The Flying Dutchman legend, especially in its most famous incarnation in Wagner's opera, concerns the captain of a ghost ship who is condemned to sail the seas forever, except that every seven years he is permitted to make landfall. He is told that the sole possibility of redemption for him, for the lifting of this curse, is if, during these periodic respites on land, he can find a woman who loves him fully and is willing to sacrifice herself for him.
Amiri Baraka in Dutchman presents the legend in an updated and significantly inverted form. The character Clay is an emblem of the African American experience, in search of salvation from his placement in a racist and hostile world. His fate is analogous to the perpetual wandering of the Dutchman, the ship captain of the legend. In Lula, the woman on the subway car who taunts and eventually kills him, we see a reversed version of the woman Senta, who, in Wagner's treatment of the legend, represents redemption for the cursed captain. Lula forces Clay to reveal his inner thoughts and the turmoil that he, as a black man, is forced to undergo as a stranger, an outsider in a white world, just as the cursed captain is a perpetually wandering alien in his world. The "Flying Dutchman Syndrome" is thus presented negatively, in that a female, instead of enabling salvation for the haunted man, destroys him. At the same time, however, one could argue that Clay does find a kind of salvation in death, and in his final moment of rejecting the vengeance he sees, on one level, a solution to the racism of white society.