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Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict

BLUES FOR MR. CHARLIE

In the brief note James Baldwin has written as an introduction to the published version of Blues for Mr. Charlie,1 the only character he mentions at any length is the man appearing in the play as Lyle Britten, a white store-owner in a Southern town who murders a young Negro Baldwin says of the killer, “We have the duty to try to understand this wretched man.” But in the play that follows, the writer’s sense of this particular duty seems to me to fail him. The compassionate regard for the character that Baldwin means to convey by the adjective “wretched” is not the same quality of emotion that informs his imagination when he is examining the man in his wretchedness. Being dutiful to the murderer is not Baldwin’s overriding moral impulse. Rather, a conflict of impulses—duties towards a variety of causes of which, unfortunately, the cause of art seems to have inspired the weakest loyalty—prevents Baldwin from fixing his attention upon his subject and increasing “understanding,” his or ours. I think of this Introduction (dated April 1964) as an attempt by the writer to remember where it was he may have begun, for that is not where he has ended. I don’t intend to hold a play deficient for failing an intention whose execution may properly have been thwarted in the act of writing, and is perhaps only recalled here in nostalgia for some purity of purpose. The deficiency is in the failure to be true not to the particular intention announced in the Introduction, but to those numerous intentions apparent in the first act, all most worthy, but none able to survive the unhealthy competition.

The play begins with the murder of the Negro, Richard Henry, a young man who has returned to the South from New York, where he started out as a jazz musician and ended up as a junkie. The man who shoots him, Lyle Britten, owns a country store which returns him little profit in good times, and is now returning hardly any because of a Negro boycott. Britten is a simple, ignorant young man married to a simple and ignorant young woman; they have a baby they love and friends who are fond of them and who, like the Brittens, are baffled and angered by the demonstrations, the marches, the boycotts, organized by the Negroes in the town. Britten and Richard meet shortly after Richard’s arrival back home. Instantly Lyle hates Richard for being black and arrogant, as Richard hates him for being white and arrogant—and for being a killer too, for Lyle had already murdered a colored man years ago and gone unpunished for it. After a couple of accidental but angry encounters, culminating in Richard knocking Lyle down in front of his wife, the white man comes hunting the black man with a gun.

It is the shots fired from this gun that open the play. When the curtain rises, we see Lyle carrying the dead Negro over his shoulder; he dumps him to the ground and says, “And may every nigger like this nigger end like this nigger—face down in the weeds!” He exits, and now the play begins again: the time is the day before the funeral of Richard Henry, the place is a Negro church in the town, whose minister is Reverend Meridian Henry, the father of the dead young man. The action moves forward from this moment through Richard’s funeral in Act Two, to the scandalous trial and eventual acquittal of Lyle Britten which comprises almost all of Act Three. But it also moves backward in a series of flashbacks which begins with Richard’s arrival in town and goes on to reveal the events leading up to his murder. If by the end of the play this flashing backwards has become nothing more than a mechanical device used to fill us in on historical data that is either unimportant or uninteresting, in the first act it seems a genuine inspiration of form. For the direction the play takes is an expression of the will of one of the characters, Richard’s father, who searches for the meaning of this murder for himself, for his son, and for the man who committed it. Unlike his son, Reverend Meridian Henry believes that the dignity of his race is not served by violence; he despises injustice no less than Richard, but his passion to gain his people their rights is subsumed by the passion to save souls, not for the next world either, but for this one.

Consequently Richard returns home to a father whose values can only anger him. As the scenes move back in time, we learn that Richard, who died by another’s violence, had come home prepared to protect himself against such violence. He had returned armed with a gun, and now, in the past, we hear him say that he will use it in his own defense if he has to. He has supposedly been demoralized by his failure in the North (ending in the narcotics cure at Lexington) and this demoralization only feeds his ancient hatred of the white man. It was the white men lusting after his mother who one day pushed her down a flight of stairs to her death; Richard’s departure from home was in part an attempt to leave that horrid memory behind, and to leave his father, whose powerlessness before such humiliations he had come to hate as well. He is rich with anger, and yet in the very first scene with his father, he surrenders to him the pistol he has brought back with him from the North, an act for which he will in the end have to pay with his life.

