Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

One of the subjects of The Blacker the Berry is color prejudice among black people. Thurman attacks this kind of discrimination in several ways. As a satirist, he shows the folly of basing any estimate of worth on appearance. Thus Emma Lou’s grandmother, Maria Lightfoot, is proud of her “blue vein circle,” so named because one must have a skin light enough so that one’s veins are visible in order to belong. The fact that this aristocratic group is located in a place as small as Boise, Idaho, makes her pretensions even more patently ridiculous.

It is particularly illogical for African Americans to assign social status on the basis of how un-African one looks, since by doing so they are denying their own heritage and accepting white values. When Maria calls Emma Lou’s father and Emma Lou “niggers” or “niggerish,” she is echoing the words of white racists. Similarly, when the comedians at the Lafayette Theater show a thick-lipped, coal-black Topsy as someone whom no one would want, they are underlining the assumption that ugliness is colored black. In “Rent Party,” a group of intellectuals discuss the racist basis for color prejudice; however, they ignore the most eloquent argument against it, the suffering of the girl who is sitting mute beside them.

In the person of Emma Lou, The Blacker the Berry shows how color prejudice harms individuals. On the basis of her color, Emma Lou is made to feel unattractive...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

The Blacker the Berry Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s major themes concern self-hatred and the dynamics of color-prejudice among black Americans. The novel’s title, taken from the familiar black folk saying, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” is bitterly ironic, for although many blacks have traditionally embraced the notion that dark-skinned women are attractive and desirable, a significant segment of the black community has treated dark skin and other African physical features with disdain, while venerating Caucasian physical features. With this preference for white skin and values comes a clash or conflict of identities. Thurman comments on this shift of identity in his portrayal of Arline Strange, the white actress who plays the part of a mulatto in a melodrama of black life in Harlem. With make-up, the actress effects a superficial, temporary shift in identity, but unlike the mulattoes who confuse their imaginary or assumed identity with their true self, the actress shifts easily between her fictional and real identity, never losing sight of who she is.

The ultimate goal of mulattoes such as Emma Lou’s mother and grandmother, however, is to achieve a complete and permanent shift of identity by eradicating all physical traces of their African ancestry through selective marriage and by assimilating the attitudes and values of the white society. Total assimilation into the white society, many color-conscious mulattoes reasoned, would free them from the limitations of interracial prejudice. Yet the inevitable result of this denial of the authentic self was a deep-seated self-hatred, as well as alienation from those blacks whose dark skin was viewed as an emblem of dishonor and inferiority. Emma Lou is the brilliant embodiment of both these penalities associated with denial of the self. She experiences self-hatred and alienation from other blacks. Thus, the novel traces Emma Lou’s painful journey toward self-acceptance. As the novel closes, the end of her journey is near. Emma Lou wisely realizes that she must “begin life anew, always fighting, not so much for acceptance by other people, but for acceptance of herself by herself.”