Paul Robeson and Ruby Elzy in the 1933 film adaptation of The Emperor Jones (based on Eugene O’Neill play by the same name)
Haiti and Images of Black Nationhood
"The work of art that perhaps galvanised the Harlem Renaissance’s fascination with black nationhood (and black leadership) was Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, The Emperor Jones. A thinly veiled drama about the failures of Henri Christophe’s despotic reign over the island of Haiti, The Emperor Jones was an important vehicle not only for actors like Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, but also for visual artists as well (Aaron Douglas’s blockprint illustrations for the play in 1926 and Dudley Murphy’s film treatment of the play in 1933). Although The Emperor Jones presented the idea of black nationhood and leadership in a negative, racially atavistic light (no doubt with Marcus Garvey’s ‘Africa for Africans’ rhetoric and his failed attempts at nation building in mind), its focus on black agency and independence was not lost on Harlem Renaissance audiences.”
"The history propaganda and mystique that surrounded Haiti - beginning with the US military invasion and occupation of the island in 1915 - took on a life of its own during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to The Emperor Jones, scores of novels, plays, ethnographic studies and journalistic exposés used Haiti and its peoples for a range of purposes. While Haiti’s tortured political history and its cultural links to certain African traditions were viewed by many commentators as evidence of its geo-political weakness and savagery, these same attributes wee viewed by others as reasons for recognising the political power among all peoples of African descent and celebrating Africa’s gifts (via Haiti) to world culture. With the removal of the US Marines from Haiti in 1934, this fascination with the island and its mythologies manifested itself in interesting ways, from Josephine Baker’s staged musical portrayal of a caged Haitian songbird in the 1934 film Zou Zou, to two major off Broadway plays dealing with black political intrigue, Haitian style: John Houseman’s and Orson Welles’s Black Macbeth (1936) and William DuBois’s Haiti (1938)."
Read full piece at the Institute of International Visual Arts.
Original Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.