Thursday, October 4, 2012
THE BLACKER THE BERRY by Wallace Thurman, reviewed by Su Zi
Despite being the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, despite being five decades since Dr King’s “Dream” speech, ours is a culture still infected with ideas of social hierarchy based upon not the content of character, but the color of skin. It is a shameful situation and a divisive one. Alongside the economic caste system so virulently at play in everyone’s daily lives, we have not got past the caste created by that which is cosmetic, external—if anything, the preoccupation has created new tumors in the realms of ageism, has encouraged anorexia, has created cathedrals of shopping and skin-plastic surgery, has created whole self-help industries and boosted the psycho-dramatic conversations of our times; all due to our neotenized narcissistic belief that nothing is ever good, that there’s always some flaw in need of correction, that human perfection is not the dream of madness.
Nostalgia is never a viable tool for thought, because it erases that which has been marginalized or censored; nonetheless, there are lost classics whose wisdom is necessary as much now as during the burning time in which they were created. Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry , originally published in 1929, is a novel whose philosophical quest is the exploration of the hierarchy of complexion tone within the Black community of the early twentieth century; however, with the exception of the presence of the Harlem Renaissance in the second half of the novel, the protagonist, plot and setting do not show any antiquity.
The protagonist, Emma Lou Morgan, seeks to get approval for her being , and the novel is ostensibly a coming-of-age saga of this quest. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, Emma Lou’s castigating mother who:
was abysmally stunned by the color of her child, for she had been certain that since she herself was so fair that her child could not possibly be as dark as its father. She had been certain that it would be a luscious admixture, a golden brown with all its mother’s desirable facial features and its mother’s hair(31)
instills in Emma Lou a profound sense of rejection because of her dark skin. Emma Lou’s mother belongs to “the blue-vein circle[…] so named because all of its members were fair-skinned enough for their blood to be seen pulsing purple through the veins of their wrists”(28), and this sense of secular pseudo-sophistication creates a trope Thurman repeats through out the novel, which the protagonist views as a quest to be accepted by “the right sort of people” (46 ,50,59… 190,196).
Thurman’s exposure of Emma Lou’s inculcated class-consciousness will discomfit those for whom respectability politics is a crucial tool for their social interactions. Thurman, through a not-quite-compassionately given point of view for Emma Lou, is generous with social perceptions such as: “ Negroes must always be sober and serious in order to impress white people with their adaptability and non-difference in all salient characteristics save skin color” (55), yet Thurman repeatedly interjects social observations that doom Emma Lou, such as: “ A wife of dark complexion was considered a handicap unless she was particularly charming, wealthy or beautiful. An ordinary-looking dark woman was no suitable mate for a Negro man of prominence “(60). These elegant turns of phrase regarding the hierarchical construction of society continue throughout the novel, and bluntly state what was then and is still now a freighted topic of entrenched social bias.
Thurman’s keen, sociological eye continues when Emma Lou moves to Harlem. Through Emma, Thurman’s observations on rent-parties, midnight shows at the Lafayette Theater, the social strolling of streets, are specific and vivid. Equally vivid are Emma Lou’s efforts to lighten he appearance of her skin :
[…] drenching it with a peroxide solution, massaging it with a bleaching ointment, and then, as a final touch, using much vanishing cream and powder. She even ate an arsenic wafer. The only visible effect of all this on her complexion was to give it an ugly purple tinge, but Emma Lou was certain that it made her skin less dark (128).
While social discussion of such ministrations tend toward the tacit assumptions made by the manufacturers of products in the cosmetics industry, only someone completely reclusive from mass-media can feign to be unaware of the glut of soaps, shampoos, lotions and perfumes that crowd our emporiums of the purchasable. Thurman’s delivery of Emma Lou’s drive toward social acceptance is both pointed and wry; however, comments made by secondary characters, by extras on the street, involve denigrating language designed to provoke the reader’s cringing. Emma Lou is referred to as a “coal scuttle blond” (114), and the characters speak a vernacular mostly familiar to the current ear, but which some may find quite disturbing.
Thurman’s portrayal of Emma Lou is only sympathetic in that he allows her to be a symbol against which his scrutiny finds sharper relief. Even characters within the novel’s text grow weary of Emma Lou’s endless tonal awareness, but Thurman uses this to point to their hypocrisy. Despite the novel’s eighty some year age, Thurman’s point is still sadly valid and will continue to be until we become as brutally honest as is Thurman himself.