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Interracial Conflict in “Dutchman” by LeRoi Jones Essay

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2020


Jones’ Dutchman is one of the few works that managed to address the controversial and despicable era of racial discrimination in the United States. The play has not only a very passionate story but also a rather complex method of conveying the essential ideas at its core. Jones used the method of acting out as opposed to scripted. As a result, he managed to pinpoint the problems that lied at the core of the U.S. society of the 60s and, in fact, still define the nature of racial profiling in the 21st century.

Conflict Development Analysis

The author marks the development of the conflict primary through dialogue between the characters. Therefore, the entire play is built on a series of narrations as opposed to the dynamic interactions between the characters. The specified strategy can be viewed as very efficient. It helps the readers get to know the people in the play. As a result, people relate to the characters easily and in a faster manner.

The choice of the focus on acting as the primary means of conveying the essential message of the story becomes evident as the author emphasizes the double consciousness of the character. The phenomenon of double consciousness is traditionally interpreted as the split of one’s identity into the one foisted onto them by the society and the internal one. The latter is associated with one’s culture yet may be stifled by the people unwilling to accept one’s unique identity. According to Du Bois, the phenomenon of double consciousness shapes the lives of African Americans to a considerable extent being the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois 2).

The subject matter manifests itself quite vividly in Dutchman, where the lead character is forced to be ashamed of his culture and, therefore, deny it so that he could belong in the society. The specified idea is rarely spelled out in the novel. However, Jones hints at it whenever possible as Lula pokes fun at the lead character’s lifestyle choices, African American culture, in general, and the specimens thereof, such as music, in particular: “If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music” (Baraka “Dutchman” 9).

As the example provided above shows, most of the story unwraps as a rather slow cadence of interactions between the lead characters. Although the novel is told mostly in a dialogue, the latter creates the dynamic impression that makes the characters live. With every phrase that they say, the weight of the conflict that the American society was facing at the time becomes increasingly evident, making the environment, in which Lula and Clay interact, disturbingly realistic.

As the Story Unwraps

Apart from focusing on the interactions between the characters as opposed to narrating the story, the author also picks a rather unusual pace for the problem to brew. The narration starts at a reasonably slow pace, marking the evident problems in interracial relationships. However, as the story unravels, the pace gets increasingly quicker, finally bringing the conflict to its catharsis. Apart from revolving around the action rather than the narrative, the story starts at a rather slow speed.

The issue of music, which is touched upon in the play quite a few times, serves as the primary means of locating the nature of the play and the direction that the author is going in as it progresses. The very fabric of the African American music, which is mentioned in the play several times as a hint to the structure thereof, can be viewed as an incentive to act. Thus, it defines the characters and the general tone of the play: “The timbre is veiled and paraphrased by constantly changing vibrato, tremolo and overtone effects. The timing and accentuation, finally, are not stated, but implied or suggested. (The denying or withholding of all siguposts)” (Baraka “African Slaves: Their Music” 31).

Therefore, despite the seemingly lazy and laid-back manner of storytelling, Baraka portrays his characters as full of action yet not quite aware of which way they should direct their efforts. The above characteristic, in fact, is especially true for the lead character.

He is hardly viewed as an active contributor to the development of the plot. However, he can be defined as the person not knowing what he needs to do as opposed to being unwilling to make any effort. The first part of the play, thus, sets the stage for the further scenes of acting out. More importantly, a closer look at the description of the African American music provided above will show that the specified features are also characteristic of the novel to a considerable degree. It opens with a rather slow and vague tempo, picking up the pace as the theme evolves.

Author’s Intent

When defining the specifics of the play, particularly, the pacing of the conflict and the manner, in which it is spelled out, one must consider the intent of the author. In Dutchman, it is evident that the author is trying to get the reader’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination occurring in the 60s. However, it is rather hard to identify the tools that the author uses to pinpoint the nature and origins of the problem under analysis. For instance, the play is represented mostly through the dialogue between the characters. There are little to no descriptions of the things that they do, the actions that they take, etc. the dialogue is, therefore, the only way of identifying the people in the play and making them relatable.

Thus, it could be argued that creating a mixture of action and narration, or, to be more specific, narrating the story in the way that seems very dynamic, was the primary intent of the author. The blurred line between the active participation in the movement that swept the country at the time and the exhaustive, drawn-out talks that lead nowhere, serves a very specific purpose. It puts a powerful emphasis on the emotional strain that people like Clay were under at the time. Moreover, it works to the advantage of the overall tone of the play, making it brooding and dark.

