it is even more a matter for machine guns." Theatrical groups such as Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre, founded in 1951, attempted to put Artaud's theories into practice. For the directors and performers of the Living Theatre: "Life, revolution, and theatre are three words for the same thing: an unconditional NO to the present society" [Julian Beck, quoted by Theodore Shank, in American Alternative Theater, 1982]. The Black Revolutionary Theatre represents an attempt to racialize the Artaudian "theatre of cruelty" by instigating its audience to act in revolutionary and violent ways to overthrow the white-dominated American social order.

For Baraka, the theatre of which Dutchman is an example is centrally political; it will ultimately lead to the (at least) symbolic death of the white race. It is also, however, a psychological study, though one that exposes the limitations of the psychoanalytic process. As Samuel Hay states it, "Black Revolutionary drama deconstructed both Outer Life and Inner Life." In Dutchman, Baraka attempts to psychoanalyze the black male in America, typified by the character Clay; his technique is meant to lay bare the social forces that make black men into neurotic subjects. His cure for their neurosis is race revolution and mass murder.

Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, extols the power of language rather than political activism to solve what he terms the "color problem," suggesting that this problem exists primarily in language itself: "From all sides dozens and hundreds of pages assail me and try to impose their wills on me. But a single line would be enough. Supply a single answer and the color problem would be stripped of all its importance." Fanon implies in this passage that if language is transformed—if the answer to this "problem" is found—the issue of race will simply disappear. This assumption is based on Fanon's naïve trust in the Freudian psychoanalytic method. Freudian psychoanalysis asserts that one can solve psychological problems through language in a similar way, by making unconscious desires conscious through therapy. The surfacing of a psychological disorder in the conscious mind of the patient through the linguistic give-and-take of psychotherapy should, according to Freud, cure the disorder. He makes this clear in Dora: "the practical aim of … treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts" (emphasis mine).

Fanon's approach to the "color problem" reproduces Freud's method within a sociological frame: "I believe that only a psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect that are responsible for the structure of the complex." By applying the psychoanalytic process to the black man as an idea. Fanon hopes to "destroy" the "massive psychoexistential complex" that underlies "the juxtaposition of the white and black races …, by analyzing it" (emphasis mine). Like Freud, Fanon assumes that by making this "psychoexistential complex" conscious, he will eradicate it. Dutchman as historical text demonstrates that Fanon's solution was overly optimistic: the problems associated with black and white race relations did not evaporate in the decade between the publication Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, and the first performance of Baraka's play; indeed, they had multiplied and intensified. Baraka's text explores the psychology of race in the United States by looking "into black skulls." and is in this way similar to a Freudian case study like Dora. Further, it provides a thematization of the ways that race, gender, and sexuality are constructed in American social consciousness.

However, Baraka, unlike Fanon, does not attempt to understand the "color problem" in order to solve it through a psychoanalytic sleight-of-hand; rather, his exposition of the situation of blacks in American culture is geared to an ultimate destruction of that culture: "The Revolutionary Theatre, which is now peopled with victims, will soon begin to be peopled with new kinds of heroes…. [T]hese will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are reading this" [Baraka, Home: Social Essays]. Dutchman's Clay is presented as an example of the "victims" that people Revolutionary Theatre; he is identifiable as a Faustian anti-hero rather than a hero. But Baraka's intentions are clear: Clay, characterized primarily by his repressed desires to rape and murder whites, is martyred for the black revolutionary cause.

It is within the gothic, dreamlike atmosphere of Dutchman that the text's anti-hero, Clay, moves from a state of repression to one of acceptance of his unconscious desires. Indeed, the play encourages its black audience members to do likewise and warns its white viewers that the revolution is coming. Though he eventually expresses his desire to "[m]urder," Clay refuses to act on this impulse—indeed, it is Lula, the white villainess of the play, who will murder him. Clay dies at Lula's hands, then, as a self-aware but impotent and castrated subject. Lula functions in Dutchman as both Clay's mother and his demonic psychotherapist by bringing Clay's repressed desires to the surface of his consciousness. Through her verbal taunting she eventually peers into Clay's "black skull" and finds his murderous unconscious impulses.