Why does he surrender the pistol? Meridian himself does not demand it, although his values may seem to. Instead, at his son’s provocation, Meridian admits that the mother was in fact pushed, and did not slip as apparently he had once tried to make his son believe. Richard now gives him the gun supposedly because Meridian has given up the truth, and given it up to him. But this truth his father speaks only verifies what Richard had already known. Surrendering the gun at this point, then, is either psychological perversity on Richard’s part (a clue to a motive of which he himself is unaware), or sentimentality on the part of the writer, who may so want a scene of loving and forgiveness between a father and a son on the stage that he will have one even if it means destroying the most authentic facts about his own characters. Or else it is just so much piety about that word truth. Whatever the cause, at the most important dramatic moment of the act (and maybe of the play) the sense of the drama is hopelessly distorted: Meridian Henry, rather than disputing his son’s judgment of him, accepts it, asks to be forgiven; and Richard, instead of finding his strength of purpose hardened by his father’s truthfulness, surrenders his purpose by surrendering the gun. At whom then was his fury directed in the first place? Against whom was the gun to protect him? The white men who murdered his mother (and might try murdering him) or the father whose illusions he believes allowed her to be murdered?

These complexities of motive are hardly uninteresting, but in this instance have less to do with the play than with the playwright. They may even tell us that beneath the play presented, there is a hidden play about a Negro father and a Negro son—a drama that did not really come to light, but may perhaps have spread a kind of haze over the writer’s imagination which only further confused his purpose. How telling, how unclouded, the scene between father and son, if Meridian were with Richard the man he is with the Negro students in the brief but brilliantly ironic opening scene where he is seen firing at them abusive epithets and insults, pretending to be the worst of white men in order to turn them into what he truly believes are the best of the black: men of iron self-control who will not weaken to violence. How to the point of what the play at first appears to be about, if Meridian had said, “You cannot live in my house with a gun”; if Richard had replied, “That’s how you killed my mother”—and if Meridian had answered, “You are wrong. I want the gun.” Then that struggle which also seems to remain confused in the heart of the writer, the struggle between love and hate, would have been untangled in the drama, even if it could not, and cannot, be resolved for either the playwright or the audience. But this required the dramatist to permit one of his characters to become a hero, and his play, perhaps, to aspire to tragedy. For a while, I thought Baldwin had chosen Meridian to fill the role of tragic hero in what is really a tragic story. If he had, then real blues might have been sung in the end for the Negro rather than those spurious blues for Mr. Charlie, who is the white man, and who can hardly be said to be the play’s hero either.

The first act does present a white man Baldwin may originally have thought of as his suffering hero, however; or one he might have allowed to be. He is Parnell James the editor of the local newspaper, a buddy to Lyle Britten, the murderer, and a friend to Meridian Henry as well as the other Negroes of the town. It is Parnell James who arranges that Lyle be brought to trial, a betrayal which Lyle does not resent since apparently (and incredibly) his feelings of betrayal are negated by his understanding that no jury of white men is going to convict him. But Parnell betrays his buddy for his friend—and his principles. Having taken his first righteous action, he is pushed by Meridian to go further. Meridian demands that Parnell make Lyle admit to him what he will not admit to the court, that he killed Richard. When Parnell replies, “Meridian—what you ask—I don’t know if I can do it for you,” the minister answers, “I don’t want you to do it for me. I want you to do it for you.” Here the first act ends.

