The Blacker the Berry
|The Blacker the Berry|
Dust jacket by Aaron Douglas
|Publisher||The Macaulay Company|
|Media type||Print Hardcover|
The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929) is a novel by the American author Wallace Thurman, associated with the Harlem Renaissance. It was considered ground breaking for its exploration of colorism and racial discrimination within the black community, where lighter skin was often favored, especially for women.
The novel tells the story of Emma Lou Morgan, a young black woman with dark skin. It begins in Boise, Idaho and follows Morgan in her journey to college at UCLA, and a move to Harlem, New York City for work. Set during the Harlem Renaissance, the novel explores Morgan's experiences with colorism, discrimination by lighter-skinned African Americans due to her dark skin. She learns to come to terms with her skin color in order to find satisfaction in her life.
- Part 1 Emma Lou
Born in Boise, Idaho, Emma Lou Morgan is an African-American girl with dark skin, and she suffers from it. Her mother and her family have lighter skin (it shows European ancestry in her family history). Emma Lou learned that her father, who left the mother and daughter soon after she was born, was a dark-skinned black man, and she appears to take after him. Her mother's family members comment on Emma Lou's color, thinking it will reduce her appeal for marriage. Her family help the girl try to lighten her skin with commercially available creams and bleaching, but are unsuccessful. Morgan wishes that she had been born a boy, as her mother said, "a black boy could get along, but that a black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment." The only "Negro pupil in the entire school," she feels conspicuous at graduation in their white robes.
Her Uncle Joe encourages her to go to the University of Southern California (USC). He says she can find other black students for friends, and encourages her to study education and move to the South to teach. He believes that smaller towns like Boise "encouraged stupid color prejudice such as she encountered among the blue vein circle in her home town." Emma Lou’s maternal grandmother was closely associated with the "blue veins", those blacks who had skin light enough to show veins. Uncle Joe thought that Emma Lou could find a better life in Los Angeles, where people had more to think about.
At USC, Morgan intends to meet the "right" crowd among other Negro students. On registration day, she happens to meet Hazel Mason, another black girl, but decides when she speaks that she is lower class and the wrong sort. Other girls are pleasant enough, but never invited Emma Lou into their circle or sorority. Hazel drops out of school and Grace Giles becomes Emma Lou’s friend. One day Grace says the sorority only took light-skinned, wealthy girls.
By summer, Emma Lou felt more trapped by her skin. She began to notice that black leaders tended to have light skin or were married to women with light skin. At a picnic, she meets Weldon Taylor, a young black man. Although darker than her ideal, he attracts her. By the end of the night, she thought she was in love. Over the next two weeks, she is thrilled to be with Taylor, for "his presence and his love making." He traveled from town to town, finding work and a new girl each time. He was leaving Boise to become a Pullman porter but, Emma Lou took his departure as due to her color, and associated it with any setback. Two years later after graduation, she decides to move to New York City and Harlem.
- Part 2 Harlem
Emma Lou goes to Harlem, where she soon meets John, a young man she decides is "too dark." She goes to an employment agency, seeking work as a stenographer. Lacking job experience, she encounters difficulties and pads her account of her skills. Sent to a real estate office for an interview, after she arrives, they tell her they have someone else in mind. After returning to the agency, Emma Lou was invited to lunch by its manager, Mrs. Blake. She was "warmed toward any suggestion of friendliness" and excited to have the chance "to make a welcome contact."
Mrs. Blake tells her about work prospects, saying that black business men had certain images for the women they hired; they wanted them pretty and light skinned. She suggests that Emma Lou go to Columbia Teacher's College to complete training for a job in the public school system. After lunch, Emma Lou began to walk along Seventh Avenue. While stopping to check her reflection, she noticed a few young black men walking by. One said to another, "There’s a girl for you ‘Fats.’" Fats replied, "Man, you know I don’t haul no coal."
