The Emperor Jones tells the story of Brutus Jones, a porter on a train car who, after killing a black man and then a white prison guard in the United States, escapes to a Caribbean island. On the island, he quickly sets up an empire, with himself as emperor. He amasses vast wealth by levying heavy taxes on the black natives and by engaging in various forms of corruption. When he learns from a white trader named Smithers that his black native subjects are planning to revolt against him, he embarks on a journey through the forest to escape by sea. As Jones wanders through the forest at night, with the sound of the natives' drums constantly beating in the background, he is faced with various native-summoned apparitions that force him to confront the fact that in making himself emperor and exploiting the natives, he was "performing whiteness"—putting into practice the lessons he learned by watching the white people who mistreated and exploited him in the United States. Furthermore, he comes to realize that his race and all that comes with it isn't something that he can escape or deny.
The play opens with Jones already having established himself as emperor. He is extremely powerful—the natives believe that he is charmed and can only be killed by silver bullets. He's rich from the taxes and other sorts of corrupt business that his role allows him to engage in without consequences. In one sense, by turning himself into a rich and powerful emperor, Jones overturns the racist situation that defined his life of exploitation and impoverishment in the United States. However, the play's take on racism isn't nearly that simple. Jones doesn't just set himself up as an emperor; rather, he makes himself emperor over other black people and uses his position to exploit and oppress those black people in order to enrich himself. Jones seeks power and exploits the less powerful, just as he himself was exploited by white people in the United States.
Furthermore, Jones explicitly states that he was able to successfully install himself as emperor and tax the natives dry by using what he learned from white people during his time working as a porter: that "big stealin'" brings fame and fortune. With this, the play then connects whiteness and white people to exploitation, corruption, and seeking power. It also makes the case that Jones, in making himself emperor, is acting like a white person. To this point, Jones does hold what can be described as "racist" views toward the natives he oppresses, whom he views as dumb and gullible. More broadly, this dynamic suggests that white racism and exploitation create a kind of cycle, in which white culture defines the terms of success—power and wealth—and then anyone who tries to gain that success will necessarily have to act like a white person in order to achieve it. White racism and exploitation, the play suggests, create only more exploitation and more racism.
After learning of the natives' imminent revolt against him, Jones flees into the forest, and confronts apparitions summoned by the natives. His interactions with these apparitions force him to relive his own personal history (which took place in the early twentieth century) and the history of slavery in the United States. As he wanders, he encounters apparitions of the black man and the white prison guard he killed, and then experiences being sold at a slave auction, being a passenger on a slave ship bound for the US, and finally, a sacrificial ceremony performed by a witch doctor in the Congo. As Jones descends through time and confronts these apparitions, the things that signify his façade of white power get stripped away and his belief in his own power erodes until he's nothing more than a scared, animalistic man with no power of any sort. Through these apparitions, the natives force Jones to admit that he's black, thereby insisting that it's impossible to escape this knowledge no matter how high he climbs. Within the logic of the play and in the light of the rampant racism of the time period in which it was written (around 1920), the play leaves the viewer with the assertion that black individuals like Jones who seek to better themselves by performing whiteness are doing so futilely: that they'll never escape the fact that they're black and will always be seen as such, and that even in trying to escape they are only ever reenacting the exploitation and racism that afflicted them in the first place.
The play's exploration of race is further complicated by the character of Smithers, a cantankerous, racist white sailor who seems to be enriching himself through Jones's own corrupt practices. Smithers appears in the first and last scenes of the play, and in those scenes he functions as a kind of narrator. In the first scene Smithers introduces Jones to the audience and in the last, he accompanies the black natives to the edge of the forest where they then kill Jones. By having Smithers open and close the play, he is established as an interpreter of events, and the viewer is encouraged to identify with him and with his interpretation. Put another way, the play literally sets up Jones to be viewed through a lens of whiteness, as provided by Smithers. There are a few implications of this structural dynamic. First, the fact that Smithers appears to respect Jones more than he does the natives highlights even further the way that Jones's own ascent to power is based on the racist and exploitative viewpoints he learned from white men. Second, even though Smithers occupies a very small place in the action itself, his role as interpreter affords him a great deal of power: his way of interpreting those events is given precedence. So, in a play about a black emperor, it is still a white man who holds the most power. Essentially, both thematically and structurally, the play seems to suggest that there is no escape for black people, no matter how high they ascend, from white racism and oppression.
Racism 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'?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!