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Wallace Thurman - THE BLACKER THE BERRY

1929 Novel of the Harlem Renaissance. First major work of fiction to tackle American black prejudice against other blacks.

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"The blacker the berry/The sweeter the juice ... Negro folk Saying"

  • Oct 27, 2010
Rating:
+4
"The blacker the berry
The sweeter the juice ...
-- Negro folk Saying"

is the first of two epigraphs placed at the beginning of the 1929 novel THE BLACKER THE BERRY. Young (1902 - 1934) author Wallace Thurman chose it for a reason. Immediately below it was Thurman's second epigraph,



"My color shrouds me in ...


--Countee Cullen."   *****  

THE BLACKER THE BERRY flopped with publics and critics in 1929. But in later years it has been repeatedly singled out as a great classic of "the Harlem Renaissance" (1919 - 1935). For it was the first novel seriously to depict skin color as a social divider among American negroes.   *****  

Young heroine Emma Lou Morgan has beautiful wavy hair, a good figure and pleasant features. But her skin is very dark. And both her proud, color-conscious mother and grandmother convince her that being a black girl makes her future virtually hopeless, even growing up in almost entirely white Boise, Idaho. Emma Lou is not so continuously put down in the Boise public schools asby her family. But when she graduates, she is not only the only black student on stage, but the only one in the entire high school. And she has already come to hate her skin color and therefore herself as well.   *****  

With the help of a rare family booster, Uncle Joe,  Emma Lou goes off happily to begin three unhappy years of study at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She never manages to make friends among the numerous lighter-skinned negroes. Her color excludes her from a black sorority. She is very lonely, though already sexually active.   *****  

Next Emma Lou Morgan flees, without taking a degree, from hateful Los Angeles to Harlem, perceived as a negro heaven. She loves being surrounded by so many people of color. But she has already imbibed the color code that rules American negro social life with its iron rule, "Whiter and whiter every generation." She wants nothing to do with very dark Southern men. They are ignorant. And light-skinned descendants of slaves, both from the American South and from the West Indies, with no exceptions look down on Emma Lou.   *****  

At one point, Emma Lou bucks herself up enough to take more college courses, pass the New York State examination to be a teacher and goes to work in a Harlem school. Thinking that her lighter-skinned colleagues will like her for it, Emma Lou bleaches her skin and takes garlic pills. The result turns them off.   *****  

Finally, a white male writer convinces Emma Lou to stop running from Idaho to Los Angeles to Harlem looking for happiness through group acceptance. She had to stop accepting the chant:

"A yaller gal rides in a limousine

A brown-skin does the same;

A black gal rides in a rickety Ford

But she gets there, yes, my Lord."
   *****  


In the end, Emma Lou screws up her courage. She resolves to become selfish, financially independent and not to let other people put her down for being so black. Emma Lou dumps her beloved, but no account half-mulatto, half-Philippino male lover and his (not hers) sickly baby. She packs her bags and moves on (leaving her own Harlem apartment). 

  *****  

There is not a page in this short novel in which American negroes of all shades do not dump on Emma Lou Morgan just because she is very black. This happens during job searches, at Harlem house parties, everywhere. Towards the end, for example, at a famous Harlem vaudeville house owned by Jews, Emma Lou always takes it personally when performers on stage bring down the house with humor directed at blacker than ideal negroes. This unending abuse of a decent young woman because of her skin color is depressing. But apparently things like that happened.   -OOO-

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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