Themes and Meanings

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 618 words.)

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