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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

The Blacker the Berry is the story of Emma Lou Morgan, an African American girl from Idaho who has extremely dark skin and suffers from prejudice because of it. Her dark skin color is viewed as undesirable by everyone, including other African Americans and her family, who have lighter skin....

(The entire section contains 1228 words.)

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The Blacker the Berry is the story of Emma Lou Morgan, an African American girl from Idaho who has extremely dark skin and suffers from prejudice because of it. Her dark skin color is viewed as undesirable by everyone, including other African Americans and her family, who have lighter skin. Her mother tries to help Emma Lou bleach her skin, as she believes it will improve her daughter’s chances of marrying and achieving success in life. However, Emma Lou remains exceptionally dark—blue-black, as they call it. Emma Lou grows up feeling self-conscious and out of place in the community of Boise, Idaho, and she later moves to larger cities in hopes of fitting in.

Emma Lou attends college in Los Angeles, where there are more African Americans than in Idaho. However, she finds that the ones who are accepted in social groups and leadership positions are light-skinned African Americans, not dark-skinned ones like her. Again, she feels displaced and marginalized because of her skin color. Emma Lou eventually moves to New York, and she faces discrimination throughout her career; she learns that even in Harlem, light-skinned blacks are preferred over dark-skinned blacks. Unable to find suitable employment despite her college degree, she gets a job as a maid.

Emma Lou also faces discrimination in her relationships with men, particularly a man named Alva, whom she falls in love with but who is ashamed to be seen in public with her. After a few failed relationships, Emma Lou moves on and adopts a new attitude. After a lifetime of feeling ashamed of herself, she decides to accept herself She gains the confidence she needs to prove to the world that she believes in herself, as she knows that unless she does, no one else will.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 6, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932

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 New York for five weeks, Emma Lou has blithely quit her job as an actress’s maid and broken off with her dark-skinned lover, John. When she begins going from one employment agency to another in search of work, however, Emma Lou finds that even stenographic jobs are closed to a woman of her appearance. Nor are her social prospects much better than her prospects of employment. At the end of this discouraging day, hearing men on the street joke that they do not “haul no coal,” Emma Lou realizes that as far as color prejudice is concerned, Harlem is no different from Boise or Los Angeles.

In the third section of The Blacker the Berry, “Alva,” Thurman introduces the man who will seem to offer love to Emma Lou, only to betray her. Alva is a small, Asian-looking, part-Filipino mulatto who works as a presser in a costume house—at least when the weather is not too hot and he is not exhausted from the previous night’s party. At a cabaret, this paragon asks Emma Lou to dance, and she falls head over heels in love with him. The next time she sees him, Emma Lou virtually throws herself at him, even though Alva has obviously forgotten her. Naturally, he adds her to his stable of women who provide him with sex, companionship, and money. Only Emma Lou misreads Alva; she is sure that she has found true love.

In “Rent Party,” Thurman finds occasions to make some statements of his own about color prejudice, first, in a discussion among a group of intellectuals, who are going slumming at a lower-class “rent party,” and later through Emma Lou’s own comments about a vaudeville performance at the Lafayette Theater, in which people with black skin are repeatedly the butt of jokes. After Emma Lou is evicted from her room, Alva refuses to let her move in with him, and, saying that he is tired of hearing about her problems, he walks out. At that point, even Emma Lou begins to suspect that Alva is not as devoted as she had believed. Ironically, Alva is forced to take in Geraldine, the light-skinned mistress he exhibits in public, because she is going to have his baby.

“Pyrrhic Victory” takes Emma Lou through a period of self-abasement to a new resolution. With the encouragement of her friend Gwendolyn Johnson, Emma Lou has sought a new life for herself, and she has even found a boyfriend, Benson Brown. Hearing where Alva is, however, she forgets all of her good resolutions, and she moves in with him, nurses him through the illness brought on by his alcoholism, cares for the deformed baby whom Geraldine has abandoned, and, of course, works to support all three. Finally, however, Emma Lou begins to think things through. Remembering the advice of her friend Campbell Kitchen, she determines to break off with Alva and find her own identity. When she goes home to find Alva drunkenly making love to a young boy, Emma Lou does not delay. In an instant, she loses her feeling for Alva. Ignoring the screams of the baby, she packs her things and walks out.

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