A dutchman, "the theatrical term meaning a strip of cloth used to hid[e] the crack between the seams of flats, or, in a more general sense, a contrivance used to hide a defect of some kind" [Robert L. Tener, "Role Playing as a Dutchman," Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1972], connotes something impermanently and fragilely held together that provides the illusion of solidity and permanence. The title Dutchman can be understood in this way as a metaphor for "the meretricious facade of civility" [George Ralph, "Jones's Dutchman," The Explicator, Vol. 43. No. 2, 1985] utilized by Clay both in his dress and his language to hide his murderous inner desires. It is this façade that Lula relentlessly strips away, as a psychoanalytic therapist might, attempting to access Clay's unconscious by getting behind "whatever surface his unconscious happens to be presenting to his notice at that moment," by asking him leading questions about his innermost thoughts. Towards the end of scene one, Lula informs Clay, "You're a murderer, Clay, and you know it," and, anticipating his denial, continues, "You know goddamn well what I mean." The still-repressed Clay uncertainly responds to this accusation with a questioning "I do?" Lula's pronouncement of Clay's desire to murder whites is based on the assumption that all black men are secretly murderers, and she successfully proves this theory by bringing out the potential murderer in Clay. This is Clay's innermost "defect." the secret buried in his unconscious mind.

Though Lula suggests that Clay is "too serious to be psychoanalyzed," her comment can only be read as ironic, for she proceeds to psychoanalyze him successfully. As Sherley Anne Williams has correctly observed [in "The Search for Identity in Baraka's Dutchman," in Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kimberley W. Benston, 1978], "Lula … control[s] the situation. She picks Clay up. She encourages him. And it is she who goads him into revealing things which must have been carefully hidden deep in the most secret places of his heart." When Lula makes her diagnosis, when she reveals Clay's inner self to him. he resists coming to terms with his own murderous "pumping black heart":

LULA […] Clay, you got to break out. Don't just sit there dying the way they want you to die. Get up.

CLAY Oh, sit the fuck down.[…] Sit down, goddamn it.

LULA […] Screw yourself, Uncle Tom. Thomas Woolly-head.[…]

CLAY Lula! Lula![…] Lula … you dumb bitch. Why don't you stop it?

But she eventually goads him into disclosing his "neurosis":

LULA You're afraid of white people. And your father was. Uncle Tom Big Lip!

CLAY […] Now shut up and let me talk. Shit, you don't have any sense, Lula, nor feelings either. I could murder you now.[…] It takes no great effort.[…] Just let me bleed you, you loud whore […] A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder. Simple as that. I mean if I murdered you, then other white people would begin to understand me. You understand? No.[…] Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane.

Clay's insanity, according to his newly discovered understanding of it, is a by-product of the neurotic, white culture which insists that he hide his inner feelings while it goads him into revealing them. His neurosis is simply the neurosis endemic to being a black man in American culture. Immediately after making this discovery, he imagines a utopic space where this neurosis would be eliminated in the act of black revenge for his "castration" at the hands of whites.

But even after revealing his inner nature, Clay embraces the essential repressiveness of his social and cultural situation: "Ahhh. Shit. But who needs it? I'd rather be a fool. Insane." Unlike a Freudian case study, and unlike Fanon's approach, Baraka's text does not provide a cure for the "color problem" through an understanding of it. Though Fanon's "single answer" to the "color problem" is articulated by Clay—and that answer is "murder"—the problem is not eliminated. For Baraka, a public expression of this answer is a necessary first step but it is not—as Fanon wrongly assumed—the revolution itself. Even Freud acknowledges that the efficacy of psychoanalysis is limited by "the patient's own will and understanding," and it is Clay's own desire to remain an "Uncle Tom" that forecloses the possibility of his becoming an actual murderer, at least for the moment.

But by goading Clay into revealing his unconscious wishes, Lula has produced a self-conscious potential murderer, one who might pose a threat to white society sometime in the future. She has pointed out to Clay his hidden identity: he is a middle-class black, which she identifies with the insulting label "Uncle Tom"; simultaneously, he is a potential revolutionary who wants to murder her. As Louis Phillips explains [in "LeRoi Jones and Contemporary Black Drama," in The Black American Writer, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, vol. II, Poetry and Drama, 1969], "Lula mocks Clay and accuses him of being an Uncle Tom … whereas Clay would like to see himself as a black revolutionary. The truth, however, is that he is neither one nor the other, and, hence, feels a real lack of identity." This lack, or space internal conflict, can be understood metaphorically in Freudian terms as evidence of Clay's "castration" by white society, represented ultimately by Lula's murder of Clay with a suspiciously phallic knife. Indeed, Lula indicates clearly to Clay that their entire dialogue is about Clay's status as a man:

LULA […] we'll sit and talk endlessly, endlessly.

CLAY About what?

LULA About what? About your manhood, what do you think? What do you think we've been talking about all this time?

CLAY Well, I didn't know it was that. That's for sure. Every other thing in the world but that.

Numerous critics have pointed to Clay's "emasculated life" and have discussed his "castration" at the hands of Lula. Lula's power over Clay is based on what seems to be her uncanny knowledge of him, but when Clay says to her, "Hey, you still haven't told me how you know so much about me." Lula responds, "I told you I didn't know anything about you … you're a well-known type." Dutchman, therefore, adheres to the pattern of a Freudian case study, in which the neurosis of a particular individual typifies a general kind of neurosis that can be treated following the methods of a particular case.

