“Jones emulates the white winners of the power game because he perceives the ‘survival of the fittest’ as a racialized enterprise in which the fittest are those who can act the whitest.”
This was a line that captured my attention in the essay “Reconsidering Race, Language and Identity in The Emperor Jones” by Michèle Mendelssohn. She mentions in her essay about racial memory, bilingualism of Emperor Jones and the Jungian psychology of collective consciousness. She also focuses on the studies by authors like Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi and Homi Bhabha who have also written about race, colour.
Being a student of Psychology, something that made me ponder was the concept of identity in the essay which is also backed by the concept of language. Therefore I will be focusing on these two topics as they are interwoven. We are all aware that Jones is stripped off his identity in the text. The conflict between him being the colonizer and the colonized becomes the foundation of his association to the white culture. According to Albert Memmi, one has to give up one’s identity as the colonized in order to become a man and this would help in liberation. This was possible by adopting the language of the whites. Jones is stripped off his identity as a black man in order to gain an identity as a white. However, this attempt of his turns out to be futile because I believe he was “trying” to become someone he was not.
After reading the essay what struck me in the first place was that Jones tried really hard to maintain his identity in front of Smithers. He learns the native language and is questioned by Smithers, upon which he gives the reason that it was to exploit the natives.
“Turned yer coat an’ was takin’ up with their [the natives’] blarsted witch-doctors, or whatever the ‘ell yer calls the swine”/I pretends to! Sho’ I pretends! Dat’s part o’ my game from de fust”.
Secondly, when Smithers questions Jones about going native, he replies that he is pretending
“Jones compares the natives’ to the whites’ attempts to catch him and suggests that although both would ultimately fail, the natives are worse off because they “ain’t got brains enuff.”
These lines show that Jones is trying really hard to be someone he is not. In my opinion, it looks like he is trying to prove Smithers that he can act like a white man. The need to prove this to Smithers somewhere shows that Jones might consider Smithers to be superior since he was a white man. The idea of white men being superior to black men might still be lingering in Jones’ mind.
Michèle Mendelssohn in her essay mentions about how Fanon believes that Jones tries to break his ties with the natives and move towards the white intellect. He tells Smithers that he has an intelligent brain. The so-called white intellect is made to be something exceptional or high-caliber. “The Cartesian cogito ergo sum: “I think therefore I am” becomes, for Jones, “I think therefore I am white.”
We see that Brutus Jones knows both his native language and the language of whites. I would like to bring the idea of Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” It is clearly seen how Jones believes that learning the language of white makes him a part of the ‘superior’ race, which in turn will help his continuous existence.
These ideas are relatable to our own daily lives. For example of a peer group, when an outsider wants to be a part of the primary group he/she may do things to please the members of the already existing group.We try and sometimes succeed to adapt to the behavior pattern of the already existing group. The outsider needs a sense of approval. A very common example would be peer pressure. Just to achieve that approval the outsider falls prey to the demands of the primary group, thus, shedding his/her real identity and gaining an identity that of the group.
Similarly, Emperor Jones here is acting like the white colonizers, exploiting his own race, his own native people to gain the approval from the white people as I believe.. Michèle Mendelssohn,in my opinion fails to point out this particular concept in her essay. Jones is indirectly getting subjugated to Smithers’ white complexion even though he is the Emperor of that place.With so much confusion with his identity, its highly possible that Jones had an identity crisis.
I want to conclude by saying that there is no point in being trying to be someone else. All of us have an identity and it has its own complications so why increase the problems by trying to be someone else too? The idea of superiority and inferiority should not exist, everyone is equal in this world. Emperor Jones lost his real identity in order to be a “white” – something he was not and would never be.