Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

The Blacker the Berry is a novel by Wallace Thurman that came out in 1929. Thurman was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, which was a prolific artistic movement of Black creative people from that time period.

The main character of this story, Emma Lou Morgan, who is a Black...

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The Blacker the Berry is a novel by Wallace Thurman that came out in 1929. Thurman was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, which was a prolific artistic movement of Black creative people from that time period.

The main character of this story, Emma Lou Morgan, who is a Black person with dark skin.

The main themes in the story have to do with a concept called "colorism." Essentially, this is the idea that racial discrimination is a tiered process. Black people with lighter skin sometimes tend to associate themselves with white people and look down upon those who have darker skin, in other words. Emma Lou Morgan goes through this process herself, experiencing discrimination and striving to be comfortable with how dark her skin is.

Other related themes include racism in general. This theme is seen when Emma goes to college at USC, where many of the white students look down on her and the other Black students even avoid her altogether due to the segregation there.

Another more general theme is that of belonging. The sensation of wanting to belong in the situation you find yourself in is a fundamental human theme. Racism and colorism serve as barriers to this human need, and this is a pervasive theme in the novel.

A quote from the novel that encapsulates Emma’s need to belong and its connection with discrimination is this one:

Perhaps if she were to live with a homey type of family they could introduce her to “the right sort of people.”

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

One of the subjects of The Blacker the Berry is color prejudice among black people. Thurman attacks this kind of discrimination in several ways. As a satirist, he shows the folly of basing any estimate of worth on appearance. Thus Emma Lou’s grandmother, Maria Lightfoot, is proud of her “blue vein circle,” so named because one must have a skin light enough so that one’s veins are visible in order to belong. The fact that this aristocratic group is located in a place as small as Boise, Idaho, makes her pretensions even more patently ridiculous.

It is particularly illogical for African Americans to assign social status on the basis of how un-African one looks, since by doing so they are denying their own heritage and accepting white values. When Maria calls Emma Lou’s father and Emma Lou “niggers” or “niggerish,” she is echoing the words of white racists. Similarly, when the comedians at the Lafayette Theater show a thick-lipped, coal-black Topsy as someone whom no one would want, they are underlining the assumption that ugliness is colored black. In “Rent Party,” a group of intellectuals discuss the racist basis for color prejudice; however, they ignore the most eloquent argument against it, the suffering of the girl who is sitting mute beside them.

In the person of Emma Lou, The Blacker the Berry shows how color prejudice harms individuals. On the basis of her color, Emma Lou is made to feel unattractive and unlovable, both as a child and as a young woman at college. In New York, because of her appearance, she is refused employment. In order to prove that she is desirable to men, Emma Lou sacrifices herself for a worthless man to whom she is attracted only because her society has convinced her that light skin is equivalent to real worth. Moreover, as her grandmother cruelly but accurately tells Emma Lou, her gender makes her situation even worse. In choosing their wives, the best-educated, most successful African American men will choose the lightest-skinned women, and Emma Lou will have to take what she can get.

In his characterization of Emma Lou, however, Thurman has broadened his theme. While he has no sympathy with color prejudice or with the gender discrimination associated with it, he obviously sees both of these evils as problems of perception. If Emma Lou suffers from the faulty perceptions of others, she also is the victim of her own unwillingness to see the world as it is, not as she would like it to be. Therefore, while the author cannot realistically promise an immediate cure for the evils he describes, he can have his protagonist move toward a different view of herself.

Throughout the novel, Thurman utilizes various characters as the voices of reason. For example, both Joe Lightfoot and Hazel Mason try to show Emma Lou that no one’s worth depends on color. Later, a kindly woman at an employment agency and the white writer Campbell Kitchen both encourage Emma Lou to become economically independent by going into teaching. What is at issue, of course, is the fact that Emma Lou sees herself only through the eyes of others. When she does get a teaching job, when she walks out on Alva, she is abandoning her fantasies in order to concentrate on a real self, which she now perceives as being of real value.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

The novel’s major themes concern self-hatred and the dynamics of color-prejudice among black Americans. The novel’s title, taken from the familiar black folk saying, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” is bitterly ironic, for although many blacks have traditionally embraced the notion that dark-skinned women are attractive and desirable, a significant segment of the black community has treated dark skin and other African physical features with disdain, while venerating Caucasian physical features. With this preference for white skin and values comes a clash or conflict of identities. Thurman comments on this shift of identity in his portrayal of Arline Strange, the white actress who plays the part of a mulatto in a melodrama of black life in Harlem. With make-up, the actress effects a superficial, temporary shift in identity, but unlike the mulattoes who confuse their imaginary or assumed identity with their true self, the actress shifts easily between her fictional and real identity, never losing sight of who she is.

The ultimate goal of mulattoes such as Emma Lou’s mother and grandmother, however, is to achieve a complete and permanent shift of identity by eradicating all physical traces of their African ancestry through selective marriage and by assimilating the attitudes and values of the white society. Total assimilation into the white society, many color-conscious mulattoes reasoned, would free them from the limitations of interracial prejudice. Yet the inevitable result of this denial of the authentic self was a deep-seated self-hatred, as well as alienation from those blacks whose dark skin was viewed as an emblem of dishonor and inferiority. Emma Lou is the brilliant embodiment of both these penalities associated with denial of the self. She experiences self-hatred and alienation from other blacks. Thus, the novel traces Emma Lou’s painful journey toward self-acceptance. As the novel closes, the end of her journey is near. Emma Lou wisely realizes that she must “begin life anew, always fighting, not so much for acceptance by other people, but for acceptance of herself by herself.”

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