How does Dutchman, a play written by Amiri Baraka, represent characteristics of the Black Arts Movement? 

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to the writer Larry Neal who, along with Amiri Baraka, was one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, the movement was "the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept."

In his essay "The Black Arts Movement" Neal explains,

[t]he two movements postulate that there are in fact and in spirit two Americas––one black, one white. The black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of black people.

Poet Don L. Lee (a.k.a. Haki Madhubuti) went further and asserted that the nourishment of those "spiritual and cultural needs" required the destruction of the standard-bearers. For literature, he used the examples of Faulkner and the childhood staples, Dick and Jane. They had to be thrown over in favor of "Du Bois, Nat Turner, and Kwame Nkrumah." 

All of this seems very positive and righteous until one realizes the absence of women. Unfortunately, the Black Arts Movement, like the Black Power Movement, had a tendency to sideline black women, and perpetuated much of the sexism of mainstream, white patriarchal culture. Dutchman, unfortunately, exhibits this flaw in the movement.

Lula is a young white woman who exists to tempt black men (she even has an apple as an accessory), then kill them. Baraka does not do a very good job of constructing her as a plausible human being, which is not his purpose anyway. She says idiotic things. At one point even, she asks if there was wire around plantations. Clay then dismisses her as Jewish, for all she can "think about is wire." The comment reeks of anti-Semitism. Clay describes to her what plantations actually looked like and how they were the birthplaces of the blues––a speech that sends Lula into a wild dance tinged with a racist rant, which prompts Clay to slap her and push her back into her seat on the train. 

The purpose of all of this is, not only to destroy Clay, but also to reveal his bourgeois mannerisms as "acting white":

If I'm a middle-class fake white man...let me be. And let me be in the way I want... Let me be who I feel like being. Uncle Tom. Thomas. Whoever.

Once his "ruse" is exposed, she is able to kill him and throw his body off of the train. The message of the play seems to be that white society will destroy black men no matter how badly they try to belong, and that they will use white women to do it. 

Jacob Christiansen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Amiri Baraka's Dutchman represents a primary characteristic of the Black Arts Movement right off the bat--it was written by an African American. 

The Black Arts Movement was an artistic endeavor that began just after (and some would say, was prompted by) the assassination of Malcolm X. The movement encouraged African Americans to engage in their own form of artistic endeavors, not to assimilate to white culture. 

That could mean starting primarily black publishing houses, journals, art galleries, or whatever else a black artist could think of. But its primary goal was to encourage black artists to do work that centered around the African American experience. 

In this way, Dutchman is a perfect example of the movement. Its drama centers around the black identity. Two strangers--a white woman and a young, black man--meet on the subway and begin a discussion on what it means to be black in America. The white woman (Lula) dares the black man (Clay) to pretend "that you are free of your own history." 

Lula challenges Clay on his suit, his language, and his rage--all fundamental to his very identify. Clay, in turn, argues that all black art is fueled by a secret, inner rage. Dutchman is about black identity, an issue that is fundamental to the African American community. 

A further characteristic of the Black Arts Movement (besides black artists doing work about black issues) is advocating for black separatism. The Black Arts Movement wanted its work to be solely the work of black folks, totally separate from white culture and white work.

Examine the conclusion of Dutchman. Lula, the white woman, stabs and kills Clay. What might that image say about how Baraka viewed white society's influence on black art? The two, Baraka seems to be arguing, cannot exist together. One will always kill the other.  

Read the study guide:
The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader

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