Book Review of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry

Hi Everyone,

This marks the very first post of the new book review section, “BlackBookWorm” of Whispers of a Womanist. As a literature/book enthusiast, it is a wonder it has taken so long to launch this section! This section will prioritize, but not limit itself to, the non-canonical black author.

Hope you Enjoy!

C.

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Introduction

Published in 1929, Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry introduces viewers to the perfect illustration of ingrained white supremacist ideology through imperfect protagonist—Emma Lou Morgan. Written for his grandmother also named “Emma,” Thurman’s text speaks directly to a plague that has been passed from generation to generation–the plague of psychological enslavement–also known as racism. The color line is a deflection, a symbolic deflection those othered by their race are coerced to care about. The depiction of color as a stain or death sentence is a casualty of racism. A shallow read of the text paints the catalyst as color, but Thurman paints a portrait of racism that is biting, raw, troublesome, yet inspiring to read.  The text burns the eyes of a reader seeking to “see” consciousness shut in disappointment, pain, and embarrassment, yet Thurman opens these once wounded eyes with an emergence of clarity where both the reader and protagonist culminate racial understanding and self worth, by the novel’s end. 

The Blacker the Berry is a story told from experience. So while labeled fiction, fiction is simply a detached narrative when referencing the black novel. Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Langston Hughes’ Simple, are as real as any person that ever lived. They are simply objective portrayals designed of a shared narrative. The Blacker The Berry, a brief but dense tale, proves why everyone should write a version of their own story so that decades later someone else gets a glimpse into a time they are a product of but did not get to experience personally. 

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Meet Emma Lou

Emma Lou Morgan is the product of a mother whose hair, features and hue qualifies her as conventionally beautiful, and a father whose hue is his only referenced trait. Though she acquired her mother’s hair, she inherited her father’s complexion— a hue that seems a catalyst for the wrath of white supremacy she experiences in cold spells of cruelty. Her upbringing is cruel and singular, largely due to a mother who bore shame in her sun-kissed child:

Her mother had even hidden her away on occasions when she was to have company, and her grandmother had been cruel in always assailing Emma Lou’s father, whose only crime seemed to be that he had a blue black skin. (Thurman 121)

Her blackness was a stain best in omission. The scars of a mother who desired her invisibility was something she internalized as a reflection of others and herself. Emma Lou’s mother felt that Emma was not only black, but “too” black, implying that extremity of blackness is the issue at hand:

She was black, too black, there was no getting around it. Her mother had thought so, and had often wished that she had been a boy. 

This sentiment attempts to seduce readers into thinking that the issue is not with blackness a whole, but in part. This suggestion is one of pure evasion. The mere idea that blackness has such a thing as “extreme” is inherently anti-black. Black is either beautiful, or it is not. To say that some blackness is beautiful is just another way to refute the proclamation “black is beautiful” which very few believed or believe to be true. 

This statement also brings to light a color line demarcation between the genders. Given that the female body is often judged primarily on looks, I do not dispute color as a defining attribute of the black female form, especially in the western hemisphere. The lighter woman is commonly a portrait of beauty, whereas the darker flesh, the blackest berry is perceived as innately hyper-sexual yet seldom appreciated for a beauty not paired with purchased European attributes. Yet, in acknowledging the role color plays in a woman’s life, I am not dismissing the role color plays on a man’s life as well. Especially since, the author Wallace Thurman, in a short life inundated with self-medicating the wounds of a racist society, epitomizes what the European perception of blackness can do to the black male psyche under white dominance.

Though it is not articulated whether Morgan ever feels her blackness is beautiful, by the story’s end Morgan learns that it is not color itself that has direct power over her life, but the power she awards said color in acquiescing to its fictive inferiority.  

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College: Fair-skinned Coloreds only?

Her intelligence affords the ability to go to college in California. However her complexion  disqualifies her from a co-ed group of black students seemingly based on color. Color is quickly exposed as a ruse when readers learn a melanin dominate classmate is at the center of this social circle.  The girl though, is unfathomably wealthy, revealing color as commerce. in a white supremacist climate of capitalism. Morgan makes the acquaintance of a colorful girl named Hazel. Hazel is southern, sun-kissed, and unapologetically herself. She does not fit in with her colleagues, nor does she desire too. She isn’t prim or proper. She speaks loudly and proudly—much to the dismay of Emma Lou. Being shunned from the the circle of black elitist does not curb Emma Lou Morgan’s own elitism. An elitism that results in her shirking Hazel’s friendship. 

Hazel ultimately drops out of school— a fate that mirror’s Emma’s eventual return to the east coast without a degree. Emma Lou de-friended Hazel partially because of color, but also because of a color-harbored expectation that Hazel failed to meet. Reader see this in Emma Lou’s violent interactions with her mother. In a despute, Emma Lou’s fair-skinned mother attributes what she labels evilness to her daughter’s complexion: “I don’t see how the Lord could have given me such an evil, black hussy for a daughter”  (Thurman 115). For Emma Lou’s mother, her daughter’s attitude adds insult to injury, implying that to be “black” is to be bad enough, but to be evil is be completely unfortunate. The statement also implies that 

Emma Lou performs a similar violence in her assessment of peer Hazel.  The sun-kissed hue is to incase a shame, a diffidence that functions to indirectly apologize for the imposition of their blackness. Hazel’s disposition should inspire Emma Lou, but instead, Hazel is an embarrassment. To Emma Lou, Hazel’s brazen speech and confidence presents their ebonized state  like gaudy jewelry or clothing at a white-tie affair. Pun intended.

