The opening of All God’s Chillun Got Wings was greeted with bomb threats, hate mail, and newspaper attacks. New York’s mayor refused to allow children to perform in the first scene; as a result, the scene had to be read to the audience. This reaction underlines one of the play’s central concerns: racism in the United States. As children, African Americans and whites can play together; Ella’s regression at the end of the play enables her to accept her marriage, for if she and Jim are children, there is no social stigma to their union. Adults of different races, however, must live apart.
In the play, racism is not confined to whites. After Ella and Jim are married, they walk between a file of hostile whites and one of equally hostile African Americans. Hattie refuses to meet Jim and Ella at the dock when they return from France: “My face and Jim’s among those hundreds of white faces. . . . It would give her too much advantage.” Ella speaks condescendingly to Hattie, who responds by boasting of her college education, which Ella lacks. Mrs. Harris and her daughter leave their house to the couple and move to the Bronx so they can be “among our own people.”
This hatred poisons the love of Ella and Jim. In her madness, Ella calls Hattie “a dirty nigger.” Jim tells his sister that Ella cannot be held accountable for what she says, but Hattie replies that the feeling must be “deep down in her or it wouldn’t come out,” and that “the race in me, deep down in me, can’t stand it.” Ella’s inability to accept her marriage to a black man drives her mad; she refuses to see anyone of her own race and hates those of another.
Jim, too, succumbs to the insidious notion of black inferiority. Even as a child, he wanted to be white; later, he adopts the dress and manners of whites and attempts to become a lawyer, “to buy white,” with his father’s money. Whereas Hattie gets an education and becomes a teacher to help others, Jim wants to pass the bar examination to prove himself worthy of Ella. However, he cannot pass because he lacks self-confidence. As he says, “I feel branded.” As soon as he sees the white students looking at him, he forgets everything he has learned. He thinks that he is fit only to be Ella’s slave, not her equal, and he thinks that he is inferior to the white students also.
Eugene O’Neill remarked that “the suggestion that miscegenation would be treated in the theater obscured the real intention of the play.” While the work provides powerful social commentary, it is also an astute psychological investigation of its central characters, whose tragedy results from internal as well as external causes. Racism has tainted their minds and lives; Jim regards even love as white, not as colorless, and when Ella calls him “the whitest of the white,” she shows that her highest praise must be couched in racial terms. However, O’Neill provides Hattie as a counterpoint to Jim, to suggest that if he had more self-confidence he would not feel compelled to prove his worthiness. She has passed her tests and accepted herself for what she is. Jim and Ella speak of freeing themselves by confronting and overcoming their fears. The prescription is sound, but they are not strong enough to conquer their own prejudices. In Welded (pr. 1924), O’Neill presents a similarly failed relationship between a couple of the same race; All God’s Chillun Got Wings is about flawed people as much as it is about a flawed world.