American Civilization

March 5, 2009

We Cotch Him

Key Terms






“anti-colonial imperialism”

“cultural resistance”

Art and Propaganda

“Thus the white artist looking in on the colored world, if he be wise and discerning, may often see the beauty, tragedy and comedy more truly than we dare. Of course if he be simply a shyster like Tom Dixon, he will see only exaggerated evil, and fail as utterly in the other extreme as we in ours. But if, like Sheldon, he writes a fine true work of art… or like Ridgeley Torrence, a beautiful comedy… or like Eugene O’Neill, a splendid tragedy like ‘The Emperor Jones’– he finds to his own consternation the Negroes and even educated Negroes, shrinking or openly condemning…. [O]nly yesterday a protest of colored folk in a western city declared that ‘The Emperor Jones is the kind of play that should never be staged under any circumstances, regardless of theories, because it portrays the worst traits of the bad element of both races.’

“No more complete misunderstanding of this play or of the aim of Art could well be written….

“Nonsense. We stand today secure enough in our accomplishment and self-confidence to lend the whole stern human truth about ourselves to the transforming hand and seeing eye of the Artist, white and black…. Torrence and O’Neill are our great benefactors– forerunners of artists who will yet arise….”

— WEB Du Bois, “Negro Art” (1921)

“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent….”

WEB Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926)

The Emperor Jones

On its face The Emperor Jones looks like the tarnished relic of a racist past, one more loathsome piece of kitsch in the junkyard of “ethnic notions”. Divorced from its aesthetic and socio-historical context, Eugene O’Neill’s story of the fall of Brutus Jones– the “emperor” of a nameless West Indian island, and former Pullman car porter and fled convict– seems like an exercise in the grotesque. According to this uncomplicated view the play simply represents an African American con man’s regression into his racial past, what Race Scientists might call “reversion to type” and President Andrew Johnson once suggested was a “‘tendency to relapse into barbarism’” (quoted in Fredrickson) a form of atavism ostensibly peculiar to the “Negro”.

I want to argue in this lecture that this well-intended but insufficient reading of The Emperor Jones is incorrect, that it fails to take into account not only O’Neill’s pointed criticism of US imperialism– a project which was and continues to be directed at impoverished people of color globally– but the very strange and unstable dynamics of racial identity itself.

“The inborn characteristics of the Negro had been formed by natural selection during ‘ages of degradation’ in Africa and his savage traits could not have been altered in any significant way by a mere two centuries of proximity to Caucasian civilization in America. Thus his present ‘reversion to type’ was understandable. Lacking the discipline of slavery, ‘the young negro of the South… is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery.’”

Paul B. Barringer in The American Negro: His Past and Future (1900) quoted in Fredrickson

James Weldon Johnson 28 Aug. 1920

The Context: Haiti



US Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.

O’Neill situates the play “on an island in the West Indies as yet self-determined by White Marines”. Note the irony here. As with This Bloody Blundering Business a satirical sensibility functions as a form of criticism.

The historical context of the play, specifically the United States government’s use of gunboat diplomacy to control Haiti’s domestic situation, points to a critique of an economically and racially motivated violation of the sovereignty of so called third world Caribbean nations, an imperialist project provoked by U.S. concerns about Germany’s influence in the region and justified, legally, by the Monroe doctrine. “Humanitarian” arguments were also advanced in light of Haiti’s political instability.

His protagonist is loosely based on two Haitian rulers, Henri Christophe and Guillaume Sam (though the Gelb biography also mentions a nameless bartender).

Despite the official rationale that the occupation was a necessity imposed on the United States by Haiti’s unstable political situation– a ‘moral duty’ undertaken to protect the lives and property of American citizens– United States’ policy in Haiti reflected a desire to ‘quickly establish U.S. political and economic dominance. Further, such dominance was part of a larger Caribbean plan (Abbot, 100).

In the first year of the occupation alone, U.S. Marines ensured that Philippe-Sudre Dartiguenave was ‘elected’ president by the Haitian Senate, the customhouses were taken over, the Haitian army was disbanded, the national bank was seized and all of its available cash sent to New York , and, on September 16, 1915 an agreement was pressed upon the Haitian government that allowed U.S. Marines to ‘police the country and to control public finances for ten years’ (101).

