A Ghost in the Expressionist Jungle of O'Neill's the Emperor Jones

By Manuel, Carme | African American Review, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

A Ghost in the Expressionist Jungle of O'Neill's the Emperor Jones


Manuel, Carme, African American Review


The Western World discovered that the Negro could be used as an artistic representation during the first decades of the twentieth century, though cast in the stereotypical mold of the primitive. (1) This image was not new, but it became paramount in the American consciousness during the 1920s, a period that F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled as the Jazz Age. (2) The reasons why this was so are manifold. In the first place, from the historical point of view, "commercialism and standardization that followed industrialism led to increasing nostalgia for the simple, forceful and unmechanized existence that the Negro came to represent" (Singh 32). The African American represented, according to Robert Bone, "the unspoiled child of nature, the noble savage--carefree, spontaneous and sexually uninhibited" (59). American writers like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Waldo Frank, "in revolt abroad and at home against the sterility and philistinism of industrial America, led the search for new American values and modes of expression" (Bell 93). In the second place, European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse found inspiration to revolutionize Western art in African artistic manifestations--sculptures and ritual masks of the city states and kingdoms of West Africa. Finally, this appeal of primitivism found also promotion through the popularization of psychoanalytic theory, "especially Freud's concept of the libidinal self, and the European theories of African and Afro-American culture as evidence of the simplicity and beauty of preindustrial, precivilized culture" (Bell 93-94).

George M. Fredrickson explains how romantic racialism did not disappear from the white consciousness in the twentieth century. (3) In the 1920s a revised form of romantic racialism became something of a national fad, resulting in part, curiously enough, from patronizing white encouragement of the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance. "The New Negro," as perceived by many whites, was simply the old romantic conception of "the Negro" covered with a patina of the cultural primitivism and exoticism fashionable in the 1920s. In 1918 Robert Park, the distinguished sociologist who would come to be recognized as the foremost white student of race relations in the period between the World Wars, set the tone for subsequent "appreciations" of black cultural achievements when he wrote that "the Negro" unquestionably had a temperament which differed from that of whites. The Anglo-Saxon was basically "a pioneer and a frontiersman," while the Negro was primarily "an artist, loving life for its own sake. His metier is expression rather than action. He is, so to speak, the lady among the races." This assessment of blackness is the reason that would-be Negrophiles of the 1920s were not content to allow African Americans to express their collective artistic temperament and love of life through jazz and the literature of the Harlem school: these whites took to writing novels and plays of their own to emphasize that blacks were basically exotic primitives, out of place in white society because of their natural spontaneity, emotionalism, and sensuality (327). (4)

Consequently, "this Negro fad of the 1920s in the United States led to an unprecedented artistic activity that focused on the depiction of the Negro in fiction, drama, poetry, painting and sculpture" (Singh 32), as African Americans became "for white bohemian and avant-garde artists a symbol of freedom from restraint, a source of energy and sensuality" (Cooley 52), as well as a new vision for "white America's salvation" (Bell 94). (5) Works such as Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" (1917), Waldo Frank's Holiday (1922), or Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) ironically helped light white readers' way to black texts. As Bone manifests, "they created a sympathetic audience for the serious treatment of Negro subjects" (60). …

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