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 to the theme of the novel.

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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....

(The entire section contains 1462 words.)

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Characters