“Does I look white?”

Emperor Jones, by Eugene O’Neill, is considered to be one of the most powerful plays, written around 1920. A one-act play, consisting of eight scenes, this play explores racial discrimination and the incessant attempt of the victim to rise above his prescribed status. It revolves around the irony, hypocrisy, pain and threat related to such a pursuit. This play is also known to be the playwright’s first attempt into expressionist writing. Eugene had theatre imbibed in his veins, and spent his days on the backstage from a very early age. After having a reckless youth, he had a ‘rebirth’, when he immersed himself in plays. Emperor Jones has inspired several scholars and literature lovers for generations, and as a reader, I tried to analyse Michèle Mendelssohn’s article ‘Reconsidering Race, Language and Identity in The Emperor Jones’.

The article pinpoints the above mentioned crisis of a black man, when he wants to shrug off his ethnic identity because he is ashamed, and hopelessly tries to be accepted in the capitalist white community. Brutus Jones, the Emperor, started his life as a pull-man porter who moved to West Indies after serving in the prison. He exploited the beliefs of the simple and ignorant inhabitants of the island and assumed the position of the emperor of the place. Jones never reconciled to his origin and identity, rather exploited members of his own race to gain superiority. Jones’s desire to raise his status is due to his hateful disposition towards the colonial rulers as well as a strong desire to be like them, due to their charisma. As the author has said in his article, Jones’s desire to associate himself with white culture stems from his conflicting feelings of being both coloniser and colonised.

Eugene O’ Neill has brought out the theme using cultural aspects like language, clothing and stereotypes. Jones’ had learned the language of the natives- apparently only to exploit them, but Mendelssohn subtly comments that Smithers, the white trader, never cared to learn the natives’ language. This probably shows how badly Jones wanted to shrug off his identity, but failed to do so. Therefore, Jones was not only literally bilingual but also culturally bilingual.  Jones’s bilingualism had severe consequences: it forced him to bear a double cultural burden under which his sense of self crumbled.The author calls this identity crisis a characteristic of the post-colonial individual, based on Bhabha and Fanon’s arguments- the racist world is developed on the basis of man’s self alienated images. The author also wonders why does Jones call himself a ‘nigger’ when he is alone but not when he is with Smithers. He quotes Fanon who argued that a black man has two dimensions. He behaves differently with a white man and with another from the same community.This self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation.

Next, he moves on to point out the stereotype in Eugene’s description of Jones. He was powerfully built, full bodied, hardy, typically ‘negroid’ features. This shows how the blacks were seen as physically remarkable people with negligible intelligence. This stereotype continues even today, when African college students are considered to be less productive than their American counterparts. Culture biased intelligence tests, designed by some psychologists, back such prejudices and notions. These lead to lower self confidence and self efficacy- as explained by humanistic psychology theories.  Jones, according to the author, was desperate to prove his intellect to Smithers and thus said that he had done almost all the brain-work for him. Also, that the black man has no acceptance outside his community is very evident in this play. Jones had no concrete idea where to escape even though he boasted about his wealth and that he would be safe and happy. The perpetual hurt of seeking acceptance and not finding it refers to Carl Rogers’ unconditional positive regard- which inhibit development.The author of the article however feels that Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious doesn’t play a huge role in Jones’ case, because, he had the collective unconscious of the black man through his birth, which made him experience few of his hallucinations; but he had also assimilated the collective unconscious of the white man’s fear and hatred of blackness, or rather, the black community.

Mendelssohn focuses a lot more on the theme of racial exploitation and hatred instead. He alludes to a beautiful instance from ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’, where Jim claimed to have been drinking lots of chalk water to whiten his skin colour. The story explicit in his innocent question “Does I look white?” is no less painful than skin gashed open by a sword. Rather, as a reader, I would like to wave Jim’s question at the society like a mighty sword. Do we really need to look white?

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