Sunday, May 22, 2005

Wallace Thurman's lost classic novel

I just finished reading Wallace Thurman's novel The Blacker the Berry, a lost classic work of the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from USC in the 1920s he put out an issue of a black literary magazine in Los Angeles, hoping to start a literary renaissance on the West Coast, but soon moved to New York where he became part of the Harlem Renaissance. In New York he put out a literary magazine with Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. Besides his novel The Blacker the Berry, he published other novels; had a play on Broadway; and returned to Los Angeles to write two screenplays for films which were released. He died much too young at thrity-two in 1934 from tuberculosis.

Blacker the Berry was controversial in the 1920s because it was the first African-American novel to explore prejudice among blacks. The heroine, Emma Lou Morgan, is born to a middle class "high yellow" family in Boise, Idaho; her family keeps their distance from other darker Blacks as well as puts down Emma because of her black color. They do, however, send her to USC for a college education where Emma futilely tries to win the friendship of lighter skinned Blacks who are polite but think her "too dark" to be their friend. As the author points out Emma herself is a snob, devaluating herself because of her dark color and endlessly wanting to be friends with light-skinned girls and to marry a light-skinned man. After experiencing much loneliness at USC, Emma flees to Harlem.

Thurman has wonderfully portrayed the Harlem of the 1920s, showing Emma at night clubs, rent parties, vaudville shows and dreadful employment agencies. He portrays a whole panorama of characters from black writers to bellboys and maids to college students and schoolteachers as well as white writers interested in Blacks. Thurman shows Emma's heartaches in a romance with a light-skinned black man who uses her, takes her money, and betrays her again and again. The novel revolves around the heroine's illusions about the world and herself like, and her struggles to survive when her illusions are shattered again and again. Thurman has written a novel equivalent to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice where our heroine struggles with her own prejudices. Black the Berry is a brilliant novel both offering piercing psychological insight and illuminating a fascinating historical time.

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