The three primary themes of Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry all involve some form of prejudicial behavior and perspective, as well as the hypocrisy inherent in the story’s protagonist, Emma Lou Brown, with respect to her own flawed character. Written within the social and cultural context of the Harlem Renaissance, Thurman’s novel is remarkable for its treatment of intra- as well as interracial prejudices. Emma Lou is a dark-skinned African American born and raised in the American West, specifically, Boise, Idaho, to a light-skinned mother and a dark-skinned father who abandoned the family when Emma Lou was an infant. Emma Lou is raised with a very well-defined sense of place within not just American society, but within the African American culture as well. The Blacker the Berry – a title adapted from the adage “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice” -- is replete with instances of racial and cultural prejudices by many of its characters. In fact, the extent to which the African American community itself fell victim to its own prejudices is evident in the following passage in which the young man to whom Emma Lou is attracted, Alva, explains to his prejudiced African American roommate, Braxton, that he will not let Emma Lou’s complexion keep him from seeing her. Braxton speaks first:
“How many nights a week you gonna have that little inkspitter up here?”
“Listen here, Brax, you have who you want up here, don’t you?”
“That ain’t it. I just don’t like to see you tied up with a broad like that.”
“Why not? She’s just as good as the rest, and you know what they say, “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.”
“The only thing a black woman is good for is to make money for a brown-skin papa.”
This exchange between the two roommates was a very serious indictment of African American culture by an African American author well-before the breakthroughs of the civil rights movement and the liberalization of American culture that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. The use of the derogatory phrase “inkspitter” and the suggestion that African American women are suitable solely as prostitutes for the benefit of black pimps was more than a little harsh, especially given the era in which Thurman was writing. Emma Lou, however, is not immune to prejudicial behavior of her own. As a new registrant at the University of Southern California, she encounters the rare friendly soul with whom she can be herself, but it is soon revealed that Emma Lou is struck with class consciousness that is as intolerant as the racial prejudices she encounters within her own race. Hazel Mason is a sociable, open, but unrefined student who hopes to bond with Emma Lou on the basis of their shared ethnicity. Emma Lou, however, wants no part of this kind of uncouth black female:
“Wonder where all the spades keep themselves. I ain’t seen but two ‘sides you.”
“I really do not know,” Emma Lou returned precisely and chillily. She had not intentions of becoming friendly with this sort of person. Why she should be ashamed to even be seen on the street with her, dressed as she was in a red-striped sports suit, a white hat and white shoes and stockings. Didn’t she know black people had to be careful about the colors they affected.
The theme of prejudice runs through every aspect of Thurman’s novel. Emma Lou is obsessed with the tone of her skin, having been the victim of racial prejudice while enduring the scorn of other African Americans for her darker complexion. Emma Lou has lived her entire life ashamed of her skin color, and for good reason; as Thurman’s narrator, notes, “Her mother had even hidden her away on occasions when she was to have company . . .” As the characters age, they confront their own obstacles and hardships, and the issue of prejudice, whether racial, socioeconomic, or cultural, continues to manifest itself. Alva engages Geraldine, and the two conceive a child:
“The months passed; the baby was born. Both of the parents were bitterly disappointed by this sickly little ‘ball of tainted suet,’ as Alva saw it. It had a shrunken left arm and a deformed left foot.”
Alva and Geraldine are ashamed of their physically deformed baby. Alva, who had looked down on Emma Lou for her complexion, now looks down upon his own child for his appearance. Again, note Thurman’s language: “’It’ had a shrunken left arm . . .” Not “he,” but “it.” Thurman is emphasizing the depth of the prejudices that affect his characters by dehumanizing a baby born with physical disabilities.
The Blacker the Berry deals with prejudice on every level. White racism directed against blacks is easily identified, especially during an era when Jim Crow laws were very much a fact of life. Racial prejudices within the African American community, however, were a phenomenon considerably less visible and more unspoken. The theme of racial prejudice, though, is just one among several Thurman illuminates. Emma Lou’s own class consciousness and hypocrisy – evident in her attitude towards Hazel – constitutes another theme of Thurman’s novel. Emma Lou’s victimization could have formed the basis of an overly sympathetic character, but her blatant hypocrisy when confronted with an African American female whose sole crime is to be less socially refined enables Thurman to portray her as a deeply flawed individual – a human being.
Alva and Geraldine’s prejudices are perhaps the cruelest of all. They are dismayed and embarrassed by the condition of their child. The “self-styled mayor Harlem” to whom Emma Lou and Benson pause to listen argues for black economic self-sufficiency but displays his own prejudices by targeting Jews. Gwendolyn Johnson is a hateful, prejudiced figure who excoriates Emma Lou for daring to love Alva, who had treated her badly and is now down-on-his-luck:
“Ain’t you got no regard for your reputation? I wouldn’t ruin myself for no yaller nigger. Here you doing just what folks say a black gal always does. Where is your intelligence and pride? I’m through with you, Emma Lou. There’s probably something in this stuff about black people being different and more low than other colored people. You’re just a common ordinary nigger! God, how I despise you!”
The themes of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic prejudice strongly inform The Blacker the Berry. Emma Lou is a sympathetic character. She is caring and sensitive and considerably more forgiving than many of those she encounters. She is not, however, immune to the tendency to render harsh judgments upon others for the most superficial of reasons.