Welcome to the first installment of Our African-American Reads. If you’ve read either one of the books, feel free to comment on any of the questions and your experience with the book.
My Book: The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
Summary: Emma Lou Morgan is a young black woman who experiences prejudice within her own race because people think she’s too dark.
Melanie’s Book: Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Summary: The story of John Grimes, an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem, and his relationship to his family and his church. The novel also reveals the back stories of John’s mother, his biological father, and his violent, religious fanatic stepfather, Gabriel Grimes.
1) What does your book say about the African American experience during which it is set?
Shell: Set in the 1920s, The Blacker the Berry tells the story of Emma Lou Morgan, graduating from high school in Idaho. I especially appreciate this particular setting since it seems many books that discuss racial prejudice take place in the Southern US. Emma Lou has grown up experiencing color prejudice (colorism) among members of her own race. This has a significant impact on Emma, especially since this prejudice comes from her fair skinned grandmother and mother. In each part of the book, we follow Emma Lou over the next several years as she deals with this form of prejudice, outside of the confines of her hometown.
Melanie: Go Tell It on the Mountain is set in 1935, which is around the end of the Harlem Renaissance, a time during which black artists created prolifically but ended due to the Great Depression. Slavery has a link to the setting of Baldwin’s novel: in order to make slaves compliant, masters taught slaves Christianity with emphasis on humility and obedience. Gabriel, a black storefront preacher, tries to control everyone around him with religion, much like those slave masters did. In a large city like Harlem, people saw evil everywhere, and Gabriel was no exception, even if much of the evil in the novel stems from him.
2) Compare the treatment of African American men and women in your book.
Shell: Thurman says, “She should have been a boy, then color of skin wouldn’t have mattered so much” [p.3], implying that Emma Lou had two strikes against her: her gender and her dark skin. Fair skinned black people are repeatedly presented as more desirable, better, indoctrinated with the notion that, “Whiter and whiter every generation” [p.9] would allow fair skinned black people the option to “pass” for white should they choose, escaping racial prejudice from white people. Dark skinned men and women experienced color prejudice within their own race and even from white people, although the book focuses on the color prejudice within the black race. Foreign black people deal with prejudice from native black people.
Melanie: James Baldwin really takes me to task in Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was uncommon at the time. Men were leaders, women were helpmates. In this novel, though, Gabriel tries to control people by claiming they are sinners while he has been forgiven for his numerous, egregious sins. The women, however, are no shrinking violets. Gabriel’s sister, Florence, has evidence of her brother’s wrongdoing and will use that information against him. He has faith, but she has facts. Gabriel’s first could have destroyed him with what she knows about his behavior, but chooses not to. Instead, she forgives him and endless loves. I’m not sure how I felt about that, though it seemed like she was a stronger woman because she is capable of forgiving. Gabriel’s second wife has her own secret, a secret that no one would bat an eye at today but was a grave sin in 1935. Gabriel is able to use facts about his second wife to control her — basically the opposite of his sister.
3) What differences and similarities do you notice in your book about the African-American experience today?
Shell: Black people still experience discrimination and racial prejudice today. I watch a TV show called Blackish and it has exposed some of the same things Emma Lou dealt with even today. Colorism was discussed and examined within the confines of a family. Even in subtle ways, this idea that lighter is better is unacceptable and hurtful.
Melanie: Basically, the black church during the Harlem Renaissance was a place where people wait for their pie-in-the-sky reward. You suffer all the time now, it’s worth it when you get to heaven. It’s an attitude with which slaves were indoctrinated pre-emancipation in order to make them obedient to their masters that carried over. Today, I get the sense that the black church is more a place of community and people feel God and Jesus are signs of hope, not bullies to be placated. However, this is based on casual observation and what I see in the news.
4) What is the role of white characters in your novel?
Shell: White characters make minor appearances in the book. Later, Emma Lou works as an assistant maid to a white actress, Arline, in Harlem. Arline plays the role of a mulatto women in a stage play that depicts the life of Black Harlem. Emma Lou observes, “White people were so stupid” [p.72]. Thurman uses Arline and her brother to reflect the many assumptions about the nightlife of black people in Harlem. Just because you’re black, doesn’t mean you go everywhere and know everything about black life, as we see through Emma Lou’s experience.
Melanie: To my memory, not a single white character is named in Go Tell It on the Mountain. There are scenes in which Gabriel’s son, John, imagines himself walking through the city just like white folks, almost willing himself to ignore racism. Different characters mention white people in general as bad, and one character notes that they’ve never met a white person who actually cared about them. This same sentiment appears in Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965, which I find interesting.
5) How did your book affect you emotionally?
Shell: Because Emma Lou has constantly been told she’s too black, she’s looking for happiness in people and places outside of herself. Each time she would try to find the right sort of people, the right shade of black (fair or brown), and intelligence she thought were desirable, Emma Lou actually perpetuated the same color prejudice she experienced her whole life. I was saddened by what she experienced, but also couldn’t help but think about the origins of color prejudice. Thurman used this book as a platform to give attention to colorism, which still exists today. Self-worth and acceptance have alluded Emma Lou her whole life; how difficult to live not being comfortable in my own skin because of its color. I think about my own experience too. Over and over again, my heart ached for the inexperienced Emma Lou.
Melanie: I had a hard time getting through my novel. The synopsis on the back of the book does not match the contents in any way, and when I looked at other synopses, they are all different. It seems that no one knows how to describe Go Tell It on the Mountain. And that’s because it wanders. Fourteen-year-old John seems like the main character, but his sections are all weighed down in religious imagery. I couldn’t grab a plot when I read his sections. When Gabriel and Florence are younger, they are described in their own sections, and I enjoyed these moments because there was actually a story to follow, one that had me thinking. Even Gabriel’s second wife (Elizabeth) had her own section, and her story is one I could have read for much longer. In fact, I can see If Beale Street Could Talk uses some of the same ideas. Overall, I had a hard time connecting to Go Tell It on the Mountain, but when the strong female characters made their voices heard, I was happy. The religious aspects weren’t great for me. I have a hard time figuring out how someone can take the entire Bible literally and then be scared all the time. Perhaps a Christian reader would fare better than I?