Dutchman Summary

Amiri Baraka


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Dutchman Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Dutchman by Amiri Baraka.

Dutchman is a one-act play that revolves almost exclusively around two characters: Lula, a white woman, and Clay, a black man. They are both on the subway in New York City, and the pair engages in a spirited, at times flirtatious, conversation.

Clay is on the train, sitting alone, engrossed in the magazine he is reading. Lula boards the train eating an apple, and she sits down in the seat next to Clay. She accuses him of looking at her backside. Clay denies it. Lula then makes a series of racial stereotypes and correctly guesses where Clay lives and where he is going. She even knows information about Clay’s friend Warren—what he looks like, how he talks. And then Lula guesses that Clay tried to pressure his sister into having sex with him when he was ten. Clay is shocked by Lula’s knowledge of his past.

Lula begins to toy with Clay. She puts her hand on his leg, and provocatively slices her apple before feeding him pieces. Lula correctly guesses that Clay is headed for a party, and she pressures him to invite her along. She hints that after the party she will have sex with Clay at her apartment.

Lula’s manipulations work to get Clay’s attention. He likes Lula’s advances, and though he does not propose anything himself, he remains hopeful at the prospect of sleeping with Lula. But Lula wants Clay to be more forward, and when he does not make any advances of his own, she becomes angry. She changes her approach, moving from seductive to insulting. Lula mocks Clay’s dialect, and says that Clay has no right to wear the nice suit he’s wearing. “What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie?” Lula asks. “Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard.”

Clay’s demeanor switches from confident and masculine to defensive, a change Lula senses and exploits. She verbally attacks him for being black and passive. Then she dances provocatively, in the style typical of R and B music, and tries to entice Clay into dancing with her. Lula asks him to “do the nasty,” and to “rub bellies.”

Clay resists her advances, but eventually reaches out, grabs her, and throws her down. Clay insults Lula’s privileged background and slaps her twice. He demands to be left alone.

At this point in the play, Clay launches into a monologue. He claims that, while white people are more than happy to let black people perform “black” dances and make “black” music, white people never let black people into the white world. These artistic pursuits, which whites exploit, distract blacks enough that they don’t try to access the white world. Clay argues that if blacks ever gave up their art, or civic engagement, or religion, black people would be in danger of becoming as cold and unfeeling as whites, and would see that the only way to stop racism in America would be to kill all the white people.

Clay though, despite making the speech, does not want to act on the problem of racism in this way. He prefers to stay in the dark, and to live the life he has been able to lead, despite all its shortcomings. His solution for racism is not fighting, but remaining ignorant of it.

Lula takes this all in. Clay prepares to leave the train, but before he can exit, Lula rises and dispassionately stabs him in the heart twice. She orders the other passengers to toss out the body and exit at the next stop.

As the play ends, Lula is making eyes with another young black man who has just entered the now-empty train car. The black train conductor passes through, and he tips his hat to Lula.

There can be no doubt that the main theme in Dutchman is race, and the interplay between the races. Baraka, writing here for the last time under the name LeRoi Jones, was deeply concerned about racial matters and civil rights, including becoming involved in the Black Nationalist Movement. The play reveals a cynical view of race relations, that even when blacks decide not to fight against racist powers, they will still be killed by its practitioners.

Though there are no Dutchman present in the play, the play’s title alludes to the story of The Flying Dutchman, the ghost ship doomed to sail the ocean forever. If this reading is followed, then the play’s overall message is even more deeply cynical, because it implies the process on the subway, and Clay’s destruction, is destined to repeat over and over. Clay is disposable, as is the next black man who boards the train after his death.

Lula plays the role of the seductress, a very Eve-like character, as evidenced especially by the presence of the apple. When Clay takes of Lula’s apple, his fate is sealed. Even when he fights knowledge—through his monologue’s statement of determined ignorance—he cannot escape his death.