Wallace Thurman in Harlem

Heaven Compared to the Rest of the Country

Wallace Thurman in Harlem

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My color shrouds me in…” Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry adopts this line from Countee Cullen, another Harlem Renaissance writer, as one of its two epigraphs. (The other is the well-known “Negro folk saying” that supplies the novel’s title: “The blacker the berry / The sweeter the juice…”) Through the life of his protagonist, Emma Lou, Thurman delves deep into the painful history of colorism, a term defined by Alice Walker to mean “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Emma Lou, Thurman writes, “was black, too black, there was no getting around it.” Her skin color overdetermines her life circumstances and alienates her from lighter-skinned family members, including her grandmother, who takes pride in her “blue veins,” and her mother, who wishes that Emma Lou had been born a boy because “black boys can make a go of it, but black girls…”

Emma Lou does not mind being black, though she “did mind being too black,” and she comes to view her complexion as “a liability,” “a decided curse,” and a tragedy that befalls her no matter where she goes. Unloved in her hometown of Boise, Idaho, she hopes to find happiness in college, at the University of Southern California, among more sophisticated peers. “Boise was a provincial town,” Emma Lou muses, “given to the molding of provincial people with provincial minds. Its people were cramped and narrow, their intellectual concepts stereotyped and static. Los Angeles was a happy contrast in all respects.” But these dreams do not come true: The “right sort of people” shun her; she isn’t invited to join their sororities or social clubs; and no respectable black man will date her. “There was no place in the world for a dark girl,” she laments. And even when Emma Lou decides to move to Harlem, she still finds no refuge. The black metropolis may have been a place where, in Thurman’s words, “anything might happen and everything does,” but it cannot save Emma Lou from a life of exploitation, unfulfilling jobs, and growing disillusionment.

In Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes saw “a strangely brilliant Black boy who had read everything, and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he read.” Like Emma Lou, Thurman was a dark-skinned Westerner who felt like an outsider; born in Salt Lake City, he was one of the only black students in his school. And again like Emma Lou, he attended the University of Southern California, where he was treated poorly by the white students and experienced intragroup prejudice from the black students, whom he perceived as pretentious.

After graduation, Thurman settled in Harlem in the 1920s and became a leading (and legendary) figure in the Harlem Renaissance—part of the “niggerati,” as Zora Neale Hurston famously called this influential group of intellectuals and artists. Working with A. Philip Randolph, Thurman became an editor at The Messenger, a political and literary journal, and in 1926 he co-founded, with Hurston, Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Bruce Nugent, a bold and innovative publication called Fire!!, which featured the work of younger artists but was disliked by the black middle class because of its candid presentation of black life. In 1929, Thurman collaborated with the white playwright William Jourdan Rapp to write and produce Harlem, which ran for 93 performances and became “the first successful play written entirely or in part by a Negro to appear on Broadway.” Thurman believed that African Americans could overcome racial barriers, but he experienced countless incidents of racism during his short life. In a letter to Rapp, he wrote that he’d purchased center-aisle tickets to Harlem on five separate occasions, including opening night, and found himself seated “on the side in a little section where any other Negro who happened to buy an orchestra seat was also placed.”

Thurman experienced similar incidents everywhere he went. In Salt Lake City, he was troubled by the spread of what he perceived as Southern-style segregation after a taxi driver refused to take him home from the railroad station. In Los Angeles, he tried to make a train reservation, only to have it rejected. Perhaps for this reason, he never gave up on New York, which was “heaven compared to the rest of the country.” One might still have an unpleasant experience there, but at least, as Thurman remarked to Rapp, “people don’t stare at you or jump away as if you were a leper.”

It was in 1929, in his beloved New York, that Thurman achieved his greatest fame. In addition to Harlem, he published The Blacker the Berry, which was as celebrated at the time as it is underappreciated in our own, neither cited nor read as often as other novels of the Harlem Renaissance. These days, Emma Lou is a less familiar protagonist than Irene Redfield, Helga Crane, and Clare Kendry, her counterparts in the novels of Nella Larsen. Some literary scholars believe that the popularity of The Blacker the Berry waned because its themes of color consciousness and intra-racial conflict clashed with the temper of the civil-rights era. But it may also have been the boldness of its social commentary. Thurman and Larsen both suggest that there were few, if any, avenues available for middle-class black women in the 1920s—but unlike Irene Redfield in Passing, Emma Lou remains unmarried and self-sufficient. Nor does Thurman drape a decorous veil over her sexual life: Not only does Emma Lou engage in sex without being married, but she actively seeks sexual partners and asserts that she doesn’t regret the “loss of her virtue.” Like other characters, she is searching for a stable sense of self. Still, her primary dilemma is one of color and complexion.