Here is how Haitian born novelist Edwidge Danticat phrases it:

“On July 28, 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, launching an occupation that would last 19 years.

The U.S. invasion came in the wake of President Woodrow Wilson’s professed commitment to make the world safe for democracy. However, as soon as the Marines landed in Haiti, Wilson’s administration remapped the country into police departments, shut down the press, installed a lame-duck government, rewrote the constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights, took charge of Haiti’s banks and customs and instituted a system of compulsory labor for poor Haitians.

Those who resisted the occupation — among them a militant peasant-run group called Cacos — were crushed. In 1919, U.S. Marines in blackface ambushed and killed the Cacos’ fearless leader, Charlemagne Peralte, mutilated his corpse and displayed it in a public square for days.

By the end of the occupation, more than 15,000 Haitians had lost their lives. A Haitian gendarmerie was trained to replace the U.S. Marines, then proceeded to form juntas, organize coups and terrorize Haitians for decades.

Although U.S. troops were officially withdrawn from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government maintained economic control of the country until 1947.”

Some Documents:

“The election of Dartiguenave is preferred by the United States.”

— Navy Dept. dispatch to Adm. Caperton

“In order that no misunderstanding can possibly occur after election, it should be made perfectly clear to candidates as soon as possible and in advance of their election, that the United States expects to be intrusted with the practical control of the customs, and such financial control over the affairs of the Republic of Haiti as the United States may deem necessary for efficient administration….”

–Telegram Secretary of State to Charge D’Affairs, August 10, 1915

Art. I. The Government of the United States will, by its good offices, aid the Haitian Government in the proper and efficient development of its …resources and in the establishment of the finances of Haiti on a firm…basis.

Art II. The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a general receiver … who shall collect, receive and apply all customs duties …

The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a financial advisor…

Art. III. The Government of …Haiti will provide by law…for the payment of all customs duties to the general receiver…

Art. V. All sums collected …by the general receiver shall be applied first [to pay his expenses] second, to the interest and sinking fund of the public debt of …Haiti…

–Treaty Between The United States And Haiti Signed September 16, 1915

Further context:

These initial acts of imperialism were, however, only the beginning of an eighteen year effort to transform ‘every aspect of Haitian life’ (Suggs 36). U.S. troops dispersed Voudoun ceremonies, chased worshippers away, destroyed sacred drums and other artifacts, and arrested houngans and mambos.  Marines and the U.S. trained Haitian army sought and destroyed armed resistance on the part of officers of the old, ‘disbanded army, landowners, and peasants’ (Trouillot 101).  In order to combat guerilla warfare more effectively, the occupying American forces instituted forced labor on road construction. Laborers were ‘roped together like slaves, underfed and brutally overworked’ in a revival of an old French Colonial practice known as the corvee (Abbott 41). Those who attempted to escape risked being shot. The increasing antagonism of U.S. forces, most of whom brought with them to Haiti the prevalent racist attitudes of the United States and saw the Haitians as little more than savages, finally led to the Cacos Wars (1918-1920), in which thousands of Haitians were killed (42).

The press in the United States, particularly “Negro newspapers,” were aware of the events transpiring in Haiti. The Nation published at least four articles on U.S. involvement in Haiti in the latter half of 1920. James Weldon Johnson condemned the brutality of American troops and ‘charged that the U.S. Marines had killed 3,000 Haitians since 1916 in so-called hunting bandits expeditions’ (Suggs 36).  Two unsigned articles in the Literary Digest, ‘Probing Haitian Scandal’ and ‘Undeclared War in Haiti,’ both of which appeared in October, 1920, criticized Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox for his position on the occupation and suggested that Republican contender Warren G. Harding would be more amenable to changing U.S. policy toward Haiti. This prediction, however, proved to be optimistic. ‘The first step in Harding’s reorganization and rationalization of his Haitian policy was the acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Senate Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo to continue the occupation indefinitely.”

“In October 1930 Haitians chose a national assembly for the first time since 1918. It in turn elected as president Sténio Joseph Vincent. In August 1934 U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew the Marines; however, the United States maintained direct fiscal control until 1941 and indirect control over Haiti until 1947” (Enc. Brit.)

