Why was The Emperor Jones critically acclaimed, and what was so amazing about it?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One reason why The Emperor Jones was so acclaimed was that it was radical in its discussion of racial issues.  O'Neill used his drama to highlight the web in which racial identity traps individuals.  Jones is completely trapped by racist attitudes.  Even though Jones is himself a man of color, O'Neill makes the argument that racism and prejudicial attitudes blind individuals, trapping them in an inescapable web.  This is seen in Jones, himself.  He escapes from the prison in America and rather than seize the opportunity for a new start, he assumes a position of superiority to the indigenous people around him.  Jones displays being trapped by racists attitudes in how he refers to them as ‘‘de low-flung bush niggers,’’ ‘‘dese fool woods’ niggers,’’ and ‘‘black trash.’’ When Jones is referring to Smithers's apparent lack of respect, Jones says, ‘‘Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I’m boss heah now, is you forgettin’?’’   Jones is trapped as a result of racist attitudes.  Jones does not see racism as something to be overcome.  Rather, he replicates the racism in America and it imprints itself on him and his being.  His journey towards understanding is one where he must relive the horrors of racist and discriminatory attitudes.  Jones might be free, but racism proves to be a poison from which escape is impossible.

O'Neill was radical in displaying the emotional brutality of racism.  O'Neill's characterization of Jones shows how racism impacts the individual, replicating evil and injustice within their psyche.  It was a powerful statement at the time, a condition in American History where racism was rampant.  O'Neill's work is also groundbreaking because it shows how the issues of race and ethnicity can cause confusion within any individual.  People like color are shown to be just as susceptible to the evils of racism as any White person.  This was a powerful statement that was radical for its time and groundbreaking for even modern culture. Its treatment of race is one of the reasons why it was critically acclaimed and is also why it is so amazing.  O'Neill's statements on race are reflective of the drama's Expressionist ideas, elements that were new and groundbreaking for the time.  In doing so, it helped to create an amazing drama whose implications can be felt even today in the modern setting.

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