Book of the Month Discussion: The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman

My earliest reading of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry, I believed and still contend that this novel is a defense of dark-colored skin. His portrayal of the light-skinned antagonists and the bevy of characters who subscribe to the “light is right” mindset are one-dimensional and often vicious. This is similar to what Richard Wright does with the “villains” in his novel Black Boy. However unlike Wright, and what my first encounter with the text missed, is Thurman’s vehement dismissal of victimhood.

Emma Lou Brown, Berry’s main character, reaches a breaking point as she realizes that she can’t continue to bounce from state to state in search of acceptance as as she did for most of the novel. With each personal and professional rejection,  Emma draws “more and more within herself.” She becomes “more and more bitter.”  She can’t undo her emotionally fraught upbringing amongst The Blue Vein Society, which is an organization in the novel created by her grandparents, where admission is the appearance of blue veins on the underside of the arm.”

In the final pages of the novel Emma must come to terms with her reality: She will always be dark skinned.

“What she needed to do now was accept her black skin as being real and unchangeable, to realize that certain things were, had been, and would be, and with this in mind begin life anew, always fighting, not so much for acceptance by other people, but for acceptance for herself by herself. In the future she would be eminently selfish. If people came into her life–well good. If they didn’t–she would live anyway, seeking to find herself and achieving meanwhile economic and mental independence. Then possibly…life would open up for her, for it seemed as if its doors yielded more easily to the casual, self-centered individual than to the ranting, praying pilgrim. After all, it was the end that mattered, and one only wasted time and strength seeking facile open-sesame means instead of pushing along a more difficult and direct path…Her motto from now on would be “find–not seek.” All things were at one’s fingertips. Life was most kind to those who were judicious in their selections, and she, weakling that she now realized she was, had not been a connoisseur.”

During these final pages, Emma will leave an abusive lover named Alva. Her decision requires a level of self-awareness based on authenticity. What I mean is that Emma isn’t acting on an impulse to preserve her class status, or prove an elegance despite her physical color. The act of leaving Alva is an act of shedding her former skin.

Thurman’s narrative voice is often intensely detached and mordant. (Think of the voice overs at the start of every The Twilight Zone episode which always portended something awful about to erupt.) It represented my own frustration that societal rules can have such a hold on its member’s psyche and that sometimes there wasn’t much to do about it, but play the had you’re dealt.

  • I have not read The Blacker the Berry in so very long and I really ought to revisit it. I remember reading James Weldon Johnson’s ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’ and George Schuyler’s ‘End of Blackness’ alongside it and they comprised a very powerful triptych. Thanks for bringing this front-of-mind again.