The Play

At a time when most depictions of blacks on stage and screen consisted of racial myths and falsehoods, The Emperor Jones was the first American play to present black actors–as opposed to black-faced actors–and to highlight a black protagonist, arguably one of the most important African-American characters in the history of American drama.  The Emperor Jones established the careers and reputations of such legendary actors as Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson by offering them a role that, at least superficially, defied popular racial misconceptions.  More importantly, the play assisted in encouraging white audiences to sympathize with an African-American character who did not fit the well-established minstrel show taxonomy of dandy, sambo, etc.

Critics were immediately compelled to invoke Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Both Othello and Brutus Jones are powerful men of African descent who are ultimately destroyed by their foibles.

The Emperor Jones was heavily influenced by expressionism, “a general term for a mode of literary or visual art which, in extreme reaction against realism or naturalism, presents a world violently distorted under the pressure of intense personal moods, ideas, and emotions: image and language thus express feeling and imagination rather than represent external reality” (Oxford Concise).


Above: Possibly the most widely known example of Expressionist painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (a series of paintings, actually, created between 1893 and 1910).

It is said that O’Neill’s play was a product not only of his own travels in Honduras, but the photography of Charles Sheeler, who focused on African sculpture from 1916-1918.


Above: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, influenced by African masks.

An interest in “the primitive” was a hallmark of the early phase of modernism, a sensibility which characterized the work of both EuroAmerican and AfricanAmerican artists. Primitivism would become a fertile resource for writers such as O’Neill and Vachel Lindsay (see his frankly revolting poem The Congo) and also Harlem Renaissance figures including Aaron Douglas and Claude McKay. See also Orson Welles’ amazing adaptation of Shakespeare, the so-called Voodoo Macbeth:



Above: Aaron Douglas’ The Emperor Jones Series (woodcut on paper, 1926)

Racial Themes

Scene One:

The color scheme, the overdetermined whiteness of the set– “white-washed walls…. white tiles… white pillars”– are an obvious clue that the dominant racial hierachy of the period is askew.

The palace can be seen as an inversion of the plantation myth; the agrarian paradise where everyone is content and knows her place; here, the master is African-American.

Smithers enters wearing the classic effects of the colonizer: pith helmet, riding crop, puttees, pistol and cartridge belt.

The dialogue between Jones and Smithers is rife with role reversals and inversions (ex. Jones feels “contempt” for Smithers, he tells him to “talk polite, white man”).  Structurally speaking, O’Neill uses Smithers to provide exposition and background regarding Jones’ rise to power.  On another level, Smithers is a corrupt hanger-on, a vulture who scavenges on the remains of Jones’s once-mighty island empire.  He is subordinate to, fears and loathes, Jones yet also admires his cunning and tenacity.  Smithers’ sense of white supremacy, the natural order of things, is undermined by Jones’ brash effectivity.

The description of Jones is telling, and brings us back to the metaphor of blood in the “common sense” discourse of the day: Jones, according to the script, is a “full-blooded Negro” whose “features are typically negroid, yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face– and underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect.”

It would be easy to point to this passage as evidence of a relatively uncomplicated negrophobia were it not for the fact that in The Hairy Ape Mildred’s aunt is also “a type– even to the point of double chin and lorgnettes”. What this seems to indicate is that typicality is not simply a function of race. On the other hand it is undeniable that Jones’ position as emperor and the ostentation of his uniform are intended to be incongruous. Even so, according to the stage directions “he has a way of carrying it off.”

References to “the natives” are contemptuous as well. Clearly BJ views himself as superior, wilier, more sophisticated. This apparent contradiction– an African American  exploiting Afro-Caribbean people– is complicated not only because it challenges our notions of racial affinity and commonality, but because it makes us question that very assumption– i.e., that it is to be expected that BJ would feel sympathy or obligation to other members of the African Diaspora.

Rather BJ has internalized the class and race logic of wealthy American whites:

“dere’s little stealin like you does and dere’s big stealin like I does”, a lesson he attributes to his years as a Pullman car porter.

