Wallace Thurman's first novel, The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929) takes its title from an old folk saying, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” It is an autobiographical satire whose neurotic, dark-skinned protagonist, Emma Lou Morgan, internalizes biases against dark-complexioned people after a midwestern upbringing by colorstruck relatives mimicking racist societal values. Like Thurman, Emma Lou goes to the University of Southern California and then to Harlem. Unlike Thurman, who was primarily drawn to the artistic renaissance blooming there, Emma Lou hopes Harlem will enable her to escape finally the harsh intraracial prejudice that is exacerbated by her sex and egocentrism.
Among the mundane settings of Harlem tenement buildings, employment agencies, public dance halls, rent parties, cabarets, and movie houses, Emma Lou has numerous opportunities to overcome her obsession with color and class consciousness. She is, indeed, discriminated against by both blacks and whites, but not to the degree that she believes. In a crowded oneroom apartment filled with liquor-gorging intellectuals resembling Langston Hughes (Tony Crews), Zora Neale Hurston (Cora Thurston), and Richard Bruce Nugent (Paul), Truman (Thurman himself) explains intraracial discrimination by examining the parasitic nature of humankind. He argues that “people have to feel superior to something… [other than] domestic animals or steel machines… It is much more pleasing to pick some individual or group… on the same plane.” Thus, he suggests that mulattoes who ostracize darker-skinned African Americans merely follow a hierarchy of discrimination set by materially powerful white people. Truman's anatomy of racism, however, is ignored by Emma Lou.
The Blacker the Berry received reviews that, while mixed, praised Thurman for his ironic depiction of original settings, characters, and themes then considered off limits for African American literary examination. Many others also criticized him for emphasizing the seamier side of Harlem life. But Thurman was never pleased with Blacker, and his caricature of the female protagonist shows why. Emma Lou behaves unlike traditional African American females who tend to revise rather than accept the values of both African American and white men. After she is repeatedly degraded by light-skinned Alva, Emma Lou's spiritual liberation begins only when she acknowledges the Thurmanian and Emersonian ideal that salvation rests with the individual, first expressed by white Campbell Kitchen (Carl Van Vechten). In other words, Thurman becomes trapped in the alien body of Emma Lou and does not have the creative imagination to break her racial fixation by summoning up a female perspective. Instead, Emma Lou trades an obsession with skin color for one that is viewed by a patriarchal society as being even more perverse. When she catches Alva embracing the homosexual Bobbie, Emma Lou finally gathers the strength to leave him. Herein lies an example of the dominant literary problem exhibited by the Harlem Renaissance old guard and avant garde alike. Their art is consumed by the paradox in creating liberated African American male and female voices while mouthing the ethics of the American patriarchy.
Hugh Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction, 1948.Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Traditions, 1987.