Clay, a twenty-year-old, middle-class black man, a college-trained intellectual from New Jersey. He wears a three-button Ivy League suit and tie and passes time by reading a newspaper. He appears to be in control of himself and his environment, amenably aware of sex but not of race, as evidenced when a white woman enters a subway car and coquettishly sits down beside him. He is both embarrassed and fascinated by the woman. Clay is pigeonholed by the woman as being the assimilated African American who wants to pretend that people cannot see his blackness and that black and white people are free of their history. When Clay is insulted, taunted, and goaded by her, however, he loses control of both himself and his situation. Clay’s character is both real and symbolic. Symbolically, he represents black America, Adam, and the legendary “Flying Dutchman” of the play’s title who was doomed to sail forever unless saved by the love of a virtuous woman.
Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman. Tall, slender, and beautiful, with long, straight red hair, she wears loud lipstick, bright, skimpy summer clothes, sandals, and sunglasses. Clay perceives her as a white, bohemian-type liberal. Recognizing that beneath the surface of the supposedly assimilated black man is a savage spirit chafed by years of oppression, she begins to goad Clay with insults, seeking to uncover his true nature. Although she seduces the outward man, she wishes to seduce and control the inner man as well. She continues to taunt and embarrass him in front of others who have entered the subway car, goading him to show his raw, animal nature. Like Clay, Lula is both real and symbolic. Symbolically, she represents white America and its attempted seduction and consequent destruction of black manhood by assimilation or annihilation; she also represents Eve to Clay’s Adam, eating and offering him an apple just as the biblical Eve did. She, too, can be viewed as the legendary “Flying Dutchman, cursed to sail forever with a crew of living dead and compelled to carry out an endless ritual of seducing and destroying.
Clay is a twenty-year-old black man, or, according to Baraka, a Negro man. The distinction is that a Negro, according to the playwright' s nominative system, is one who compromises his own identity in order to maintain a peaceful relationship with his white oppressors. Clay is a typical bourgeois black male, so predictably bourgeois that Lula is able to tell his life history by the evidence of his dress (a too-narrow suit coat), his demeanor (decorous, tentative), and his style of speech (middle class, intellectual, full of pretensions).
Clay is at first attracted to the sexy, young woman who begins a taunting seduction of him and invites herself along to his friend's party. But her sudden mood swings and unexpectedly violent racist language shock him. Even so, he maddeningly humiliates himself in his attempts to maintain his composure at all costs and to match her violence with intellectual dexterity. For some reason he is intrigued by her, as though she is some kind of social test he desperately wants not to fail. But the sordid truth is that it is his very anxiety to prove himself worthy to her (white cultural) values that causes him to fail this test. For Clay, who dreamed in college of being a black Baudelaire (a famous French poet), is a member of the black bourgeoisie (upwardly mobile middle class), "just a dirty white man," a white wannabe.
Clay recognizes the compromises he has made, yet shirks from committing the murder of whites that would absolve him of compromise. He takes refuge in the fortress of his words. He warns Lula, however, that the cultural conditioning of blacks could backfire, since they soon may be able to rationalize their murders as whites do. Lula's symbolic murder of him serves to quiet...
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