Jones even goes so far as to explain the most effective methods of colonization to Smithers: exploit local culture (Jones’ claims to be invulnerable to all weapons save a silver bullet seems to tap into native supersitions) and learn the language.

Jones’ past is interesting: it is implied he was imprisoned for murder and that he escaped by killing a guard. Mention of lynching.

The residue of minstrel show conventions: BJ talks to his feet more than once, he claims to have gotten into “an argument wid razors ovah a crap game.” Confronted with a vision of a chain gang “his eyes pop out”.

It becomes evident during his conversation with Smithers that BJ is someone to be taken seriously. He matches his defiance of white supremacy– “man, de white men went after me wid bloodhounds where I come from an’ I jes’ laughs at ’em”– with scrupulous planning– “Dawn tomorrow I’ll be out at de oder side and on de coast whar dat French gunboat is stayin’. She picks me up, take me to the Martinique when she go dar,and dere I is safe wid a mighty big bankroll in my jeans”.

Yet one of the central facts of The Emperor Jones is that it is a play about an African-American adventurer written by an Irish-American man. Does this fact mean that what we are witnessing is some sort of more sopthisticated version of a Minstrel Show? This is an important question, one that we can only answer by thinking about the play’s historical performances, from the opening with Charles Gilpin in 1920 to its revival by the Wooster Group in 1993 (revived again in 2007) when Kate Valk played Brutus Jones in black face and Willem Defoe played Smithers (see time-lapse of performance here).

The drums begin:

Letter from Marines stationed in Haiti during the occupation describe a similar experience. U.S. troops were unnerved by “the nights broken by the throb of voudou drums and the thin eerie wails of conch shells” (38). This form of cultural resistance was, perhaps, ultimately more effective than the armed resistance that the Cacos waged against the Marines.

O’Neill’s biographers also claim that he experienced this sound as a result of a bout of malaria.

Scene Two: “the forest is a wall of darkness dividing the world”. The stage directions suggest two things: Jones is headed into the dark terrain of his own unconscious or some sort of racial memory, and he is entering the domain of the “native”– the Cacos guerrilla.

The “little formless fears” can be read not only as the Jones’ internal state externalized but in terms of the Haitian guerillas who attacked both Haitian troops and U.S. Marines then seemingly vanished into the jungle during the Cacos Wars of 1918-1920.

Scene Three:

We find that Jones has lost his stylish Panama hat and “His face is scratched, his brilliant uniform shows several large rents“.

Jeff, the Pullman porter whom Jones murdered during a dispute over a game of craps, appears.  Jeff crouches on the ground, throwing dice “with the regular, rigid, mechanical movements of an automaton,'” a picture that, viewed within the context of the natives’ supernatural opposition toward Jones, suggests that Jeff is a zombie. The clicking of the dice, a sound that evokes both the rattling of bones and the casting of lots, catches Jones’ attention. Stunned, he recognizes Jeff. He takes the apparition to be a living man. Gradually, however, Jones realizes that because Jeff’s presence on the island is an impossibility, he is a ‘ha’ant’ (21). He fires his revolver, once again revealing his position in the forest and expending another round of ammunition. Jeff vanishes and Jones ‘plunges wildly into the underbrush’ (21).

The chain gang scene– Scene Four— serves to fulfill two functions: it continues Jones’ regression into his own past– pointing to the similarities between his former position as a prisoner and the natives’ situation as subjected or colonized persons– and it introduces the idea of the ‘corvee,’ a form of impressment instituted by U.S. Marines to build roads that would enable them to undertake ‘hunting bandit’ missions with greater efficacy. The road, as a symbol of empire, is both another attempt to restructure the terrain, to alter its essential features and thus recreate it in the image of the imperial center, and a means of confining the indigenous population. The natives are compelled to undertake labor, the product of which aids occupying forces to annihilate armed resistance. Peasants who have been impressed into the corvee are effectively barred from participating in the guerilla warfare that they depend upon to free them from the shackles of empire. In addition to causing Jones to relive his oppressed past, O’Neill suggests a broader critique of the methods of empire building; a set of strategies scarcely distinguishable from the crudest expression of imperialism, the slaved-based economy of EuroAmerican colonialism.