- Part 3 Alva
Determined to stay in New York, Emma Lou finds a job as a maid to Arline Strange, an actress "in an alleged melodrama about Negro life in Harlem." She thinks all the characters are caricatures. Arline and her brother from Chicago take Emma Lou to her first cabaret one night, where he makes her a drink from his hip flask. Emma Lou was entranced by the people dancing, and is invited by Alva, a man from another table. When the lights go up, he returns her to sit with Arline and her brother. The next morning, Alva and his roommate Braxton discuss the previous evening; agreeing that Alva did Emma Lou a favor in dancing with her.
Intrigued by the cabaret, Emma Lou talks to the stage director about being in the dance chorus. He tells her plainly the girls are chosen in part for appearance, and notes they all have lighter skin than hers. She decides to look for a new place to live, hoping to meet "the right sort of people."
One evening she goes to a casino, where she recognizes Alva. After a while she approaches him and asks if he remembers her. He politely acts as if he does, and talks and dances with her, even giving her his phone number. She calls him a couple of times before they make plans. Braxton is critical of Alva's seeing her, but he thinks, "She’s just as good as the rest, and you know what they say, ‘The Blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’"
- Part 4 Rent Party
Alva generally did not take Emma Lou to parties or dances, as he didn't want his friends to meet her. He finally decides to take her to a "rent party." Usually he would take Geraldine, a woman with lighter skin, to more events where his friends were present. Used to manipulating young women for money, Alva liked Geraldine for herself. Emma Lou was very excited about the party, and worried that she would encounter more discrimination. Once there, they happened on to a conversation revolving around race: the differences between being a mulatto and a Negro, and individuals who are prejudiced or "color struck." Alva's group went on to rent party, where Emma Lou had more to drink than usual.
The next morning, her landlady told her she had to leave, as she wasn't meeting her boarding house's respectable standards. Emma Lou had consumed enough alcohol to warrant a visit from her land lady the next morning. Emma Lou thought more about Alva, who seemed kinder than others in her life, but she was aware of his manipulation.
Alva was having his own trouble with Braxton, who had no job and didn't pay rent. He finally moved out, but Alva did not want Emma Lou to move in. One night the couple went to a theatre show, which included jokes about skin color. Emma Lou said to Alva, "You’re always taking me some place, or placing me in some position where I’ll be insulted."
One night, after an argument with Emma Lou, Alva returned to his room to find Geraldine sleeping in his bed. She told him she was pregnant with his child.
- Part 5 Pyrrhic Victory
Two years later, Emma Lou works as a personal maid, more of a companion, to Clere Sloane, a retired actress. Clere is married to Campbell Kitchen, a white writer very interested in Harlem. He encouraged the young woman to seek more education in order to achieve economic independence. She often still feels out of place, with few friends. She decides to try to see Alva, although they had stopped seeing each other. As Geraldine answers the door, Emma Lou leaves without speaking to him.
Alva and Geraldine struggled with the problem of their boy, who was born disfigured. Sometimes they wished he was dead, as he seemed to have brought trouble. Alvahad become alcoholic and wasted money. Geraldine worked and saved, planning to escape.
Having moved to the Y.W.C.A., Emma Lou had found some new friends. She also was studying teaching. Her friend Gwendolyn Johnson tried to make Emma Lou feel better about her appearance, but she still struggled with it. She continued to work.
She had started seeing Benson Brown, a light-skinned man described as a "yaller nigger." His appearance seemed reason enough to see him.
Emma Lou learned that Geraldine had abandoned Alva and their son. She went to him, and this time he welcomed her to his place, to care for Alva, Jr. After six months, Emma Lou begins teaching at a Harlem public school. She helped the boy to get along, but her relationship with Alva was uneasy. At the school, Emma Lou wore a lot of make-up to disguise her dark skin, but her colleagues teased her for it. Her economic independence did not totally free her.
Deciding to leave Alva and his son, Emma Lou returns to the YWCA, and calls Benson. He announces that he and Gwendolyn had been dating. They are marrying and invite her to the wedding.
