In Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs, a character named Tshembe says, “I am simply saying that a device is a device, but that it also has consequences; once invented it takes on a life, a reality of its own” (92). I suggest that Hansberry’s words must be kept foremost in mind as one reads through the following study of Eugene O’Neill’s use of race and ethnicity. For O’Neill, unlike many of his white contemporaries, black characters often played significant, if not central, roles in many of his plays. Indeed, the playwright’s inclusion of these characters was a device, but one that would continue to have critical and political consequences throughout and beyond the playwright’s lifetime.
One challenge, as I have discovered in writing about O’Neill and characters of African descent (American or otherwise), is that the device itself complicates any critical interrogation of the plays. Terms often (and entirely too casually) used in grouping and labeling such characters are problematic in ways that O’Neill himself may not have grasped but that our post-postmodern critics (and others) are eager to seize upon in order to question the nature of the language and its function. Whereas O’Neill lived at a time when Americans of African descent were known (at least in polite white society) as “Negroes” or “colored people,” our twenty-first century world dictates that these words are not only politically incorrect, but also that such typographic signifiers be routinely scrutinized, almost ad infinitum.
Trying to maintain my balance on the shifting grounds of theory and criticism, I first had to find ways to validate/employ/define terms such as “race” and “ethnicity” before attempting to create a workable—even useful—critical approach to studying O’Neill.
Unfortunately, the hard-copy and ether-bound worlds of published research provided little that seemed to be stable enough to support unconditionally my application of the terms under scrutiny—a reassuring finding to a post-postmodernist, perhaps, but one that contributed more to graduate student angst than to doctoral candidate satisfaction. Like contemporary African American author Randall Kenan, I, too, felt like a hypocrite in using the most obvious ethnographic term of “race,” since I don’t subscribe to it as a biological absolute—whatever that might be—to determine the characterization of one’s physical being. In biological terms, there is only a single human species, and no one has succeeded scientifically in defining significant differences between peoples who sometimes simply look different from others, according to Kenan’s argument (5). In scientific terms, then, “race” is a myth, often put forth by those, at least in the United States, whose interest in developing a caste system to support the economic development they required to support such institutions as legal slavery also demanded “scientific” proof of distinction. As Martin J. Favor states, “Race becomes a way of insisting on the merits of difference rather than acquiescing to all dominant aesthetic and topical concerns,” a suggestion that in trying to overcome notions of some inherent physical inferiority, many have reconstructed the concept of race to hinder the ease with which distinct cultural practices can be assimilated into (or phased out of) mainstream U.S. culture (18). Or, as Tommy L. Lott says, “All races are political inventions” (1). Either way, the term “race” is fraught with rhetorical challenge. It may be considered authentic (at least in non-scientific terms) or inauthentic, and perhaps much of the word’s impact derives from this play between conflicting constructions. However, “race” is not an incontestable fact but rather a social construction.
If we are then to see “race” as a less politically correct signifier for qualifying (or quantifying) culture than some other term might be, we must also be careful not to essentialize social patterns that a word such as “race” might have signified in earlier times, though “race” may refer chiefly to cultural, rather than biological characteristics. There is, despite its ineffability, an important distinction between race and culture. And while, according to Lott, the strength of a group lies in its cultural integrity (66), an essentialist view of blackness (for our purposes) goes hand in glove with the idea of race as fact, where the defining culture becomes inextricably bound up with the idea of a “race” (Kenan 9). Such an idea also suggests that race is therefore performable, an
accepted supposition during O’Neill’s time, when minstrel shows featuring white performers in black face continued in their popularity and depended on the performers’ abilities to adopt certain stereotypical behaviors in order to “act black” a hundred years ago.
What then to do in our brave new century? Favor suggests that the best way to
meet the rhetorical argument that a definition of race based primarily on sociohistorical—
read “cultural”—criteria confuses race with ethnicity is to accept it (57). My own
solution is not too far off Favor’s mark. In a rare move of critical hubris, I have chosen
to redefine “race” as a literary trope (at least for the purposes of this study), one that helps
preserve cultural diversity in its history of literary expression rather than dismissing its significance and therefore allowing its referents to fall victim to essentialization. Therefore, my interpretation of “race” may be imprecise in any denotative sense but of tremendous value as a tool by which to forge some sort of aesthetic examination. It is an epistemological, rather than a biological, tool.
If it is true, as Homi Bhaba claims, that race, class, gender and other differences are always being “constituted and negotiated in a cross-boundary process” (Olson 362), then my study of O’Neill’s major black characters will continue to encourage boundaryhopping even while attempting to play down the biological essentialization that limits a valid and unrestrained use of “race.” At the same time, “ethnicity” must be understood to refer not to some inherent and inherited culture programmed into the genes of all black people—an essentializing view that limits the signifier’s value. Instead, I will use “race” and “ethnicity” (and their variants) as literary devices that suggest, in general terms, a malleable set of cultural, ethnic and physical characteristics. Since the two terms are related, I will attempt not to shift interchangeably between them, but rather to rely primarily on “ethnicity,” in an attempt to mitigate biological connotations of “race” that have historically problematized the question of where genetic heritage ends and cultural heritage begins. However, I will use “race” when I choose to acknowledge the problematic biological understanding of the term and its historical use in literary study, even as I recognize that such a term remains subject to equivocation.
Another such term, though one that will be used with much less frequency, is “primitivism.” As with the terms I’ve already discussed, “primitivism” assumes different denotations depending on the discipline. It, too, is highly imprecise. However, I will rely less on its significance as an aesthetic movement (of western Europe in the late nineteenth century, for example) and more on its flexibility as a marker of cultural attitude, one that has, at its base, a belief in the intrinsic common interests of all humankind (Guggenheim 1). In addition, “primitivism,” as it describes cultures outside of European (and Western) tradition, can easily be seen as degrading. In trying to mold the category of “primitive” from a time-and-place-locked referent to one that suggests primarily an alternative mode of being, I will attempt to, as Lisa Rado describes, make the historical and cultural past into an ever-accessible present, one that is “ready and willing to serve modern cultural needs” (284). She states that moderns sought only to appropriate ideas that they either found or projected onto a rather broadly defined “primitive” culture in order to remake their own (298). Such was O’Neill’s case: an attempt to disrupt convention, not a desire to reinscribe it by maintaining outdated or even imprecise cultural views. For our purposes, then, “primitivism” will signify an ontology that operates outside of the development of culturally fixed behaviors and technology.
And where does O’Neill himself fit into this dialectic? As one of the foremost modern American writers and most significant early modern playwrights, O’Neill was living in a country where black people—and people of many other ethnic designations—were largely second-class citizens. His affinity for these peoples—indeed, his own presence among them—indicates the importance of understanding, at a basic level, how one of our most significant American voices spoke humanistically during a time in which the country itself was busily and noisily redefining itself politically. “Race” and “ethnicity,” in terms either derogatory or not, remain forces in manipulating ideas and ideals. O’Neill was keenly aware of the concept’s power, and I hope that this study succeeds in illustrating how this vital and challenging playwright undermined, rather than acquiesced to, an essentialized view of blackness in America. In accepting the challenge, I, too, am saying that a device is simply a device, and I hope that this one also takes on a life of its own.
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