Why the drama of the past has been running parallel to the drama of the present is suddenly made clear. Both courses of action begin in the force exerted by the preacher on two different men: the first his son Richard—by accepting his gun the preacher sets in motion the drama that is to end in Richard’s dying unprotected; the second his friend. For if anybody is to be saved by Richard’s death perhaps it is this white man who may have it in his power to cause the murderer and the town “to face the evil that it countenances and to turn from evil and do good.” To Meridian, Parnell is the one who may yet save them all. So the act ends, with the minister putting to the test one last time his faith in the possibility of salvation through moral instruction—through words. One would think that the rest of the play will be devoted to Parnell’s struggle, as the action proceeds in the present, and to Richard’s struggle—living without a gun—in the past.

But in the remaining two acts of the play all the purposes of the first act collapse; indeed, everything collapses, sense, craft, and feeling. The duty to understand is replaced with a duty to do what is practically its opposite, to propagandize, or (reversing Blake’s dictum) “to put off intellect and put on holiness.” Hardly anything anyone has said or done to anyone else in Act One seems to have taken hold, and the not taking hold isn’t what is made to seem the point, either. The point is that the writer has pronouncements to make which stand in the way of the play he began to write. The issue of the gun, for instance, disappears, and as for the conversation with the father, it might as well never have happened. Richard’s struggle against hatred never materializes (he falls in love instead), nor does Parnell’s against the moral blindness of Lyle Britten (he just sits around listening to Britten). Consequently the will of Meridian Henry is quickly snuffed out, and he too disappears as an important force in the drama. When the curtain goes up on Act Two the circumstances and the people of Act One are pretty much swept aside. Now we are over in Whitetown, in the home of Lyle Britten, who is the murderer, but not the villain—as, in a way. Richard is the victim without being the hero. Both are dummies who only move their mouths while the real hero and villain air their views. For the real hero of these last two acts is blackness, as the real villain is whiteness.

If there is ever a Black Muslim nation, and if there is television in that nation, then something like Acts Two and Three of Blues for Mr. Charlie will probably be the kind of thing the housewives will watch on afternoon TV. It is soap opera designed to illustrate the superiority of blacks over whites. The blues Baldwin may think he is singing for Mr. Charlie’s sinning seem to me really to be sung for his inferiority. First, Negroes are better-looking, particularly Negro women. When the white men in the play claim They’re after our women! they are obviously having guilt-ridden fantasies: almost every Negro man around would testify, and almost everyone does, that white women are cold, unappealing, “pasty-faced bitches”—particularly Richard, who for all his promiscuity with the pasty-faces of New York, is well-cured of such frivolous lust by the time he appears back home; that is, on the stage. On the other hand, when the Negro students (mostly the Negroes are students; mostly the whites are plain old crackers) reply You’re after ours! the play then “proves” this to be true. The only sexual affairs of real consequence to Lyle Britten and Parnell James were with Negro women—Lyle with a girl both pretty and passionate, and Parnell with a girl in possession of both these qualities, plus a third: she was a reader. The first time he came upon her alone she was poring over. The Red and the Black in the library. Negroes then, even studious ones, make love better. They dance better. And they cook better. And their penises are longer, or stiffer. Indeed, so much that comprises the Southern stereotype of the Negro comes back through Negro mouths as testimony to their human superiority, that finally one is about ready to hear that the eating of watermelon increases one’s word power. It is as though the injustice of our racial situation is that inferiors are enslaving their superiors, rather than the other way around.

