Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Dutchman has remained perhaps its author’s best-known work and holds a place of honor among the plays of the African American theater. Its dramatic power was recognized from the beginning, as reflected in the Obie it received as the best Off-Broadway play of 1964. The play also very quickly became controversial. Although concerned with clarifying black-white relationships, and in that sense implicated in what may be called the discourse of integration, the play proved unpalatably harsh for some critics, mostly but not exclusively white. This reaction is reflected in the action of the superintendent of instruction in the state of California, who banned the play from black studies programs carried on under the auspices of the state.

Looking back, it is clear that Dutchman appeared on the eve of a major shift, both in American society and in the life of the playwright. The accommodationist ideology of the Civil Rights movement was about to be challenged by the new, often separatist, accents of Black Nationalism. The discourse of integration would be tested by the discourse of identity, as the question of how African Americans could relate to whites came, for many, to seem less important than the question of what it is to be black. LeRoi Jones, for whom the creation of Clay seems to have acted in part as a kind of exorcism of an earlier, accommodationist self, was on his way to becoming Amiri Baraka, a name he chose in preference to his “slave name,” an artist identified with Black Nationalism. What Dutchman may represent, then, is the outer limits of integrationist discourse.

Baraka would later move to what he called a Third World Marxist position, and Black Nationalism by no means stood still. The power of Dutchman may in large part reside in Baraka’s success in absorbing and giving expression to the tensions of the historical and personal moment in which he wrote the play. For him, at this moment, the historical and the personal had virtually become one.