What do the white and black passengers on the train symbolize (besides society) in Baraka's play Dutchman?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman , the white and black passengers symbolize the inability of the individual to make substantial difference in race relations in the United States through their inaction and complicity. Baraka is telling the audience that this inaction and complicity perpetuates the strained and unequal race...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman, the white and black passengers symbolize the inability of the individual to make substantial difference in race relations in the United States through their inaction and complicity. Baraka is telling the audience that this inaction and complicity perpetuates the strained and unequal race relations, and it afflicts both white and black individuals.

Baraka’s play is rife with allusion and symbolism, and it can be examined as an allegory. He was also in the process of divorcing his Jewish wife at the time of writing, so aspects of the larger racial landscape in America may have been affecting him and his wife.

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship which sails endlessly with a crew that cannot escape, much like the white and black subways riders who are unable to escape the contentious race relations. The play’s title also connects to the Dutch slave ships which brought chained Africans to America, which of course started the racial dynamics in America.

Clay’s name relates to the idea of malleability in which he feels like he needs to change aspects of his life, such as his voice and the words he speaks, in order to truly integrate in America. Lula’s apple alludes to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

As the play progresses and the threat of violence from Clay and Lula becomes more likely, both the white and black passengers allow the action to progress. At the end, after Lula kills Clay, the passengers help her dispose of the body, which depicts how complicit they are in the issues. Before Lula begins interacting with another black man, the black train conductor tips his hat to her, again showing his complicity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The passengers probably symbolize indifference more than anything else. Most of them do nothing of significance throughout the action. For the longest time the only one who seems roused to act is the Drunk, whom Clay clubs to the floor when the Drunk seeks to interfere by briefly wrestling with Clay.

This overall indifference (though we are told at one point that the passengers are looking at Clay and Lula with "uncertain interest") is ironic, given that the conflict between the two grows worse and worse as the action proceeds. It is also odd since the whole play is about bigotry, and one would think the white passengers, from the start, might seek to separate Clay from Lula, stereotypically believing he would "attack her," or just objecting to the perpetually-feared "black on white" situation. There is, still, an element of realism about it, because in an urban environment people are notoriously disinclined to "get involved" when something criminal and violent is taking place. In the film The Incident (1967), which may have been influenced by Dutchman, the passengers in a subway car try to ignore the continuous harrassment which two thugs direct against others in the car, until one by one they recognize no one is safe. In Dutchman the realization never occurs, or rather, the passengers, either white or black, end up complicit in the murder of Clay. Lula orders them to drag Clay's dead body and throw him off the train, and they do so. The final interaction is one in which the African American conductor tips his hat to Lula. So, if it is indifference the passengers symbolize at first, the end result is complicity. The implication is that the racial oppression at the heart of the theme of Dutchman is one that the "audience," if it cares about it at all, seems to support, at least by default.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could say that the other passengers on the subway train symbolize an inability on the part of individuals to face up to the contentious issues raised by Lula and Clay's violent encounter. This isn't simply indifference on a societal level, but on an individual level too. The other passengers' mute indifference to Clay's brutal murder is an expression of each individual's chronic inability to challenge prevailing social norms.

In his manner of dress, his education, and his way of speaking, Clay showed himself to be an individual, someone who'd clearly given a lot of thought to the issue of race in America. Though it would be pushing it to suggest that Lula has given much thought to the issue—or much thought to anything, come to that—at least one could say that she has a point of view, even if it is a thoroughly repellent, ignorant one.

The same, however, cannot be said of the other passengers on the subway train. Not only do they ignore the increasingly bitter argument between Lula and Clay, they even help Lula dispose of Clay's body after she's killed him. This would suggest that their lack of individuality, their inability to take a firm stand on the issue of race, has corroded their souls to such an extent that they're willing to become accomplices after the fact.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Certainly, the passengers are symbolic of society, but I believe it is more specific than that.  They are anonymous, basically faceless.  They are certainly not presented as individuals.  They get on and off the train, but really make no progress.  This could symbolize the lack of progress America was making in race relations.

Baraka's play is very much a protest against against the cycle of white domination, and the passengers are a big part of that.  They are oblivious to the game that Lula is playing with Clay, stubbornly staying more focused on their own small world.  They can't see what is happening right in front of them; this symbolizes the community (white and black) that is not outraged about the racism that is all around them.  This was the audience that Baraka was trying to reach.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team