The Emperor Jones takes place in the time period in which it was written (late 1910s, possibly into the early 1920s), and it's very important to consider the play in the context of its time. As an African American and a Pullman porter, Jones would have been subjected to Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic oppression that reminded him daily that he was black and therefore powerless. The Emperor Jones, then, explores what happens when someone like Jones internalizes these systems of power, and then goes on to perpetuate them in his own empire once he's given the chance to do so.
Prior to the start of the play, Jones spent ten years working as a porter on Pullman sleeper trains. In this line of work (which was considered one of the most desirable jobs for African Americans at the time), Jones would have been in close contact with white people in an environment that considered black porters to be lesser than the white passengers. Through immersion in this oppressive environment, Jones had the opportunity to listen to his white passengers speak and by doing so, he developed his own ideas about how people gain power. He comes to believe that small crime lands people in jail, while crimes on a larger scale—what he calls "big stealin'"—earn people fame and fortune.
Jones's realization about the way the world works reflects the greater system of race relations in the United States: Jim Crow laws and other legalized forms of oppression made it legal to jail or otherwise punish African Americans for crimes that weren't policed nearly as harshly if the perpetrator was white. In fact, most racially motivated white crime, no matter how brutal, wasn't prosecuted at all. Jones and Smithers discuss lynching at one point, a practice of extra-judicial hanging of black people that white people used to create an environment of intense fear and exert often unchecked power over their black neighbors. This entire system—both the legal system that privileged white people and the extrajudicial violence that ensured black people were too frightened to fight against the system—enabled not just an environment in which it was possible for white people to commit these humanitarian crimes of disempowering, killing, and intimidating African Americans, but also allowed them to reap major economic benefits for doing so by exploiting black labor. In essence, then, Jones's recognition of "big stealin'" functions as a condemnation of the entire system of racist white society, which legally functioned as a kind of theft of black bodies, labor, and wealth.
Coming out of this system after serving time in jail for killing both a black man and a white prison guard, Jones escapes to an island in the Caribbean to install himself as emperor. Rather than take the opportunity to dismiss the systems that kept him down in the United States, Jones instead perpetuates them with disastrous results. Upon arrival on the island, Jones doesn't choose to view the black natives as people worthy of respect, just like he is. Instead, he conceptualizes them as dumb and gullible and takes the opportunity to subjugate them in much the same way white people did to him when he lived in America. Jones taxes the natives as much as he possibly can and keeps them functioning in a state of fear at all times, which consequently allows him to live in luxury as the emperor of the island. Further, though the play never includes scenes in which Jones speaks to the natives, it implies that he enjoys talking down to them—or at the very least, he enjoys talking badly about them to others. Interestingly too, even before he learns that the natives have already begun their revolt, Jones is acutely aware of the fact that a native uprising is inevitable. This in turn suggests an understanding—on both Jones's and the play's part—that existing under these circumstances is untenable and damaging, and cannot last.
When considered in terms of the racial oppression that Jones faced in the United States during the 1910s, the play suggests that these systems of power are insidious and, horrifically, are internalized by the victims. Though Jones seeks to remedy his own oppression by seizing power and subjugating others, his eventual death at the hands of his subjects makes the consequences of perpetuating systems like this abundantly clear. In this way, the play offers the possibility that the only way to truly escape oppression is to escape the system that enables that oppression.
Power and Systemic Oppression ThemeTracker
Power and Systemic Oppression Quotes in The Emperor Jones
And I'm bloody glad of it, for one! Serve 'im right! Puttin' on airs, the stinkin' nigger! 'Is Majesty! Gawd blimey! I only 'opes I'm there when they takes 'im out to shoot 'im.
Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I'm boss heah now, is you fergettin'?
No use'n you rakin' up ole times. What I was den is one thing. What I is now 's another.
You didn't s'pose I was holdin' down dis Emperor job for de glory in it, did you? Sho'! De fuss and glory part of it, dat's only to turn de heads o' de low-flung, bush niggers dat's here. Dey wants de big circus show for deir money. I gives it to 'em an' I gits de money.
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?
Think dese ign'rent bush niggers dat ain't got brains enuff to know deir own names even can catch Brutus Jones? Huh, I s'pects not! Not on yo' life! Why, man, de white men went after me wid bloodhounds where I come from an' I jes' laughs at 'em. It's a shame to fool dese black trash around heah, dey're so easy.
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.
Does you think I'd slink out de back door like a common nigger? I'se Emperor yit, ain't I? And de Emperor Jones leaves de way he comes, and dat black trash don't dare stop him—not yit, leastways.
Dis am a long night fo' yo', yo' Majesty! Majesty! Der ain't much majesty 'bout dis baby now. Never min'. It's all part o' de game. Dis night come to an end like everything else.
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.
Oh, I'se sorry I evah went in for dis. Dat Emperor job is sho' hard to shake.
Yes, suh! Yes, suh! I'se comin'.
God damn yo' soul, I gits even wid you yit, sometime.
Oh, Lawd, what I gwine do now? Ain't got no bullet left on'y de silver one. If mo' o' dem ha'nts come after me, how I gwine skeer dem away? Oh, Lawd, on'y de silver one left—an' I gotta save dat fo' luck. If I shoots dat one I'm a goner sho'!
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'.
Well, they did for yer right enough, Jonsey, me lad! Dead as a 'erring! Where's yer 'igh an' mighty airs now, yer bloomin' Majesty? Silver bullets! Gawd blimey, but yer died in the 'eighth o' style, any'ow!