Thank you to Penguin Classics for the free copy of this book.
Are the books we find ourselves thinking about days, weeks, or months after finishing, the easiest to review,or attempt to summarize into written thoughts? Sometimes the words flow from mind to page; sometimes the words seem harder to capture on conveying the essence of the book. I know many of us could probably name several books that make us feel this way, but we persevere and start writing or in the case of this book, rewriting.
Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry is one of many books I’ve read recently, that really make me think about what it means to live in the skin I’m born with. How living in that skin can be an issue for others, to the point that it effects us, mentally and emotionally. One might say, we’ve come a long way from the period this book was set, but examining matters through the eyes of Emma Lou Morgan, our main character, made me wonder if that’s a true statement. So please, allow me a few minutes to try to summarize this novella and process my experience with this book going forward.
“There could be no happiness in life for any woman whose face was as black as hers.”
Author Wallace Thurman sets this book in the 1920s, in the northwestern US state of Idaho, where Emma Lou Morgan has experienced color prejudice all of her life. Reading this book allows the reader to examine race relations and prejudices outside of the segregated Southern US states, where racial discrimination was prevalent, even law. Often times discrimination is whites against blacks, but in The Blacker the Berry, discrimination, or color prejudice, occurs within the black race against other black people.
As Emma Lou graduates from high school, she looks forward to escaping the narrow minded thinking and color prejudice of her hometown. The brunt of such prejudice, however, comes from her fair skinned grandmother and mother. Her grandmother is of the mindset that lighter is better. Emma Lou’s uncle encourages her to pursue the opportunity to experience life outside the confines the black people of Boise, Idaho. Excited by the prospect of finding the right sort of people among her own race, Emma Lou leaves to attend college in California.
“Here she was coming into contact with really superior people, intelligent, genteel, college-bred, all trying to advance themselves and their race, unconscious of intra-racial schism caused by differences in skin color.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, Emma Lou encounters color prejudice among her peers. Interestingly enough, Emma Lou perpetuates color prejudice in her dealings with other black people. When a southern girl named Hazel tries to befriend Emma Lou, she inwardly despises and discriminates against her. Emma Lou categorizes Hazel as a “typical southern early”[p. 19] without looking beyond the outward appearance. Emma Lou finds fault in the way Hazel speaks, the texture of her hair, the complexion of her skin. Emma Lou classifies her as ignorant, even barbarian, and that really stabbed me to the heart. Emma Lou has unfairly judged Hazel on the basis of her own stereotypical prejudices, but then I had to pause and consider, Emma Lou is a byproduct of her upbringing. Even though Hazel comes from a good family, Emma Lou decides she’s not the right sort of people, a notion she has repeatedly heard from her grandmother. Hazel plainly recognizes why the other black students (brown skinned), don’t readily invite them to social events. Instead of allowing herself to befriend Hazel, Emma Lou concludes that her association with Hazel must be the reason those brown skinned black students view her with disdain. She stops associating with Hazel.
“Emma Lou was essentially a snob.”
After Emma Lou becomes depressed and sullen but returns home during a school break. She believes she’s found true love when a young man named Weldon shows her attention as he stops briefly in Boise for the summer. When he leaves, Emma Lou concludes it’s because she’s too dark, but never considering he was just a no good man who routinely takes advantage of vulnerable, insecure women like herself. Returning to college, Emma Lou falls deeper into misery, depression, and bitterness. When school vacation begins she decides to get a job rather than return home and studies stenograpgy in her spare time. To escape and find happiness, Emma Lou moves to Harlem.
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. In Part 2, Harlem, the thriving seat of black life, seems like a fresh new start for Emma Lou. She’s transformed herself with a fashionable hair cut, a stylish bob, trying to “emphasize those things about her that seemed, somehow to atone for hey despised darkness, and she never faced the mirror without speculating upon how good-looking she might have been had she not been so black” [p.45]. Emma Lou is involved with a black man named John, but because of his color, she finds him inferior.
Emma Lou tries to get a job as a receptionist but is told the position has been filled. The owner wants a certain ‘look’, a lighter skin complexion than Emma Lou’s. What Emma Lou has been trying to escape, color prejudice, is a reality even in Harlem. Emma Lou receives advice from a kind black woman at one of the job agencies, but Emma Lou is reluctant to listen and follow that advice.
“Emma Lou reasoned that she couldn’t go on add she was, being alone and ain’t for congenial companionship.
“…Emma Lou intensified her suffering, mulling over and magnifying each malignant experience.”
In Parts 3-5, Emma Lou finds work as maid to a stage actress who performs life depicting the life of black people in Harlem. Emma Lou meets Alva, who she’s defined as, ‘the right kind of man’, who she quickly becomes infatuated with because of his light skin and oriental features. The relationship with Alva is superficial but Emma Lou can’t see that. She sees in black and light, and her view of dark skinned people, including herself, drives her deeper into the depths of self-loathing and depression.
At the heart of this story, Emma Lou’s experience with unhappiness, her lack of self-worth and acceptance is because she’s constantly reminded of, even suspicious of others discriminating against her because she’s too dark. There is a measure of truth to Emma Lou’s experience, a harsh reality of life as a black person, past and present. Emma Lou becomes so obsessed with her color that she resorts to attempts to lighten her skin, yearning to make herself accepted by others, but truthfully, she’s never accepted or loved herself. It would be harsh to blame Emma Lou for being this way. She’s been conditioned, as many black people of her time and before, to assimilate to the lighter and whiter being equivalent to good and pure.
“Negroes must always be sober and serious in order to impress white people with their adaptability and non-difference in all salient characteristics save skin color.”
I read The Blacker the Berry months ago for Our African-American Reads and knew this book was one I wanted to think about more. To talk about more, to read more about this topic. I didn’t want my thoughts about this book to end in a review, so other books must be read, more conversations are to be had. I understand more about color prejudice (colorism) and it’s long ago origins.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine and this topic came up. I told her I have had so many insightful ah-ha moments when I think about things my great-grandparents and grandparents said. I can go back in my mind and examine on certain interactions or comments in a new light, with more awareness, more empathy and understanding of their experiences in their skin and how it shaped my own. After a recent visit to the Bodies Exhibition a few weeks ago, it all comes down to this quote from the book.
“They are human beings first and only white or black incidentally.”