Emma Lou Brown is a dark-skinned black girl in the 1920s. born to a family reaching for status and desperate to avoid any semblance of blackness. For Emma, it’s a daily reminder of why everything in her life is wrong. Written in 1929, The Blacker the Berry is a fierce defense of dark-colored skin. At the time, critics who subscribed to the “uplifting the race” mindset lambasted its author, Wallace Thurman, for what they considered an unacceptable exposé of color bias amongst African Americans. And yet it’s a bias that if not openly admitted is still part of the conversation.
For instance, several bloggers found the bevy of light-skinned heroes in the movie Precious troubling considering the title character’s fantasies about literally being white and figuratively being outside of her own dark skin. Also, Google “Michele Obama Dark Skinned” and approximately 600,000 references appear. Many of the initial options celebrate the first lady’s skin color (as I did) like she’d selected it at birth. There are also a considerable amount of comments praising President Obama for choosing a dark-skinned woman for a wife as if he was granting a personal favor. Perhaps to some women he was.
When Disney announced its first black animated heroine, Princess Tiana, my only hope was that Tiana be dark-skinned. It was a desire I considered both a necessity and odd —- and similar to my short term celebration of Mrs. Obama’s skin color. (Tiana is a frog for most of the movie, so her skin color wouldn’t have really influenced the plot anyway.) My skin tone isn’t one that you’d label “dark,” so it wasn’t a matter of identifying with the character. And yet, when it comes to women of color, my default status is set in defense of dark-colored skin. Desire, attraction, standards of beauty and perceptions of beauty, are stories generally linked to female protagonists, so it’s no mistake that Thurman used a woman to describe the intensity of colorism. (A prolific writer, he died of tuberculoses at the age of 32.)
We will be discussing the novel December 15th. Happy Reading.