Metaphorical Myth: Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman a Metaphor for the Doomed Ship that is America
If you have never read or seen the play, you can read it here: https://faculty.atu.edu/cbrucker/Engl2013/texts/Dutchman.pdf
Humans have traditionally used stories to describe or explain things they cannot explain otherwise. Myths, or “old wives’ tales,” are still passed on today around the globe throughout different cultures as a way to explain something bigger, something inevitably unexplainable. This appears to be Amiri Baraka’s goal with the play Dutchman — to explain something both enigmatic and reprehensible; it must be something as far-fetched as a flying ship doomed to sail the seas for eternity. By examining the origins and the uses of myth, “the Flying Dutchman” myth itself, and the state of America at the time the play was first shown, it is evident that Amiri Baraka’s play positions the myth of “the Flying Dutchman” as a symbol for the curse that is race and racism in America, which has plagued the crew, or in this case, American citizens, and is doomed to sail for eternity, or carry on forever.
In David A. Leeming’s The World of Myth: An Anthology, myth can be defined as “a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact,” (1). Ancient myths have traditionally been stories that our forebears, or ancestors, have used to “assimilate into their worldview the mysteries that occurred around and within them,” (Leeming 1). Anthropologist and mythographer Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of myth as a “language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling,” (Leeming 1). Therefore, “if the purpose of existence in the larger organism we call Earth is to make that organism conscious of itself, we have tended to do so by means of myths — contained in stories, songs, rituals, and paintings — that accomplish such real tasks as the justification of power, authority, ideologies, and political acts,” (Leeming 2–3).
Looking closely, one can see that myth is similar to metaphor, which is when “an object or event is compared to an apparently dissimilar object or event in such a way as to make its otherwise inexplicable essence clear,” (Leeming 1). For Baraka, the “Flying Dutchman” or in his piece, the subway car in the “underbelly” of the city, and what transpires within the subway car, is a metaphor for not only the state of America in 1964 when the play was first shown, but for the history of America up until that point, and certainly even current day. Baraka uses myth to tell an essential human story: “the story of the relationship between the known and the unknown, both around and within us, the story of the search for identity in the context of the universal struggle between order and chaos,” (Leeming 6).
The chaos that was, and still is, America, is juxtaposed with the legend of “the Flying Dutchman” in Baraka’s play as Baraka evidently seeks to symbolically explain the unknown or the inexplicable nature of the social construct of race and its history within American context. For contextual purposes, the legend of “the Flying Dutchman” was a “17th century Dutch merchantman, captained by Captain Hendrick Van Der Decken, a skilled seaman but one of few scruples, and in 1680 was proceeding from Amsterdam to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Whilst attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope, a raging storm blew up but the captain was determined to proceed and not wait for the storm to die down. He is said to have cursed God and the elements, saying that he would rather sail till Doomsday rather than ride out at anchor. For this blasphemy he has been forced to sail the Southern Seas ever since without finding harbor,” (Ellis 2016).
In addition to the background of myth and the legend of “the Flying Dutchman,” when analyzing the metaphoric play, it is important to consider American historical context both before and during the play’s inception. In 1964, the first time Dutchman was performed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed through legislation and, “The period following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was marked by strong resistance to its enforcement and indeed considerable violence in some places,” (Franklin 539). Similarly, in 1963, “A prosperous year, the unemployment rate for blacks was 114 percent higher than for whites. Where blacks were employed, more than 80 percent worked at the bottom of the economic ladder, as compared with 40 percent of employed whites. In 1964 the unemployment rate among blacks was 9.6 percent versus 4.6 percent among whites,” (Franklin 545). Not only were African Americans fighting for desegregation, they were also fighting for equal opportunity for employment and equal pay, yet, “the chances for African Americans to move up were greatly restricted not only by general race bias but also by the meager opportunities for apprenticeship training and by discrimination in many labor unions,” (Franklin 545).
