The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Blacker the Berry is essentially the story of one character, Emma Lou Morgan, who is a victim both of color prejudice and of her own foolishness and self-delusion. All the other characters in the novel are secondary to Emma Lou and are important only in relation to her and to the theme of the novel.

Certainly, it is not Emma Lou’s fault that she was born black into a family that considers itself a “blue vein circle” and that aims to grow whiter with each generation. It is not surprising that, having been scorned throughout her childhood, she has a negative self-image and therefore is more vulnerable than someone who feels secure.

Although she is the victim of prejudice, Emma Lou is herself a snob. At college, she tries to distance herself from the ebullient Hazel Mason because she thinks that Hazel’s bright clothes, loud voice, and defiant use of black English mark her as an inferior. Later, in Harlem, Emma Lou exhibits her own color prejudice when she drops the dark-skinned but decent John in order to throw herself at the parasitic Alva and the unintelligent Benson Brown, whose only real attraction is the color of their skin.

Emma Lou’s snobbery is only part of a larger problem, her habit of living in worlds she has invented rather than in the real world. This is illustrated by her experience with Weldon Taylor. First, she imagines that she is about to marry him; then, with just as little basis in reality,...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

The Blacker the Berry The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Emma Lou Morgan is one of the most skillfully drawn characters in African American fiction. Born in Boise, Idaho, to a mulatto mother and a dark-skinned father, Emma Lou inherits her father’s dark color, broad nose, and thick lips, much to the chagrin of her mother’s color-conscious family. Rebuffed by his in-laws because of his color, Emma Lou’s father soon deserts his wife and baby daughter, never to be heard from again. Consequently, Emma Lou grows up under the influence of a family whose motto is “whiter and whiter every generation.” Maria Lightfoot, Emma Lou’s maternal grandmother and the leader of Boise’s exclusive mulatto society, abhors dark-skinned blacks, her granddaughter included. Even Emma Lou’s mother loathes dark-skinned people, terming her marriage to Emma Lou’s father a silly mistake. Not surprisingly, Emma Lou develops an intense color-prejudice herself; she, too, detests dark skin and African features. She, therefore, decides to choose her friends among mulattoes and light-brown-skinned blacks. She underestimates the depth of the mulattoes’ commitment to maintaining the status quo, however, to holding themselves above and apart from their darker brothers. She suffers great emotional distress when she fails to gain admission to the closed circles of mulattoes and light-complexioned blacks in Los Angeles and in Harlem. Despite her obvious flaws, color-prejudice, and self-hatred, Emma Lou displays a sincere, compassionate heart, a remarkable capacity for love and forgiveness. These qualities are particularly evident in her relationship with Alva and his sick baby. Like all well-conceived, multidimensional characters, Emma Lou is a complex mixture of good and bad traits. During the course of her struggles, the reader learns to understand her faults and to admire her strengths.

While staying at the YWCA in Harlem, Emma Lou meets Gwendolyn Johnson, an amiable, light-brown-skinned girl whose mother has taught her to value relationships with dark-skinned blacks and to avoid contacts with light-complexioned blacks. In short, Gwendolyn is Emma Lou in reverse. As one would expect, these two colorconscious women are immediately attracted...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

The Blacker the Berry Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Emma Lou Morgan

Emma Lou Morgan, the extremely color conscious, and therefore self-conscious, protagonist. Because of her very dark skin, young Emma Lou repeatedly has been ostracized and victimized by her fair-skinned family in Idaho, her white high school classmates, fellow students at the University of California, and the people she meets when she flees from Southern California to Harlem. Naïve, intellectually pretentious, and an elitist, Emma Lou has internalized self-hatred; she worships light skin and, ironically, is herself biased against other dark-skinned people, generally finding them ugly and unattractive or too poor and unsophisticated for her. Having left college to work in New York, Emma Lou finds that her color prevents her from obtaining “congenial” jobs. As a maid for a white actress, she learns how white people think that black people act and live in Harlem. Toward the end of the novel, she completes a teacher training program and begins to teach. Because of both the color bias of others and her own excessive color consciousness, she remains largely isolated and alienated from the Harlem community.


Alva, Emma Lou’s racially mixed Harlem lover, a charming, though heavy drinking, ladies’ man. He is considered attractive largely because of his “high yellow,” or parchment, complexion and his sophisticated manners. Alva cynically uses Emma Lou both for sexual gratification and as a means of financial support. He perceives her loneliness and turns it to his advantage by courting her and introducing her to Harlem nightlife despite the laughter of his friends, who mock his attentions to so dark a woman. Eventually, he tires of her heightened color sensitivity and tells her frankly about her own prejudices. Toward the end of the novel, although his charms are considerably dissipated by alcohol and fast living, Alva still is able to manipulate Emma...

(The entire section is 787 words.)