Emma Lou realizes she has spent her life running. She ran away from Boise to get away from the color prejudice. Then she left Los Angeles for similar reasons. But she decide she is not running away again. She knows there are many people like her, and she has to accept herself.
- Emma Lou Morgan: a young African-American woman. Growing up in Boise, Idaho, she encounters discrimination by lighter-skinned blacks among her family and community. She takes after her father in appearance, who abandoned her and her lighter-skinned mother.
- Uncle Joe: Emma Lou is closer to him than others in her mother's family; she follows his advice to go to Los Angeles for college.
- Hazel Mason: The first black student whom Emma Lou meets at USC. Judging her to be the "wrong" kind of Negro, Emma tries to limit their association.
- Alva: one of Emma Lou’s love interests in Harlem. He is a lighter-skinned man who manipulates women to use their money to get by. Married twice already, he has become alcoholic.
- Braxton: Alva’s roommate. He does not approve of Alva's seeing Emma Lou because of her skin color.
- Geraldine: one of Alva’s companions; she bears his son, who is born disfigured. She abandons them both.
- John: Emma Lou’s first love interest in Harlem.
- Arline Strange: an actress. Emma Lou works as her maid, helping with make-up and costumes.
- Gwedolyn Johnson: Emma Lou’s friend from the Y.W.C.A. She eventually marries Benson Brown, whom Emma Lou had dated.
- Benson Brown: a man Emma Lou meets after she moves to the Y.W.C.A. He is lighter-skinned and promising, the "right" sort of African-American man.
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Thurman's novel has been widely discussed. Through Emma Lou Morgan, he expressed the idea that dark skin presented more problems for a woman than a man. The young woman struggles with people's reactions to her.
Variations in skin tone has historically related to European and Native American ancestry among African Americans, and the tangled history of slave societies, and benefits that some mixed-race children received from white fathers. The topic of behavior related to differing skin tones has since been treated by other artists and writers, and the issue of skin bias has been studied as a sociological and psychological issue among academics.
Despite the calls for Black Power and "Black is beautiful" in the mid-twentieth century, studies have found that skin tone bias continues. It is more openly discussed, studied and, at times, mocked. The director Spike Lee has explored this topic, particularly in his film School Daze (1988), about students at a prestigious college (modeled on Howard University).
In 2001 Maxine S. Thompson and Verna M. Keith presented the results of a study on gender, skin tone and self efficacy. They found darker skin more problematic for women, for whom skin tone had more effect on self-esteem, especially for lower and working class women. Higher class women could escape the effects of skin color by other accomplishments. Skin tone presented less of a self-esteem issue for men, but did affect their sense of self-efficacy.
In 2004 Daniel Scott III published an article noting that Thurman was interested in Harlem in the 1920s as a place for personal transformation. He was aware that people were attracted there from all over the United States, and brought expectations with them. The experience of living there opened them to new possibilities, which he expressed in his first novel. People were stimulated by meeting many new strangers, and by opportunities afforded by clubs, cabarets, concert halls, theatres and other venues.
- Harlem Renaissance
- Wallace Thurman
- African-American literature
- Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
- Thurman , Wallace. The Blacker the Berry. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2008.
- Thompson, Maxine S.; Keith, Verna M. (2001). "The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self-Esteem, and Self-Efficacy". Gender and Society 15 (3): 336–357. doi:10.1177/089124301015003002.
- Scott, Daniel M. (2004). "Harlem Shadows: Re-Evaluating Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry". MELUS 29 (3/4): 323–339. JSTOR 4141858.
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- Durr, Marlese, and Shirley A. Hill, editors, Race, Work, and Family in the Lives of African Americans, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
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- Macon, Wanda Celeste. Adolescent Characters' Sexual Behavior in Selected Fiction of Six Twentieth Century African American Authors, 1992.
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- Tarver, Australia, and Paula C Barnes, Eds. New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse', Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006.