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Work Woes

Like Hazel, Emma Lou also leaves college. Emma Lou returns home to face the harsh reality that a woman of a darker complexion simply does not have the same opportunities as a fairer-skinned woman. Emma at one point begins to bleach her skin, though the process does nothing but turn her black skin purple. The skin bleaching makes Emma Lou a joke amongst her colleagues who author an anonymous letter confronting the unsightliness of her bleaching efforts.  

This part stung.

It is very easy to critique an action for its overt detriment. It is even easier to call out aesthetically displeasing acts of assimilation, acts more often duplicated than avoided entirely. It is far less common to consider, let alone address, the underlying issues that produce such detriment. Emma Lou’s hecklers are similar to those who critique others who don inauthentic locs, but also make fun of those with thinning hair or bald heads. This of course is a consequence of a colonization, that is seldom addressed to ensure the stagnancy of black underdevelopment. 

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In Love With Light Skin

An underdeveloped self, lures Emma Lou into the crossed arms of a fair-skinned, but utterly miserable man, Alva. Prior to meeting Alva, Emma Lou turns her nose up a kind, black man named John: 

John wasn’t her type. He was too pudgy and dark, too obviously an ex-cotton-picker from Georgia. He was unlettered and she couldn’t stand for that, for she liked intelligent-looking, slender, light-brown-skinned men, like, well . . . like the one who was just passing. She admired him boldly. He looked at her, then over her, and passed on. (Thurman 57)

Emma Lou rejects him, as the world has rejected her. She projects unflattering perceptions of her own hue, onto a man who places appreciation and admiration where others placed disgust. So Emma Lou does what we continue to witness as a collective almost a century later— she launches a search for self in those who imbue a symbolic profit from the esteem-deficient black body. Alva is a drunk, involved with a fair- skinned woman Geraldine. He meets Emma Lou at a dance, after he is challenged by his mean-spirited friend to entertain her in mockery. Emma Lou, desperate for interaction is oblivious to his evilness and latches onto him. They see each other casually for some time after, Alva bringing Emma Lou around his friends for their amusement. The same type of environments continue to exist with black bodies seeking entry into white spaces—where the black body exists as it would in a circus. 

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Conclusion

By the story’s end, after experiencing over two decades of misfortune, Emma Lou realizes that she is the master of her own destiny. She realizes that her misfortune was not because she lacked conventional beauty, but because she failed to see her own beauty as a being of black female form. Alva was the tissue she sought to wipe her tears, the trophy she sought to prove that she had won what the world had predicted her to lose. Alva, abandoned by his lover Geraldine, and left with a mentally handicapped child, is in need of a child care provider. He is a hollow shell of a man who only seeks a means to engage in self-destructive behavior. Alva consummates his desire in Emma Lou, by manipulating her insecurities to secure his lifestyle.  Once, Emma Lou realizes Alva seeks for her to be a “mammy” she is awakened: 

It was clear to her at last that she had exercised the same discrimination against her men and the people she wished for friends that they had exercised against her—and with less reason. It served her right that Jasper Crane had fooled her as he did. It served her right that Alva had used her once for the money she could give him and again as a black Manny for his child. The was the price she had had to pay for getting what she thought she wanted. (Thurman 144)

What she thought she wanted was whiteness.

A whiteness that infects Emma Lou’s psyche with what the medical world would label body dysmorphia.

Body dysmorphia however is something typically only aligned with white bodies like those on a lifelong mission to look like Barbie or Ken. Conversely, blacks who mutilate their strong noses into one weaker in structure and impact, and blacks who shield their one in a million locks with hair antithetical in appearance,  are paired with labels of self-hatred. I have expressed before my disdain for this term, as it overlooks one of the most significant components of racism: a deprivation of self.

Simply put, you cannot hate what you were not given the time or space to develop.

Emma Lou’s narrative, while encompassed in fictive form, speaks to a factual experience exhibited more profoundly in behavior than words. Emma Lou’s story illustrates that black bodies are seldom given the opportunity for treatment in their disconnection from disorders birthed from a toxic system. This due in large part to the reality that black mental illness is a societal necessity. The goal of a white society is to “fix” its “broken” members, or at the very least present them as abnormal in their navigation through the media. Thurman’s text functions to illustrate the Emma Lou as bearing a normalized abnormality, many do not live long enough to correct.

Black Power ❤ 

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3 Comments

  1. Great!! Yes Mr. Williams is very Codified. I am constantly working on my Codification at the plantation to reduce mistreatment, part of that is knowing when we to speak and knowing when silence is the appropriate response. Also having a poker face and not showing any emotion whatsoever when a white person says something Racist.

    A black female that I talk to at the plantation a lot, very nice, but also very confused and has a lot of anti-blackness. She made a Anti-black statement, I obviously did not agree with but, I just looked at her with no emotion, no judgment and I said hmmmm which is straight out of the Code book and it worked perfectly to minimize conflict, nothing more on the subject was said.

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