Thurman had his own dilemmas. Living as a dark-skinned man was one; his sexuality was another. Thurman did not conform entirely to the norms of either heterosexual or homosexual culture. Describing him as “an explorer,” the literary scholar Granville Ganter argues that Thurman’s fluid sexuality works as a metaphor for the “breadth of his imaginative vision as a writer and artist.” As an explorer, Thurman sought to examine aspects of black life—raucous rent parties, sexual relationships outside of marriage, homosexuality—not governed by the mores and taboos of the black middle class.

In 1925, in a real-life scandal that reads like fiction (and would later become the plot of one of his short stories, “Cordelia the Crude,” published in Fire!!), Thurman—who was married at the time—spent 48 hours in jail after being caught in a sexual act with a man in a bathroom. A minister—who Thurman later discovered also “belonged to the male sisterhood”—bailed him out but demanded a bribe for his silence. Thurman refused, and word spread quickly; his wife would eventually use the scandal against him in their divorce.

Thurman acknowledged that the incident happened, but he claimed that there was “no evidence” that he was gay. He knew that there was “a certain group of Negroes in Harlem” who relished and relayed the news about his sexuality far and wide. In a letter to Rapp before the incident, Thurman noted that he was already at “a very low ebb” and wished he had gone to Europe, but wondered if he wouldn’t have been equally troubled there. As he explained:

I am afraid that I am losing my sense of humor, for I find myself less able to laugh at things and more inclined to let them depress me. Even on the train I was beset by a Pullman porter for my dastardly propaganda against the race. And here at the house a delegation of church members (at my grandmother’s request) flocked in on me and prayed over me for almost an hour, beseeching the Almighty to turn my talents into the path of righteousness. All of which is amusing until the point of saturation is reached.

The scandal only made matters worse. After a scuffle with his grandmother’s minister back in Utah, Thurman wrote that his “‘ostracisation’ among polite colored circles in Salt Lake [was] now complete.”

It is unclear whether such an exclusion bothered Thurman. At times, he seemed to accept his attraction to men, despite the distance it created between him and his family; at other times, he seemed anxious to prove his heterosexuality. Thurman’s desire to be accepted and loved can be seen in the analysis of the psychological costs of intra-racial prejudice found in The Blacker the Berry. His longing is palpable. His biographer, Eleonore van Notten, writes of Thurman’s position as an outcast, noting that his “egoism…provoked social alienation rather than transcendence.” Thurman wrestled with his identity and searched for a place to call home, while Langston Hughes, who had his own equally complicated identity, called for self‑acceptance with a more assured voice:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

During his time, Thurman was celebrated for writing novels and short stories and producing plays that offered honest, unabashed depictions of black life. The Blacker the Berry was hailed in advertisements as “a thumping good novel of the night-life hilarity and bitter tragedy that are really Harlem” and “the most honest and accurate book yet written around Negro life.” Hughes sent a telegram to Thurman proclaiming: “Your potential soars like a kite breaking patterns for Negro writers.”

The final tragedy of Thurman’s life, then, was that it was cut short before he’d had the chance to fully realize that potential. Thurman died of tuberculosis in December 1934, at the age of 32, still wrestling with himself and struggling to find a place where he belonged. Some five years before his death, Thurman wrote a letter to Rapp in which he sounded very much like a man who was aware that he didn’t have much time left:

I am astonished and alarmed by my condition. Do I need a change of air? I cannot tell. Is it my sick body that weakens my will and mind, or is it a spiritual cowardice wears out my body? I do not know. What I do feel is an immense discouragement, a sensation of unbearable isolation, a perpetual fear of some remote disaster, an utter disbelief in my capacity, a total absence of desire, an impossibility of finding any kind of interest.

He had just flown back to New York after what would prove to be his final visit to the West. We cannot know how far his gifts and talents might have taken him.

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