It is possible to understand Lula and Clay both as lovers and as mother and son, suggesting that the themes of black revenge and incest are crucial to Baraka's play. According to Diane Weisgram [in "LeRoi Jones' Dutchman: Inter-racial Ritual of Sexual Violence," American Imago, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1972], "Clay and Lula are the primordial parents fused in a violent sexual encounter; and in keeping with the fluid identifications of primal scene fantasies, they are also mother and son. Clay's expulsion from the car [after his murder] suggests an image of violent birth. This situation places the two characters in a position of incestuous seduction. The text raises the issue of incest when Lula tells Clay: "You tried to make it with your sister when you were ten.[…] But I succeeded a few weeks ago." Not only does this statement suggest "an unconscious incestuous union" between Clay and Lula, but also it places Lula securely in the phallic position in their relationship. After all, Lula is the one who "made it," a phrase used for both for Clay's failed attempt and implicitly for Lula's successful attempt to penetrate Clay's sister.

In order to prepare Clay for his death/birth at the end of the text, Lula—playing her part of white phallic mother—even teaches him his proper lines, his proper role, as a mother would instruct her son. But she teaches him the exact words he should use to commence a seduction of her:

LULA […] Now you say to me, "Lula, Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight?" It's your turn, and let those be your lines.

CLAY Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight, Huh?

LULA Say my name twice before you ask, and no huh's.

CLAY Lula, Lula, why don't you go to this party with me tonight?

This interaction generally parallels what Freud has termed "parental seduction"; Lula, the mother/lover, attempts to seduce Clay the son/lover, though her seduction will not lead to sexual union but to her murder of Clay. This seduction scene, with its overtones of miscegenation, suggests what has traditionally been perceived as the horrifying possibility of an incestuous union between races; Baraka here explores the horror of the sexual aspect of the politics of integration.

According to Baraka, in "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," "white women become men-things, a weird combination, sucking the male juices to build a navel orange, which is themselves" [Home: Social Essays]. White women are forced to play this vampiric role because white men have become castrated and feminine: "[m]ost American white men are trained to be fags," an identification he associates with powerlessness, femaleness, and therefore castration [Home: Social Essays]. This identification exists at odds with Baraka's more conflicted understanding of homosexuality in his play The Toilet, which was running off Broadway at the same time as Dutchman. In that text, the mutual homosexual desire between a black student gang leader, Foots, and a white student, Karolis, is treated with complexity and sympathy. After Foots' gang beats up Karolis for sending Foots a "love letter" (though it may have been Foots himself who sent the note), Foots, alone with Karolis, "kneels before the body, weeping and cradling the head in his arms."

In "American Sexual Reference," however, Baraka's simplistic (and often misogynistic and homophobic) discussion of the gender/race system reinscribes binaristic constructions of male/female, white/black, heterosexual/homosexual. Baraka strives to invert these binaries; he does not challenge the overarching binaristic system which privileges one (albeit arbitrary) category over another.

Further, Baraka associates the mutilation of genitals that often accompanied the lynching of black men with an attempt to "remove the threat of the black man asserting [his] manness" [Home: Social Essays], that is, the threat of black men raping white women, the revenge of black Americans for the horrifying oppressions of slavery. "[White] America," he asserts, "has always tried to … make [the black man] swallow his manhood" [Home: Social Essays]. White women, Baraka claims, are both repulsed by and sexually attracted to black men. The feelings of black men are mutual: "[f]or the black man, acquisition of a white woman always signified some special power the black man had managed to obtain … within white society" [Home: Social Essays]. Fanon associates this power with the "whitening" of the black man:

Out of the blackest part of my soul … surges this desire to be suddenly white.

I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white.

Now … who but a white woman can do this for me? By loving me she proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man.

For Baraka, as for Fanon, the relationship between black men and white women can be contextualized in terms of seduction. Understood in this way, however, the seduction between Lula and Clay must be in some sense mutual.

One way to make sense of the relationship between Lula and Clay in Dutchman is found in a reading of the text as an internal conflict. Certainly the "dreamlike" quality of the text noted above supports a reading of the play as a representation of an identity crisis experienced within Clay's psyche. Traditional Freudian readings tend to interpret Baraka's play as "a play which exemplifies the function of the id, and … its so-called 'absurdity' and 'obscenity' are reflections of its function" [George R. Adams, "Black Militant Drama," American Imago, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1971]. From this perspective, Lula and Clay become manifestations of Clay's split self. Dutchman raises the possibility that Lula was a hidden aspect of Clay's own "black skull," an intrinsic part of Clay's own psyche. Lula is both separate from and a part of Clay, much as white and black America are both distinct and inseparable. Lula can be understood in this text as what bell hooks [in "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination," in Cultural Studies, 1992] has discussed as "the representation of whiteness as terrorizing" in the consciousness of black Americans. Understood in this way, Baraka's play suggests that the terror of whiteness must be removed from black skulls before it can be removed from society through political action.

