The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

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...

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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, she builds up another scenario, in which Weldon has left town because he objects to her skin color. With Alva, Emma Lou again refuses to face reality. Even though she knows better, she pretends to herself that Alva is faithful to her, and she even sees his admission of bigamy as a proof of his superiority to other men.

Throughout the novel, Thurman maintains a stance of authorial detachment toward Emma Lou and his other characters, merely reporting their thoughts, their conversations, and their actions without making overt judgments. This results in some of Thurman’s most effective satire. For example, he can sum up a whole type with what seems to be a mere statement of fact. The men who gathered around Hazel, he says, “worked only when they had to, and played the pool rooms and the housemaids as long as they proved profitable.” Similarly, Thurman does not label Alva and Geraldine as vicious characters; he merely explains logically why they do not kill their baby. Neither is brave enough to do the deed alone, he says, and the two do not trust each other enough to collaborate in murder.

Most of the characters in The Blacker the Berry are treated briefly, their attitudes summarized in a few well-chosen words. Other than Emma Lou, no one except Alva is dealt with at length, and even his role in the novel is secondary to that of the central figure. Thurman reports what Alva is thinking in order to emphasize Emma Lou’s capacity for self-delusion. When Emma Lou approaches Alva in the Renaissance Casino, for example, he is confused but “game” enough to speak to her “sincerely.” To Alva, sincerity is merely a manner. Emma Lou, however, chooses to believe that Alva is indeed sincere, not because she is really in love with him, but because she needs him as a character in her own imagined world.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889

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 to each other and become friends. Given their color preferences, theirs would seem to be an ideal friendship. Yet Gwendolyn’s unceasing condemnation of light-skinned blacks does nothing but make Emma Lou more sensitive about her dark skin. Indeed, Gwendolyn’s glorification of dark skin intensifies Emma Lou’s desire to be transformed into a pretty, light-brown-skinned woman. Gwendolyn dates only dark-skinned men and tries to persuade Emma Lou to follow her example. Therefore, she is extremely irritated when Emma Lou decides to resume her relationship with Alva, her mulatto lover. In her angry response to Emma Lou’s decision, Gwendolyn reveals her suppressed color-prejudice. She tells 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.” Gwendolyn’s unintentional revelation casts a new light upon her alleged preference for dark-skinned blacks.

Of the several male characters in the novel, Alva (who is given no surname) is the most fully developed. The son of an American mulatto and her Filipino husband, Alva possesses the physical attributes that Emma Lou finds attractive—skin color between yellow and brown, finely textured hair. Seeing Emma Lou in a Harlem cabaret with her white employer, Alva notices that no one has asked her to dance, so he takes pity on her and asks her to dance. She is flattered and pursues him, hoping to establish a serious romantic relationship with him. As an experienced hustler, Alva quickly recognizes the potential advantages of a discreet affair with a lonely, employed woman, and so he encourages Emma Lou’s advances. Through the force of his charm and tact, he manipulates her into sharing her income with him. His scheme is so clever that Emma Lou, his naïve victim, “never realized just how she had first begun giving him money.” Although he is ashamed to take Emma Lou among his light-skinned friends, he is nevertheless polite and attentive when they are together. Ironically, he breaks off the relationship when he can no longer tolerate her complaints that he intentionally subjects her to situations in which her color is ridiculed. Alva denies the charges and allows Geraldine, his mulatto girlfriend, to move in with him.

Geraldine gives birth to a sickly, retarded baby boy. The baby’s handicap has a profound effect upon Alva. He loses interest in Geraldine, and “he hated that silent, staring idiot infant of his. . . .” Seeking an escape from his unhappy home life, Alva turns to alcohol for solace. His heavy drinking, despite his doctor’s warnings against it, undermines his health, activating a self-destructive impulse. Fearful that Alva will succeed in drinking himself to death, leaving her alone to care for the baby, Geraldine deserts him and the baby. Determined to reestablish her relationship with Alva, Emma Lou returns to his room, nurses him back to health, and introduces Alva Junior to love and affection. While her rescue of Alva seems, for a time, to be successful, he resumes his excessive drinking and treats Emma Lou with contempt and disrespect. Alva is not only conceited and hypocritical, he also lacks moral courage; with Emma Lou’s help, he could have developed strategies for coping with his son’s disability, but he chose to be consumed by despair.

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