The man who most indulges in this self-congratulation is Richard Henry, and in Baldwin’s defense, it can be said that Richard’s opinions don’t represent the range of Baldwin’s own ideas and feelings. But surely these ideas and feelings are what determine the perspective in which Baldwin presents Richard to us. In fact, what I find most disturbing in the play are not these patently defensive opinions of Richard’s, but the value that Baldwin imagines accrues to Richard’s own humanity by the deeds that grow out of his opinions. Much as I object to Baldwin’s psychologizing about why Richard is what he is, I object even more to his moralizing about Richard’s worth. At the very moment Baldwin seems to feel that Richard has risen above his opinions to a kind of vengeful manliness, it seems to me that he has sunk beneath them and is their victim. This moment occurs in the second act, in the scene which establishes the dramatic cause for the murder. Richard enters Lyle Britten’s store for a Coke and sets out to provoke his wife by offering to pay for the drink with a twenty-dollar bill; he continues to provoke and insult her even though Lyle comes in from the back of the store carrying a hammer. Lyle is supposed to be carrying the hammer because he is making some repairs somewhere, but I believe he is really carrying it so that he can raise it to Richard when he refuses to leave the store, and so that Richard can then throw him to the ground despite the disadvantage of being without a weapon. So that Richard, in short, can emerge as heroic in his anger, to both his friend Lorenzo, who is waiting outside, and to the audience. But why isn’t it his girl friend Juanita who is waiting outside, or his father? After all, in Act One, Juanita says, with passion, “I won’t let you go anywhere without me.” I would think that if either of these characters had been present, if Act One had taken hold of the writer himself, then Richard could not have appeared to be heroic, but might have had to be seen for what he is—pathetic in his adolescent masculine pride, no less than Lyle Britten in his. Watching this scene one is as uncomfortable for the playwright as one might be listening to the boastings of a schoolboy who dishes up to you as the hard facts of his adventurous and daring life what are actually daydreams of sexual heroism.

His making a hero of blackness, combined with his sentimentalizing of masculinity, blinds Bladwin to the fact that Richard’s condition is no less hideously comic than Lyle Britten’s. There is no glory or hope, not a shred of it, to be found in the life of either the black man or the white. What these characters give evidence to, what the play seems to be about really, is the small-mindedness of the male sex. It is about the narcissistic, pompous, and finally ridiculous demands made by the male ego when confronted by moral catastrophe. Of course to take pride in one’s maleness, as so many of the men in this play would like to do, is hardly ridiculous; but to identify this maleness with the size and capabilities of one’s penis is to reveal about as much depth of imagination as I remember finding one long Saturday afternoon among my colleagues in an Army motor pool: It is shattering (and not as the writer intends so obviously for it to be) to hear the young Negro woman, Juanita; announce to the audience at the close of Act Two in the most stirring tones, “And I’ll see the world again—the marvelous world. And I’ll have learned from Richard—how to love.” From Richard? Richard’s boasting about being black and bragging about his penis have blinded somebody to the truth about him, which is that neither he, nor Lyle, for that matter, is a wretched man; they only behave wretchedly. They are banal men who suffer most their own banality. In fact, A Study in the Banality of Evil would have been a title more to the point of the play that Baldwin has actually written than Blues for Mr. Charlie.

DUTCHMAN

Another play about “the races” has stirred up interest recently, a one-act play Dutchman2 , by the poet, LeRoi Jones. This work, currently being performed at the Cherry Lane Theater, was widely praised by the New York critics.

Unfortunately for Jones, his work leads one’s memory back to another short play (one that may even have furnished Mr. Jones’s imagination with a certain thrust forward into his own subject)—Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Both plays bring into conflict two people who live in the same city, New York, but whose backgrounds are so different as to alert each to a threat or a promise in the other. In The Zoo Story. Jerry a man in his thirties who lives in a seedy rooming house on the upper West Side, comes upon Peter, a conventional family man, who works in publishing and lives in an apartment in the East Seventies. Peter is sitting on his own favorite bench in Central Park, reading a book, when Jerry comes upon him—or settles on him. The meeting may appear at the opening of the play to be accident; by the end it is revealed to have been design. “I’ll start walking around in a little while,” Jerry says to Peter early in the play, “and eventually I’ll sit down. Wait until you see the expression on his face,” he adds, and Peter asks, “What? Whose face?” The face will be Peter’s own when he finds that he has stabbed Jerry to death.