This reading is supported by Julia Kristeva's re-theorizing of Freud's notion of parental seduction. According to Kristeva [in "Place Names," in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, 1980], this seduction happens only in the realm of the imaginary, as a result of an individual's repressed wish to have been seduced by his parent: "We thus come to the shaping of this image of the child-parent, the seducing child, a child always already older, born into the world with compound drives, erogenous zones, and even genital desires." This understanding of parental seduction can be associated metaphorically with Baraka's notion of the relationship between white women and black men. Black men want both to murder and to seduce their phallic mothers, the white women who are made "men-things" by American society. But for Kristeva this desire exists primarily within an individual psyche: "through the seduction myth, [the child] sees itself as being attached by drive … to this object of love [its phallic mother]." This mother is, however, simply an idea generated in the mind of the "child"; she is a "type" rather than a "real" individual.

The dumb show presented before the dialogue begins in Dutchman supports the plausibility of this reading:

The man [Clay] looks idly up, until he sees a woman's face staring at him through the window; when it realizes that the man has noticed the face, it begins very premeditatedly to smile. The man smiles too, for a moment, without a trace of self-consciousness. Almost an instinctive though undesirable response. Then a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment sets in, and the man makes to look away, is further embarrassed, so he brings back his eyes to where the face was, but by now […] the face would seem to be left behind.

This scene parallels a Lacanian/Kristevan "mirror stage," where "the Same sees itself altered through the well-known opening that constitutes it as a representation, sign, and death." In this reading. Lula becomes a "return of the repressed," a re-enactment of a primal scene in which the subjectivity of Clay takes on identity through the perception of an other—in this case his own internalized terror of whiteness—within his own imagination. Importantly, this entire exchange occurs in the mise-en-scène of the play, rather than in its relatively naturalistic dialogue.

If Dutchman can be understood as an internal conflict, a dream, it is a dream in which the binaries black and white, male and female, become contextualized in the individual psyche of one person. Blackness signifies in this text virtue and naïveté; whiteness vice and disingenuousness. Maleness signifies castration, and femaleness phallic power. The text inverts the typical significations of the tropes of whiteness and blackness in white American culture. The relationship of these significations to the themes of incest and parricide, particularly patricide, is made clear by Clay:

CLAY […] tell this to your father, who's probably the kind of man who needs to know at once. So he can plan ahead. Tell him not to preach so much rationalism and cold logic to these niggers. Let them alone.[…] Don't make the mistake, through some irresponsible surge of Christian charity, of talking too much about the advantages of Western rationalism, or the great intellectual legacy of the white man, or maybe they'll begin to listen. And then, maybe one day, you'll find they actually do understand exactly what you are talking about, all these fantasy people.[…] And on that day, as sure as shit, when you really believe you can 'accept' them into your fold, as half-white trustees late of the subject peoples.[…] They'll murder you, and have very rational explanations. Very much like your own. They'll cut your throats, and drag you to the edge of your cities so the flesh can fall away from your bones, in sanitary isolation.

Clay's desires are clear: he wants to murder the white father. The character Clay, himself a castrated, "half-white trustee," here reveals a vision of race revolution which will lead to an inversion of the dominant structure of power. First he will purge the internalized whiteness from his own psyche (the seductive phallic mother, in Kristeva's terms), then murder the white father who controls the social structures of racial domination.

Clay's apocalyptic vision also evokes the hellish atmosphere of Baraka's novel The System of Dante's Hell, his exploration of a particularly middle-class black nightmare. While the representation of an anti-hero like Clay is a necessary step in the history of black Revolutionary Theatre, Baraka's attitude towards this neurotic black is expressed in his contemporaneous novel: "I put The Heretics in the deepest part of hell, though Dante had them spared, on higher ground. It is heresy against one's own sources, running in terror, from one's deepest responses and insights … that I see as basest evil." Dutchman, then, examines the "skull" of a repressed middle-class black in order to expose the horror of his daily life, his personal hell as it were. It also functions as a warning—both to "heretical" blacks like Clay who help support the nightmare of black oppression through inaction and to whites—that the revolution is coming. By exposing the horror of race relations in America through the psychological case study Dutchman, Baraka both diagnoses the problem in American society—white dominance—and prescribes his cure: race revolution and murder.

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