Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
When The Blacker the Berry was published in 1929, the Harlem Renaissance was nearing its end. Extending from the 1920’s to the early 1930’s, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of previously unparalleled literary productivity among black writers. Readers, both black and white, exhibited an almost insatiable appetite for books written by and about blacks. Publishers anxious to profit from this fascination with black life and culture sought out promising black writers. Wallace Thurman was one of those talented young artists. In his first novel, he set out to expose and condemn what he perceived as a disturbing contradiction in black life; he noticed blacks enthusiastically proclaiming the value and uniqueness of their African heritage, while displaying a decided preference for light skin and Caucasian features.
Moreover, many blacks routinely attacked interracial prejudice, but they remained silent on the equally reprehensible practice of intraracial prejudice. This was a sensitive topic that many of Thurman’s image-conscious black readers did not care to confront in their literature. Claude McKay had touched on the issue in his controversial novel, Home to Harlem (1928), but Thurman was the first black writer to make the color-prejudice directed against black women by other blacks the main subject of a novel. Not surprisingly, the novel aroused a flood of criticism from black readers, many of whom denounced it as being overly harsh in its treatment of the topic. Other blacks complained that the novel did a disservice to those blacks trying to upgrade their image in the larger American society. Nevertheless, The Blacker the Berry became one of the most widely read and most frequently discussed novels of the Harlem Renaissance.
Thurman’s novel is significant because it focused much needed attention upon the undue emphasis that many blacks of the 1920’s and 1930’s placed on skin color, and it encouraged other black writers to explore the issue. For example, George Samuel Schuyler, one of Thurman’s contemporaries, published Black No More (1931), an alternately satiric and humorous novel that describes what happens in America when a black scientist discovers a way to transform black people into white people. Thurman published two other novels during his brief career, Infants of the Spring (1932) and The Interne (1932), which he wrote in collaboration with a white author, Abraham L. Furman, but his first novel, The Blacker the Berry, remains his most important contribution to African American literature.