In Dutchman, an attractive young white woman. Lula, comes upon an attractive young Negro man. Clay, reading a book in a subway car, and sets out to seduce him, or so it seems. Her technique is not unlike Jerry’s: she teases, she mocks, she insults: like Jerry she is lively, irascible, a little witty, and maybe a little mad. Like Jerry she tells her prey that she really knows him for what he is, and like Peter, Clay at first agrees that perhaps she does know something. Clay is on his way to a party, and after Lula cajoles him into taking her with him, they appear to agree that they will later end the night at her apartment. But when, in a burst of spirit, Lula begins an outrageous sexual dance in the middle of the subway car, Clay drags her back to her seat, and the two have it out: Lula tells him what kind of black nigger he really is, and in a rage, Clay slaps her, and tells her what she really is, what all whites are, and what it is to be a Negro who must keep himself from murdering those who deny and distort his identity. Finally, he calms down and says to her, “Sorry, baby, but I don’t think we could make it.” Whereupon Lula draws a switchblade knife from her purse and stabs him to death. Though the subway car had been empty when Lula came aboard, several white people are now looking on: they have witnessed Lula’s dance, now they witness the stabbing. Immediately they are instructed by Lula to dump the dead man between the rushing cars and to disembark at the next stop. In their terror they comply. Lula then marks something down in a little notebook (one more victim, probably). She is prepared to leave the car, when another young Negro man boards the train. Instead of leaving, Lula settles down to begin her wooing and, one assumes, her murdering of him.

It was not to impugn Mr. Jones’s originality that I began by noting a resemblance between his play and The Zoo Story; what is unfortunate about Dutchman is not that it too closely resembles The Zoo Story in its plotting, but that it does not resemble it enough where it most matters: in its understanding of what the strangers mean to each other, and of how this meaning determines what happens between them. The Zoo Story succeeds because the action begins and ends in Jerry’s desire; this desire is not simple, but that it was a desire from the start is, in the end, clear. When he has impaled himself upon the knife he has tossed to Peter, and which Peter holds up to him, more in fear than fury—in that moment the why of Jerry’s desire is fully revealed. Without the murder, or suicide, what comes before is just a conversation-piece, a hipster baiting a square. The murder redeems this trivia, for now we see it in all its pain and perversity: a strategy embarked upon by Jerry to bring about the death he believes most appropriate to his life. This murder is no symbol for what the play has failed to symbolize about the relationship between an insider and an outsider. Here a man dies for good reason. He wants to.

The Negro in Dutchman dies for no good reason; which is not to say that the point of his death is its meaninglessness. The play tries to convince us that the murdering of Clay is inevitable, that murder is what Lula is after from the start, and furthermore, that this is the way things really are. But it convinces us only that things really are not this way, and that such a murder is not inevitable. Unlike The Zoo Story, the momentum of Dutchman does not derive from the passion of the characters; instead, the play’s construction is at the mercy of the writer’s own racial obsession, or else is in the service of a theory which the play is not able to prove to be true. What is most disheartening about Dutchman is that the writer means it to be a symbolic portrayal of an aspect of our racial struggle, and worse (if I have been interpreting correctly the reviews in praise of it), that audiences think it is—when in fact it is not. For if Dutchman is really about a serious consequence of the race situation in America, then the dead Clay should be able to cry out from his grave, “I am dead because I am black!” and to my mind that is not why he is dead at all.

He is dead at the end of the play because the playwright wants him dead far more than Lula does. It is more necessary to Jones’s theory, or obsession, than to the encounter he has presented, that the white woman murder the black man, and that the other white people on the subway train be her accomplices in the disposal of the body. The Lula presented to us is hardly sufficient to, or in need of, the crime. The answer to the question, “Who is Lula?” is by no means answered with “She who must kill Clay”; in The Zoo Story there is the recognition of a human necessity in the answer, “Jerry is he who must have himself killed by Peter.” In Dutchman all that Lula says and does prior to the moment of stabbing can be understood as mere bitchery; she is a tease, not a murderess. All a Lula requires of a man, Negro or white, is that he be confused by her desire and humiliated by his own lust; she does not need him dead even though it may appear to the man that he might just as well be.

