Wallace Thurman, “The Blacker the Berry” (1929)

The title of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life comes from an African-American folk saying (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). By this time, the question of passing had been heavily debated. In the same year as The Blacker the Berry, Nella Larsen published Passing. Thurman’s approach was quite different and may suggest a movement toward a more self-confident black nationalism (or at least what we could call “black pride”). This theme was hinted at in Plum Bun, when the main character Angela learned that passing was not really necessary in places of strong black institutions (like Harlem). The Blacker the Berry takes a very dark skinned woman, named Emma Lou, from a predominately white part of the country (“a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one”) — someone for whom passing was never an option — and shows how she developed an acceptance of her skin color and her community. Like other characters in these Harlem Renaissance novels, Emma Lou was fleeing something. Some fled by leaving the country, others fled the South, still others fled their lives as blacks through passing. Emma Lou–poor, dark skinned, and not very self-assured–flees without any of the advantages some of her counterparts had.

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Wallace Thurman died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis and only produced three novels and a handful of other works, of which the most significance was his play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem. Before writing stories he worked a journalist, starting his own failed journal and editing for The Messenger and Fire!!  Other parts of his life were somewhat sketchy and suggest an interesting–if short–life.  His grandmother ran a bootlegging tavern in Utah, where he was born. His mother went through six husbands. Thurman himself married Louise Thompson (later Patterson) for only a few weeks. She later suggested that Thurman was a homosexual.  He bounced around from job to job, from project to project, but lived in Harlem during the peak of the literary activity of the Harlem Renaissance from 1925 until his death in 1934.  The novel is slightly autobiographical in that both Thurman and Emma Lou were raised in Utah, studied at UCLA and settled in Harlem.

Wallace Thurman

Wallace Thurman

The libertarian lessons of The Blacker the Berry seem to me to come down to two questions. One regards the proper role of migration and mobility. The second is about overcoming the bounds that race and color imposed on blacks themselves. Indeed, we see throughout the tale that some of the most debilitating color consciousness came from other blacks in Emma Lou’s life (family, friends in college, employment agencies, etc.)

In The Blacker the Berry, mobility at first glance seems potentially liberating. Emma Lou encountered many unfortunate environments that restricted her development. She also always left with a finality and decisiveness that suggested a certain amount of bravery. “Emma Lou yet felt that she must manage in some way to escape both home and school. That she must find happiness somewhere else. The idea her Uncle Joe had given her about the provinciality of people in small towns re-entered her mind. After all Los Angeles, too, was a small town mentally, people by mentally small southern Negroes. It was no better than Boise. She was not determined to go East where life was more cosmopolitan and people were more civilized.” (728) Emma Lou constantly rejects the advice of her family to return home, against suggesting autonomy.  Yet, we also know that her movement is always a flight from the discomfort the experiences due to her skin color.  She feared being unable to marry, feared getting a job, or imagined  a place “where money was more plentiful and more easily saved.” (728) As liberating as mobility can be, we should be wary of this very unPromethean flight without purpose because it suggests a unwillingness to fight where you are.

Of course, the dominant theme is “intra-racial color prejudice.”  In fact, this was clearly one of the most important concerns of black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. From her youth, Emma Lou was reminded by everyone, including her closest relatives, that she was a problem child simply for having been born dark skinned. There was plenty of fault to go around, they did not quite blame Emma. If only her mother had married a “yellow” man?  “Everything possible had been done to alleviate the unhappy condition, every suggested agent had been employed, but her skin, despite bleachings, scourgings, and powderings, had remained black–fast black–as nature had planned and effected.” (693) Mind you, this is the first page of the novel.  And I do not have space in this blog to list the examples of this type of “intra-racial color prejudice.”  Trust me, through, it accompanies almost every page of this short novel. She experienced it in college, when she was avoided by other black students. Her only friend was another dark-skinned woman who perhaps did a better job of playing the role that nature and American racism assigned to her.

Harlem was objectively better for Emma Lou. At least here, color prejudice was discussed and admitted by the people she encountered.  She also finds a broader circle of allies and companions and lovers. Many people in Harlem, black and white, encourage her to make the most of her life. Even a boss at an employment agency, sending people out to mind-numbing secretarial jobs saw promise in her and urges her to become a teacher after finishing school in New York. And while she did not take that advice, she found economic independence not long after her arrival in Harlem.  The albatross over her psychology, however, remained her skin color.

Her final choice is to fight where she stands. “She was tired of running up blind alleys all of which seemed to converge  and lead her ultimately to the same blank wall.  Her motto from now on would be ‘find–not seek.’ All things were at one’s finger-tips. Life was most kind to those who were judicious in the selections, and she, weakling that she now realized she was, had not been a connoisseur.”  (829) This choice of her does not eliminate the need for institutional or social transformation, but its optimism suggests that her decision to settle in Harlem would not be due to paralysis.

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