Race and Racism
The Emperor Jones examines race and racism on a number of levels. Most simply, it calls attention to the racial oppression that actually existed in America in 1920. In Scene I, Smithers expresses skepticism over Jones’s claim that he killed a white man before coming to the island: ‘‘from what I’ve ’eard, it ain’t ’ealthy for a black to kill a white man in the States. They burn ’em in oil, don’t they?’’ And though Smithers is an Englishman, he clearly represents racist attitudes that were present in O’Neill’s contemporary society. At times Smithers reveals his racism somewhat subtly, as in the opening moments of the play when he assumes that the peasant woman sneaking through the throne room must have been ‘‘stealin’ a bit.’’ At other times, Smithers is much less subtle, as when he delivers the vicious curtain line at the end of the play, dismissing all dark-skinned people as ‘‘Stupid as ’ogs, the lot of ’em! Blarsted niggers!’’
And as Jones re-enacts in the forest the horrors of the slave trade that brought Africans to America, O’Neill’s implication is that Jones is also a victim of American racism. However, at this point O’Neill takes the racism theme to another level of complexity: he reveals that Jones himself has become a racist on this distant isle. After he becomes ‘‘emperor,’’ Jones thinks of himself as being separate from and superior to the natives of the...
(The entire section is 1268 words.)
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