BJ is now “stripped to the waist”. It should be obvious by now that as BJ loses clothing he symbolically sheds layers of “civilization,” or what we could deem the social mask. In stripping away these marks of socialization, O’Neill isn’t simply invoking the myth of a “reversion to type” but attempting to speak universally. In this instance BJ is more than a representative of his race. It goes without saying however, that this is also a kind of strip-tease, with the athletic black male body slowly revealed to the audience. There is clearly a “phantasmatics” of fascination and desire at work here, one that is decidedly raced but which exceeds that encoding.

The Auction Scene (Scene Five):

BJ begins to break down. Plagued by doubt, fear and guilt, he laments his bad behavior, begging god forgiveness. Figures emerge from the gloom and we find ourselves confronted by the pantomime of a slave auction. Again, these figures are described as “stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements” in the stage directions.

Note the presence of mother and child– the invocation of the destruction of the family as a consequence of chattel slavery. Outraged, Jones fires twice. He is down to his last (silver) bullet.

In Scene Six O’Neill further regresses the character of Brutus Jones– explicitly linking his “depth psychology” with historical memory. Jones’ “pants have been so torn away that what is left of them is no better than a breech cloth”

We are now witnessing the Middle Passage. The enslaved are reduced to an keening murmur. Jones joins in. It is interesting to note that certain Voudou ceremonies involve a reenactment of crucial moments in history (Parrinder).

Scene Seven: The Witchdoctor and Crocodile God

Jones, frightened and confused , remarks “seems like I ben heah befo'”.

Now appears perhaps O’Neill’s most technically accomplished portrait of an undifferentiated Other.  With his painted body, antelope horns, bone rattle, cockatoo feathers, (post-contact?) glass beads, and numerous piercings, the Congo witch-doctor is an impressively thorough hodgepodge of every conceivable cliche in the white imagination.  He starts to dance and chant, crooning ‘without articulate word divisions’ (29), yet constructing ‘a narrative in pantomime’ which echoes Jones’ own flight from pursuit.

“Jones has become completely hypnotized. His voice joins in the incantation, in the cries, he beats time with his hands and sways his body to and fro from the waist. The whole spirit and meaning of the dance has entered into him, has become his spirit. Finally the theme of the pantomime halts on a howl of despair, and is taken up again in a note of savage hope. There is a salvation. The forces of evil demand sacrifice. They must be appeased. The witch-doctor points with his wand to the sacred tree, to the river beyond, to the altar, and finally to Jones with a ferocious command. Jones seems to sense the meaning of this. It is he who must offer himself for sacrifice.”

What exactly is going on here? In Scene Eight we discover that Jones has been killed by Lem’s soldiers (Lem, the figure of Cacos resistance to imperial rule). By what witchcraft has Jones’ fired his silver bullet at the apparition of a Crocodile God and ended up dead himself?

A psychological reading of the scene would likely argue that confronted with his core psychology, the rapacious and irrational psychic forces of his unconscious, Brutus Jones is destroyed.

Our “uncomplicated” reading of the play would probably dismiss any deeper meaning to the scene, and instead contend that O’Neill is simply regurgitating an incoherent colonialist fantasy of primitive natives and racial atavism.

An overtly politicized reading might suggest that all of the supernatural elements of the play symbolize cultural resistance to imperialism, as was a significant aspect of the formation of Voudou.

Scene Eight: “We cotch him.”

Lem’s certainty and imperturbability. His ‘primitive’ soldiers. Smithers gets the last lines. Think about what it means for the last word of this play to be what it is. How is this explosive word being used? Clearly as a gesture of racist contempt on the part of Smithers. But what else does the term signify in light of all that has passed? Let’s keep this an open question.

The Performances

Brutus Jones was first played by Charles Gilpin whose tortured relationship with O’Neill over the play’s dialog has become legend. Years after the premiere of the Emperor Jones Gilpin is reported to have said “I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play.”

Show clip from Robeson’s performance as Brutus Jones in the 1933 adaption written by Dubose Heyward the author of Porgy (1924) a novel which was the basis for the musical Porgy and Bess.

There was also a 1955 television adaptation starring Ossie Davis.


Above: the Wooster Theater Group’s version of the Emperor Jones. Actor Kate Valk performed the part in both racial and gender drag.


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