As Jones runs into the forest to escape the rebelling natives, he encounters apparitions summoned by the natives that force him to confront his history, both on a personal level and on a much grander scale. By forcing Jones to watch and experience his past and a condensed history of the black slave experience over the previous 200 years, the play asserts that it's impossible for a black person to truly escape the legacy of slavery, as that legacy continues to inform the lives of the black community regardless of what they do or where in the world they go.
Jones's initial relocation to the island in the Caribbean is an attempt to escape his own past and the larger history of slavery in the United States. He escapes to the island after first murdering another man in a dice game, which can be seen as exemplifying the kind of black on black violence that occurs specifically under a regime of white power that deprives black people of any other significant means of gaining money than illicit gambling. While imprisoned for the first murder, Jones then kills a white prison guard and escapes to the Caribbean. In doing so he literally kills a representative figure of white authority in the United States, and then escapes to a country where no such authority exists. Once in the Caribbean, Jones operates under the assumption that he'll truly be able to escape his past by escaping the place—the United States—in which that past took place. Jones does find that on the island he can elevate himself far higher than he ever would've been able to in the US. It's also significant that he undertakes this entire endeavor alone. By acting alone, Jones seems to feel that he is able to divorce himself from the biases and cultural narratives that keep him trapped in the collective memory of slavery in the United States. Put another way, Jones seems to initially believe that memory and the past are inseparable from locale and community, and that simply by changing locale, a person can escape their past, escape their community, and go on to rewrite the direction of their future.
As Jones begins his journey through the forest, he sets out believing that he's going to remain separated from his past and the slavery-ridden history of his former black community and ancestors. However, the apparitions that the natives send to torment Jones make it abundantly clear that Jones's initial belief that he left his past behind in the United States is foolish and impossible. The apparitions first force Jones to accept his personal history by sending the ghost of Jeff, the black man he murdered, and then apparitions of the prison guard and other black convicts who also worked on the chain gang. They then immerse Jones in a slave auction, a slave ship, and finally, a religious sacrifice in the Congo. As these apparitions progress from one to the next, Jones interacts with them progressively more and more—though he only talks to Jeff (and in doing so, seems aware that Jeff is long dead), Jones participates unwillingly in the chain gang, and later seems unable to resist joining the black slaves in their wails and rocking in the slave ship. By making it seem with these later apparitions as though Jones participates out of instinct, the play suggests that Jones's very identity as an American black man inherently includes his slave ancestry and his even earlier African ancestry. Standing on the auction block and participating in tribal rituals are things that are, per the logic of the play, branded into the collective memories of African Americans, and are therefore part of Jones's history that cannot be ignored.
Though Eugene O'Neill's identity as a white man and the era in which the play was written complicates some of these ideas (it's possible, for instance, to read a very sinister message to black viewers that African Americans will never escape slavery and achieve any sense of equality) in a contemporary context, the same message serves as a poignant reminder that there are still racist systems at work in American society that oppress and dehumanize people of color daily.
History and Collective Memory ThemeTracker
History and Collective Memory Quotes in The Emperor Jones
No use'n you rakin' up ole times. What I was den is one thing. What I is now 's another.
For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks. If dey's one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca's listenin' to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.
You'd 'ave been in jail if you 'ad, wouldn't yer then? And from what I've 'eard, it ain't 'ealthy for a black to kill a white man in the States. They burns 'em in oil, don't they?
Doesn't you know dey's got to do so wid a man was member in good standin' o' de Baptist Church? Sho' I was dat when I was porter on de Pullmans, befo' I gits into my little trouble. Let dem try deir heathen tricks. De Baptist Church done pertect me and land dem all in hell.
How come all dese white stones come heah when I only remembers one? Nigger, is you crazy mad? Is you lightin' matches to show dem whar you is? Fo' Lawd's sake, use yo' haid.
Damn dis heah coat! Like a straight-jacket!...And to hell wid dese high-fangled spurs. Dey're what's been a-trippin' me up an' breakin' my neck. Dere! I gits rid o' dem frippety Emperor trappin's an' I travels lighter.
Yes, suh! Yes, suh! I'se comin'.
God damn yo' soul, I gits even wid you yit, sometime.
What—what is I doin'? What is—dis place? Seems like—seems like I know dat tree—an' dem stones—an' de river. I remember—seems like I been heah befo'.