(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Blacker the Berry is divided into five sections. Although they vary to some degree in length and differ greatly as to the length of time that is covered, each of these sections ends with a decision or a revelation on the part of the protagonist, Emma Lou Morgan.

In the first section of The Blacker the Berry, entitled “Emma Lou,” the protagonist, eighteen-year-old Emma Lou Morgan, is shown at her high school graduation in Boise, Idaho, the only black face in a sea of white ones. Aware not only of her difference from her classmates but also, more painfully, of the degree to which she is an outsider in her light-skinned family, Emma Lou is almost too embarrassed to walk up and receive her diploma. Her mother, Jane Lightfoot Morgan, has always let Emma Lou know that because of her black skin, flat nose, and thick lips, she is the family disgrace. Only Emma Lou’s uncle, Joe Lightfoot, holds out some hope for the girl; he assures her that color prejudice is found only in provincial towns like Boise. At the University of Southern California, he promises, Emma Lou will be accepted.

Unfortunately, Uncle Joe is wrong. During her first weeks in Los Angeles, Emma Lou discovers that because of her color, she is excluded not only from the sorority that has been organized by African American girls but also from even the most casual social contacts. The only men who will take her out are the uneducated ones whom another outcast manages to find.

Back home for the summer, Emma Lou begins to see Weldon Taylor, who introduces her to the pleasures of sex, and for the first time in her life, she feels that someone really cares about her. When Weldon has to leave town in order to earn enough money to return to medical school, however, Emma Lou wrongly assumes that she has once again been rejected because of her skin color.

After two more miserable years in Los Angeles, Emma Lou comes to the conclusion that only in a larger black community will she find the acceptance she craves. She decides to take any job that will take her to Harlem.

The rest of the novel is set in New York. In “Harlem,” Thurman follows Emma Lou through just one day to suggest how disillusioning her experiences there will be. After she has been in...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

The Blacker the Berry Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The main action of The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life focuses upon the protagonist’s struggle to be accepted by light-skinned blacks. In the opening scene of the book, Emma Lou is sitting with members of her high school graduating class, waiting to receive her diploma. Emma Lou, who is a very dark-skinned girl, is also the only black student in her class. She feels self-conscious about her appearance onstage, dressed in white, surrounded by her white classmates. As the ceremony draws to a close, Emma Lou ponders the value of a high school diploma and decides that it will mean nothing to her. She would gladly trade her diploma for an “effective bleaching agent, a magic cream that would remove this unwelcome black mask from her face and make her more like her fellow men.” From her mother’s family of color-conscious mulattoes, she has learned to despise her dark skin and to expect few opportunities for success and happiness.

After Emma Lou is graduated from high school, her mother persuades her to enroll at the University of Southern California in a teacher education program, as no one in her family thinks she will find a husband. Encouraged by a sympathetic uncle’s assurance that color-prejudice is largely confined to small towns such as Boise, Emma Lou looks forward to her studies at the University of Southern California and to the possibility of making friends with her mulatto schoolmates, for mulattoes and light-brown-skinned...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

The Blacker the Berry Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life is Wallace Thurman’s first novel and perhaps his most well-known work. The title is part of an African American folk saying: “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” The Blacker the Berry was written during the Harlem Renaissance. Thurman’s novel was among the first to explore prejudice within the African American community and was consequently controversial.

The identity of the novel’s protagonist, Emma Lou, as well as that of the other characters, is directly related to the color of their skin. Emma Lou bears the “burden of blackness” in a family that has been striving to become lighter with every generation. During the course of the novel, Emma Lou acquires several identities. These identities are placed upon her by her family in Idaho, her college peers in Southern California, the community in Harlem, and herself.

As a teen Emma Lou’s attitude reflects her family’s rejection of her very dark coloring. Like her blue-veined grandmother, Emma identifies herself as the only black student in an all-white student body. Because of her jet-black skin, it seems inevitable that Emma Lou will never amount to anything.

Entering college on a campus hosting other African Americans, Emma Lou soon discovers that her black skin makes her unpopular. Men on campus identify Emma Lou as “Hottentot.” A very derogatory term, popular during the 1920’s, “Hottentot” was applied to young women who had pronounced African features. Likewise, she is rejected from the black women’s society because she is not “high brown.”

Relocating after college, Emma Lou seeks a new identity in Harlem as a teacher. In trying to make herself lighter, Emma Lou only succeeds in acquiring a clownlike identity. The arsenic wafers and excessive makeup result in an “ugly purple tinge” on her face. Emma Lou becomes involved in an abusive relationship with a Filipino mulatto.

Emma Lou triumphs in the end, as she finally accepts who she is and what she looks like. The Blacker the Berry was a landmark in its subject matter.

The Blacker the Berry Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Argues that because his heroine’s life so closely parallels his own, Thurman fails to maintain the distance that would have made his novel more effective. Like Thurman himself, Bell writes, Emma Lou “lacked the will and community support to explore the cultural alternatives of her shame.”

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Suggests that in the character of Emma Lou, Thurman is working out his own conflicting feelings about his race and his identity. While in this novel he seems to have reached some resolution, in Infants of the Spring he reverts to bitter uncertainty.

David, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Describes The Blacker the Berry as a “really moving book” despite its “sledgehammer” approach to a complex issue. Praises Thurman for daring to use a dark-skinned girl as his protagonist.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Includes an excellent analysis of The Blacker the Berry emphasizing the problem of black identity, which is in part a result of the “aspirations of the black middle class.” The theatrical productions mentioned in the novel symbolize the confusion of roles in real life.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Portrait of Wallace Thurman.” In The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. Relates The Blacker the Berry to Thurman’s own uncertainties about the function of the black artist. Believing that one should concentrate on universals, not on “propaganda” about specific issues, Thurman was not happy with the novel.

Hunger, Margaret L. Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. New York: Routledge, 2005. Includes a chapter on The Blacker the Berry and discourses of ethnic legitimacy.

Thomson, Maxine D., and Verna Keith. “The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self-Esteem, and Self-Efficacy.” In Race, Work, and Family in the Lives of African Americans, edited by Marlese Durr and Shirley A. Hill. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Discusses the effects of racial and gendered codes upon characters’ feelings of self-worth in Thurman’s novel.