Aside from the struggles of the Jim Crow Era, not only was the African American community suffering economically, they were still suffering the effects of hundreds of years of enslavement, searching for identity amidst being engulfed in an oppressive country. How does one’s identity shift as they move toward segregation? How does being forced to assimilate into a white man’s world affect the identity of African American men and women? While much of the Harlem Renaissance was about that search for one’s own black identity, it seems that is also the case through the Black Arts Movement, and through much of black history within the United States to this day. This long, cursed or doomed history of African Americans in America is much like a myth. Its story has been told time and time again, yet the longer it is told, the further we get away from its origins, the harder it is to believe its wickedness. This notion is amplified through Dutchman.
In the play, there are several instances and scenes that present the play as Baraka calls it, a “modern myth.” One of the first and most obvious is in the stage directions before the first scene begins. Baraka hints at the mythological foundation within the first seven words: “In the flying underbelly of the city,” (Baraka 674). Here, the audience gets the first nod at the “Flying Dutchman” myth. Using the city’s subway is Baraka’s way of modernizing the legend, making it relatable to the audience, but also using a common American transportation tells the audience this is location specific. Also, it’s important to note the happenings underground in a subway — the monotony and seemingly cauldron of neurosis that exists within the cars, as well as subways only traveling so far, an end in every direction, inevitably traveling the same “doomed” path every day. As Hugh Nelson, author of the article “Leroi Jones’ Dutchman: A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship” noted, “the subway is in fact a marvelous sample of the autonomy of the inanimate which confronts us everywhere in our mechanized society. Just as primitive man created myth to explain satisfactorily the apparent irrationality of nature, so his modern-day counter-part, the city-dweller, begins to feel again the need for myth to explain his own demonic and seemingly equally irrational inventions and artifacts. Thus, the subway in Jones’ metaphor becomes a doomed ship under the control of an irremediable curse,” (Nelson 54) demonstrating the need for mythical stories to create almost an escape from “irrational inventions and artifacts.”
Speaking more specifically to the societal challenges of race and racism, the main conflict in the play presents what appears to be the main issue. Writer Jochen Achilles points out that, “the conflict of Dutchman consists in the cracking up and final violent explosion of racial stereotyping and the social boundaries and certainties it generates.” She explains further, “Dutchman leads to a deconstruction of behavioral patterns and the revelation of the underlying atavistic emotions that shape both the gender and race conflicts,” (Achilles 224). Circling back to the notion that the purpose of existence in the larger organism we call Earth is to make that organism conscious of itself, it is apparent that Baraka calls the audience to do just that: make America conscious of itself, what it has become, what it has always been. Lines like: “A three-button suit. What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie? Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard,” (Baraka 680) call back to America’s consciousness and reminds the audience of the country’s history. Yet, given the play’s setting, it also highlights the issues of its day.
Amiri Baraka making it a point to describe the subway as “heaped in modern myth” (674) encourages the audience to view what transpires in the play, on the subway, and the play as a whole as something larger than just a conflict on a New York train or a murderous encounter. It forces the audience to interrogate their perception of America and its history, its current-day problems. The mythological foundation and aspect of the play is meant to be a lesson, it is meant to be a mirror, it is meant to reveal the identities among races and how this has shaped the relationship between the known and the unknown, both around and within us; it is meant to reveal the story of the search for identity in the context of the universal struggle between order and chaos. Judging by the current state of America, I believe it is safe to say that Baraka’s “Dutchman” is still on its endless ride, claiming the lives of innocent black men, trying hopelessly to assimilate into a world, into a society, that is built to keep them down — down, underground, in the flying underbelly of the city.
Achilles, Jochen. “Allegory and Iconography in African American Drama of the Sixties: Imamu
Amiri Baraka’s ‘Dutchman’ and Alice Childress’s ‘Wine in the Wilderness.’”
Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2000, pp. 219–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157564.
Baraka, Amiri. “Dutchman.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie Smith, 3rd ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 674–688.
Ellis, Tony. “Maritime Ghosts.” The Flying Dutchman. Woodbury Central, 2016. Web. www.woodburycentral.k12.ia.us/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=9931541
Franklin, John Hope., and Alfred A. Moss. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. Mcgraw-Hill, 2001.
Leeming, David Adams. The World of Myth (An Anthology). OXFORD University Press, 2019.
Nelson, Hugh. “LeRoi Jones’ ‘Dutchman’: A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship.” Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, 1968, pp. 53–59., www.jstor.org/stable/3204875.