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ANNA SIOMOPOULOS "The 'Eighth o' Style": Black Nationalism, the New Deal, and The Emperor Jones Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, journalists and intellectuals asserted that Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones was a scathing critique of the black nationalist movement in the U.S., and that the play's corrupt ruler was inspired by Marcus Garvey.1 Like Garvey , Jones embodies a charisma lacking in the more traditional African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, and, like Garvey, who was often introduced as "His Highness, the Potentate," Jones's character fashions himself and his followers as members of a new black aristocracy (Draper 51).2 Garvey himself denounced the play for its implication that he was a political opportunist who used his nationalistic political organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, for his own financial gain.' By the time the film version of The Emperor Jones appeared in 1933, however, Garvey had been deported for alleged financial misdeeds and no longer occupied a central place in African American politics. This essay will argue that, in relation to the 1933 film, it is not Garvey, Du Bois, or any other historically significant black nationalist who provides a relevant reference point for Jones's character while he holds his regal title, but rather Franklin Delano Roosevelt, insofar as FDR represented a new kind of imperial president, and the welfare state represented a new kind of feudalism to millions of African Americans. The changes to the play evident in the film encourage the implicit comparison between the U.S. president and the island dictator , and between the racism of the New Deal in the U.S. and the tyranArizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 3, Autumn 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 58Anna Siomopoulos nical reign ofJones on the island, a comparison validated by letters that African Americans sent to the White House during the early years of the Depression. In addition, this essay will contend that the film version of The Emperor Jones differs from the play insofar as it places the weight of black national sentiments not on the character ofJones, but on the islanders who overthrow him. In the 1933 film, Jones's fall and the native rule that replaces him represent a historical shift in the thought and practice of black nationalism during the Depression. By the 1930s, black nationalism was associated not with the Napoleonic costumes and regal persona of Garvey, but with grass-roots activism and the political philosophy of Du Bois, who had begun to promote the idea of self-segregation . Following Du Bois's political thought, the film suggests that Jones comes to represent the black nationalist principles of racial solidarity and self-determination only after he has abandoned the trappings of royalty and provided the context for the natives to reclaim control of their island. By the end of the film, Jones becomes a symbol of popular sovereignty and the exemplary representative of his race that he was previously only pretending to be, a transformation encouraged by the lead performance of Paul Robeson. As portrayed by Robeson, an icon of both African American mass culture and radical politics, Jones symbolizes both the failings of a discriminatory welfare state, and, after he has disavowed his oppressive rule, the hopes for a new kind of mass democratic black nationalism. The protagonist of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones is Brutus Jones, a pullman porter who becomes ruler of a West Indian island by convincing the natives that he has supernatural powers. The play begins when Jones awakens one morning to the sound of distant drums and discovers that the islanders have abandoned his palace to conduct the rituals that they believe will help them hunt him down. While attempting to flee the island, Jones becomes lost in the jungle, where he meets and fires his pistol at a number of supernatural phenomena, including forest spirits that O'Neill describes as "the little formless fears," as well as apparitions of both a friend he had murdered for cheating at a dice game, and the prison guard that he had killed to escape jail. Jones also encounters and shoots...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 57-81
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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