(Drama for Students)

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 island, whom he characterizes as ‘‘de low-flung bush niggers,’’ ‘‘dese fool woods’ niggers,’’ and ‘‘black trash.’’ He sees himself as civilized, and he is contemptuous of ‘‘dis raggedy country.’’ In Scene IV, as he is recovering from his vision of Jeff, Jones says to himself, ‘‘Is yo’ civilized, or is yo’ like dese ign’rent black niggers, heah?’’ And Jones is also contemptuously racist toward Smithers: ‘‘Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I’m boss heah now, is you forgettin’?’’ The suggestion that O’Neill seems to be making is that anyone who succumbs to the temptations of power is susceptible to racism, even those who themselves have so poignantly suffered from it.

But the most extraordinary feature of this theme is that even as O’Neill is attempting to expose the horrors of racism he seems himself to be guilty of it to some extent. His representation of the black dialect throughout the play, though an attempt to capture a unique vocal quality, perpetuates linguistic stereotypes about black speakers. And in Scene IV, when Jones sees the gang of prison convicts, O’Neill says of Jones in his stage directions that ‘‘his eyes pop out,’’ relying on a stereotypical image of fear that is seldom applied to white characters. O’Neill’s characterization of Lem in the final scene is especially insensitive. He describes Lem as ‘‘a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth.’’ And Lem’s naive belief in the magic of the silver bullet is expressed in words that make him sound like a caricatured...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)