If Dutchman presents a Lula who is not up to defining herself with so violent an act, it offers a Clay whose life is no more clearly defined for having been acted upon so violently. He is really not Negro enough for us to be told that it is for his being a Negro that he is murdered. I don’t mean he is not a recognizable Negro type: Lula tells him he is, and Clay agrees—a ludicrous concession, by the way, given the substance of her description (You come from New Jersey; you’ve been trying to grow a beard; you have a colored friend who speaks with an English accent; you “look like death eating a soda cracker.” Clay: “How’d you know all that? Huh? Really…?”). Nevertheless, a type, some type, is there; it is the Negro who is missing.

The trouble with the character of Clay is that he can only speechify about his torment Here the playwright might see fit to respond, “But a point of my play is that he can only speechify; otherwise, as he himself says, he would murder. He is a poet, he tells her that: his hatred is poured into the making of poems.” But I believe in his poetry no more than I believe in the pressure of his murderous feelings; he does not behave with Lula like a man who is a poet or a murderer. He is simply shy, somewhat embarrassed, and markedly unlike many poets and probably most murderers, real or repressed, in that he is not the slightest bit paranoid. He acts, in the first scene with Lula, as though very little were at stake for him; yet, according to his own vehement indictment of her and white people in the second scene, everything really is at stake. Even all that fury is a disguise, though neither the writer nor the character, I think, would agree to see it that way. To me it seems a fury which is only the cover-up for what more essentially defines Clay’s condition, and that is the depths in him not of anger, but of terror and dread.

The truth that is begging to be dramatized in Dutchman is not that the Lulas murder the Clays—a generalization which, I take it, Jones means us to make when at the end of the play the next Negro victim boards the subway car. Nor is it the truth that other whites, when the Clays are murdered, will obediently dispose of the dead black bodies. This is not a truth anyway; it is a fact we already know from the newspapers. What Dutchman might have revealed was not simply that such atrocities are practiced in this country, as of course they are, but what it is to be a Negro man and a white woman meeting in a country where these possibilities constantly impinge upon the consciousness, and so cannot but distort every encounter between the two angry races. The error in this play was to present as hero a Negro whose feelings and knowledge are wholly inappropriate to the most obvious facts of the world about him. For all his talk of Charlie Parker’s art and how he wanted to be Baudelaire in college, Clay is really an innocent when it comes to realizing where he is and what is happening to him; consequently he dies the death not of a Negro but of a naif. A foreigner who strolls in Central Park at night, and is murdered, dies out of innocence of the city; not so with someone raised in New York who, knowing the lore of the park, takes such a walk in the dark anyway, and is found murdered in the morning.

Clay is no foreigner. He is black, the girl is white, the country is America, the time is now. It suits Jones’s purpose to allow Clay his furious insights in the second scene; what he has not permitted him are his fearful insights in the first. I can think of Clay not so much as a potential murderer with a steely grip on himself, as a man who has genuine cause to imagine that he himself may be murdered. And I don’t believe it would in the least compromise Clay’s virility for the play-wright to admit to such terror. That the only terror Clay has is his fear that he may murder a white man seems to me a very penetrable posture, and one which does indeed put his virility in doubt. Too bad that Jones did not penetrate this posture, rather than endorse it as yet another truth.