Hence, it can be assumed that it was the primary intent of the author to create the impression of a rapid and decisive action yet set the characters in the context of an endless dialogue, in the course of which Clay defines his identity. The characters are always present in the novel. In fact, they never leave even for a moment, always keeping the reader’s focus on their confrontations with each other.

The Pace Gets Quicker

As the conflict progresses, the narration becomes quicker. The transgression that the characters’ communication process is defined by are becoming increasingly more rapid and non-cohesive; for example, at some point, Lula addresses the phenomenon of blues as a part and parcel of the African American culture. Then she quickly starts a song to prove a point, and ends it just as abruptly: “LULA Yes, yes. And that’s how the blues was born. [Begins to make up a song that becomes quickly hysterical. As she sings she rises from her seat, still throwing things out of her bag into the aisle” (Jones 8).

In fact, the third part of the work is where the aspect of self-consciousness as an integral part of the lead character’s struggle comes into full play. Particularly, the above notion truly shines through as Clay finally breaks down and attacks Lula. It is one of the few moments in the play, where the narration is explicitly replaced with action. The scene serves as the hint to understanding the overall mood of the work and indicates that it has never been about mere narration. Instead, the elements of the play that could be viewed as dragging narration should be interpreted as a slow buildup to the climax that the story resolves in.

The third part of the story, therefore, can be interpreted as the final and the most convincing proof of the fact that the entire plot is entirely action-driven. The author makes the characters act their feelings out as opposed to using narration to showcase their emotions. While some of the elements of the play might be seen as narration-related drivel, it serves a very distinct purpose of prompting the characters to act.

Bringing the Issue to the Boiling Point

As it has been stressed above, the third act of the play is where the process of acting out becomes completely uninhibited and results in a rather coarse climax. The conflict erupts as Lula fails to take complete control of Clay and subdue him into being ashamed of his culture. The scene shows clearly that the dynamics between the two has always been action-driven.

Even in the process of their emotional collision and the resulting confrontation, the characters remain concealing their need to act out under the veil of explanations. On the one hand, their striving to communicate can be deemed as a glimpse of hope for the conflict to be resolved in a non-violent, unaggressive manner. However, as the story progresses, the dialogue built by the characters serves the purpose of a dam holding the conflict from triggering a catastrophe.

Resolution and a Rapid Descent

The audience should not be deluded by the lack of action shown at the very beginning of the novel and evident in the first two parts of the play. The resolution that the first two parts of the story bring the play is, therefore, satisfying. It shows quite clearly that the struggle between the necessity to act and the fear of being shunned into submission are the primary concepts that lie at the core of the work.


Baraka uses dialogue as the primary tool of telling the story and conveying the essential message regarding the racial issues in the middle of the 20th century. However, Dutchman can be viewed as a specimen of a play, in which the message is acted out as opposed to being told in a narrative. Though the idea of telling a story through the actions of characters might not seem new for an author of a play, Dutchman is a singular case as it uses dialogue as the means of describing an action.

The underlying messages of the play, such as the double consciousness of the lead character, serve as the hints pointing to the general direction that the narrator takes. For instance, the internal dueling that the lead character has to suffer may be viewed as an incentive to act and, therefore, marks the action-driven nature of the play.

Similarly, a brief analysis of the author’s intent prompts the idea of acting out as the primary tool for conveying the essential idea and describing the lead characters. Although identifying the actual intent of the author is barely possible now that Baraka is long gone, the idea of addressing some of the most controversial pages of the American history still shines through.

Dutchman is of the most powerful plays written on the issue of racial discrimination. It is a masterful work that creates a unique environment and supports it with skillfully depicted actions of the lead characters. Although the specified actions may not be explicit all the time, they create the pattern that leads to a tragically satisfying resolution. An impressive artwork, Dutchman leaves a mark on readers making them immerse in the environment of a racial conflict in the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, the play remains relevant in the 21st century since racial profiling is still an issue.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. “African Slaves: Their Music.” Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York, NY: W. Morrow, 1963. 17-31. Print.

Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman. New York, NY: Routledge, 1964. Print.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt n. d., The Souls of Black Folk. Web.

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