“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.”