Dutchman and a Raisin in the Sun
African-American Manhood and Social/Economic Obstacles in Two Plays by African-American Authors: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Lorraine Hansberry's a Raisin in the Sun
Within two 20th century plays by two respective African-American authors: Dutchman by Amiri Baraka and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the two major male characters, Clay in Dutchman and Walter Younger Jr. In A Raisin in the Sun, each seek to claim their manhood, despite the presence of numerous and varied social and economic obstacles that are created, and vigorously enforced, by a hostile, white-dominated American society. Moreover, both of these male characters, in fact, are ultimately severely challenged by the overall power of the white community: Walter Younger Jr. In A Raisin in the Sun by both Karl Linder and by Walter's own unethical business partner Willy Harris; and Clay by Lula, the sadistic whiter temptress, and the others on the New York subway where Dutchman takes place. In this essay, I will describe and analyze the contexts and nature of both Walter's confrontation with Karl Lindner in Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Clay's defensive, violent response to Lula's verbal sexual/gender assaults in Baraka's Dutchman. Both of these male characters do achieve a (very temporary and ephemeral) degree of manhood, but, as I shall also explain, neither of these plays ends on a complete note of hope.
In Amiri Bakara's Dutchman, a play whose action takes place on a New York subway, the main character, Clay, is a proud and self-confident 20-year-old African-American man who confronts a 30-year-old white woman, Lula, thereby symbolically (and literally) underscoring the immense racial; social, and philosophical chasms among individuals of distinct races (e.g., black and white) in American society. In this play, Clay wishes to be seen as a man and an individual, but because of his also being black, Lula and the other, mostly white, subway riders sees him as neither. At this, Clay rebels. That rebellion leads, however, with deeply disturbing irony, to Clay's death at the hands of Lula and the rest.
As Bakara makes clear at the outset of this play, Clay sees himself as a unique and independent young man, who just happens to be black. Clay's racial identity, however, is not his main source of his personal identity or self-image, in the same way that a 20-year-old white man's whiteness would not be his main source of his identity, either. However the overriding social factor of Clay's blackness, combined with Clay's resistance to subsuming his personal identity in the fact of being black, leads to Clay's violent death at the hands of Lula and the other subway riders.
As Baraka powerfully implies here, then, only certain persons in American society, and not African-American ones, may feel free to claim a unique and autonomous personal identity apart from skin color. Essentially, Clay, despite his internal insistence on his independence and autonomy of selfhood, is not free to be his authentic self, due to the social constraints of white-dominated society. These social constraints, moreover, interfere significantly (and in the end, fatally) with Clay's own internal identity as a man and an individual. Instead, the social identity that Clay is allowed in America is restricted to that which a white-dominated and deeply racist society will in fact allow him to possess.
Clay, then, becomes symbolic within Baraka's play of all individuals caught, through no fault of their own, within the untenable space of self-deception (i.e., that their race is not socially important, simply because they insist to themselves that it is not) and the social reality that they will still not ever be seen, by white American society, as being individuals separate and apart from their race. Therefore, Clay, the proud, creative, and independent young African-American man living in a white racist culture, is not free to define himself separately from the way white American culture automatically defines (and, in the process, severely limits) https://salempress.com/Store/images/parts/clear.gif
The subway car in which all of the action of the play occurs is, as Baraka makes clear in the stage directions: "the flying underbelly of the city... heaped in modern myth" (Dutchman, p. 3) As such, this subway compartment symbolically parallels the Much like the legendary ghost ship, Dutchman, of the play's title. Symbolically, moreover, this subway car sails along, automatically, carrying inside it the…