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 uneven, unjust, and unexamined implicit black-white dialogue that so much characterizes white-black relations in American society.
While Baraka’s play Dutchman ends in fatal violence against a young black male endeavoring in vain to assert his individual identity and manhood, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes place in the 1950’s, on Chicago’s South Side, ends with Walter Younger Jr. being defeated in his quest for individual independence, autonomy, and a sense of authentic manhood apart from his race by a crooked partner and supposed coordinator of Walter and his friends’ liquor store plan, who instead runs off with the money from Walter’s mother’s life insurance settlement that Walter has invested.
Within this play, Walter’s sense of manhood depends, like Clay’s in Baraka’s Dutchman, on his ability (or not) to realize his dreams and aspirations autonomously, apart from race. Like Clay’s in Baraka’s Dutchman, these are no different from any man’s dreams, white or black: autonomy; respectability; the right to pursue and create his own desired destiny.
As in Baraka’s Dutchman, however, race intrudes upon Walter’s dreams (in his case, of home ownership in a white neighborhood, and also liquor store part-ownership and eventual financial prosperity for himself and his family) and in the end impedes (again, ironically, as in Baraka’s play, but this time based on the prejudice Karl Linder represents, and on the unexpected dishonesty of Walter’s own prospective business partner) with Walter’s ability to realize his dreams, and to live those dreams of autonomy and financial success within a white-dominated society and culture. In the end, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun does end on much more of a note of hope than does Baraka’s Dutchman, with the Younger family deciding, optimistically, to still move from their apartment, despite Linder’s offer and subsequent to Walter Jr.’s powerful confrontation with Linder. Still, Walter’s own separate dream of business ownership and the financial success to which it might have led is now “deferred” – perhaps forever.
Further, in the process of pursuing his own dreams and independent identity as a businessman, Walter impinges on his sister Beneatha’s (“Benny’s”) dream of attending medical school and becoming a doctor. In numerous ways, then, within A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry illustrates the social and economic obstacles to a young black man’s “having it all” (or even having much of anything) in a white-dominated American society that continually reminds young black men like Walter (and indeed, Walter’s whole family) to “know their place,” a subservient one, in such a society.
Within Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Jr. yearns, along with his family, for equal acceptance within white-dominated society, and also to go into the liquor store business with two partners. But even the potential seed money for Walter’s possible realization of that dream is not his own. Instead it is provided by his reluctant mother (as her eventual path of least resistance) from part of a life insurance payment his mother has just received following his father Walter Sr.’s death. But the women in Walter’s family also have dreams, and these, too, would potentially cost some of the life insurance money and thereby interfere with Walter’s dream. Lena, Walter’s mother, wants a house in a white neighborhood, and Benny, his sister, wants to use part of the money to finance medical school.
In the end, as it turns out, however, Walter loses his own dream, and in the process, having selfishly invested Beneatha’s medical school money in his own dream as well, loses that dream for her. But the Younger family itself, after Walter’s confrontation with Karl Linder, ultimately decides not to acquiesce, whatever the (potentially ominous) future consequences of white society.
In this essay, I have described and analyzed the respective 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 neither of these plays ends on a complete note of hope, especially in terms of the manhood these characters have achieved.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage (Reprint edition).
November 29, 1994.
Jones, LeRoi. Dutchman. New York: Morrow, 1964. 4.
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