Clay might in fact have been created—Dutchman itself might even have been imagined—by the kind of white liberal mentality that he himself seems to find most offensive. Unlike Lula, for instance, who seems to desire him because he is black, Clay, when he wants Lula, seems to want her as a woman. If he does not know what to expect next from Lula (and mostly she doesn’t really unsettle him; for all his embarrassment, he is cool), it is because she is slightly bizarre; it is because of her kooky personality. But the Clay who would make sense in Dutchman, the Clay who might have made a play of what is finally a staged newspaper headline, is a Clay who does not know what to expect from her because she is white: a Clay who fears that a white woman who wants to take him to bed, and with whom he wants to go to bed, probably hates him enough to want really to kill him. A Clay then, who knows or imagines from the start that Lula is carrying a knife in the handbag from which she finally extracts one.

Though frequently Jones seems to me to deserve calling down for gross artistic errors (particularly a pretentiousness of language and symbol, not to mention title), I am not here simply calling him down on a point of craft; no more than Chekhov is making a point of craft, and nothing more, when he says that a gun hanging on the wall in the first act had better go off by the third. If I suggest that Lula’s knife should in some way be there from the beginning, it is not to increase “suspense.” I am talking about admitting openly to the conditions within which the characters choose to act, so that by their choices they can define themselves to the audience. James Baldwin often attempts to tell us what white men know “at the bottom of their hearts.” What I want to know is what Clay knows at the bottom of his heart, and the man it causes him to be. Oh, Clay can spout about the predicament of the Negro in this country, but so can I, and so can Richard Nixon, and probably, however each of us says it, we will agree that it is awful. Clay can tell us that when Bessie Smith is singing at us white folks she is really telling us “Kiss my black ass,” but knowing that must be pretty easy to know if Jones’s hero knows it. For about the predicament he is in—about being a black man with a strange white girl who keeps putting her hand on his thigh—he knows nothing, or acts as though he does. His innocence is guarded at every turn, as though, if he had the slightest suspicion of any kind of danger, his own victimization would be compromised in the eyes of the white audience, whom I believe this play is written for—not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred. For that purpose, nothing but a black innocent and a white devil will do.

I am not too happy to see Mr. Jones being hailed in the papers and on television for his anger; for it is not an anger of literary value, and he is a writer. Rather it is rage, it is blind, and, artistic considerations aside, it may well have made it nearly impossible for him to write an important play. The sad and depressing fact about Dutchman is that the writer so hates Lula, and so wants us to hate and detest her too, that he has not patience or strength enough to reveal the true nature of what it is she does. I hesitate to make the chilling observation that perhaps Jones has not really interest enough at this point, and that like certain policemen or professional soldiers, he has come to hate the criminal more than he hates the crime. If only the playwright could have admitted not only to Negro anger, but to Negro dread and Negro lust. But instead of identifying the fear in the hero, he cleanses him of it by projecting the fear as a reality which is not even feared, and the lust is the lust of any healthy man. Jones seems unwilling, or unable, to believe that a crime more horrible than a crazy white woman killing an innocent Negro man with a knife is the crime committed against the spirit which causes it to imagine knives. To symbolize the attempt to murder a man’s sexuality by having him actually murdered is to indulge a literary pretension at the expense of a human truth, to substitute false profundity for real sorrow. The truth that Dutchman might have forced through our baffled sense of the racial nightmare is that the Negro humiliation has been so profound and so deep that a man as intelligent and educated and disciplined as Clay is supposed to be, living in a moment so full of possibility for Negroes as this one, cannot but be burdened with the most primal fears for his flesh. Ironically, in making Clay so baldly innocent of his condition, and Lula so madly and viciously secret in her intention, Jones finally lets the white audience off much too easily. They may leave the theater saying, as in their genial and useless masochism they are more than willing to say, “Yes, yes, we are guilty,” but of what and why they cannot have much knowledge. And refusing them such knowledge, Mr. Jones, for all his anger, will never force their well-intentioned liberal ideas to be converted into feelings of compassionate suffering.

Letters

Channel X July 9, 1964

Channel X July 9, 1964

  1. 1

    Dial, 192 pp., $3.95

  2. 2

    Dutchman and The Slave by LeRoi Jones will be published this summer by Morrow.

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