Harlem Shadows: Re-Evaluating Wallace Thurman's the Blacker the Berry

Article excerpt

Wallace Thurman's first novel, The Blacker the Berry, appeared at an extremely productive time for this young turk of the Harlem Renaissance--and in many ways, this novel reflects his complex interrogation of racial, sexual, and cultural identity more completely than any of his other works. Three and a half years after arriving in New York City, he had a banner year in 1929 with the publication of The Blacker the Berry and the Broadway production of the play he co-wrote with William Jourdan Rapp, Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life. These two works and other shorter writings of the late 1920s reveal how much the transformational allure of Harlem had fascinated Thurman. Taken in such a context, Blacker is clear testament to the vivacity and variety of this place Thurman calls the "city of surprises."

In several essays on Harlem reprinted in The Collected Writings" of Wallace Thurman, Thurman makes it clear that Harlem is more than a black mecca (an early title for his 1929 play); it is a site of considerable--even revolutionary--social and personal possibilities, a stage for upheavals and transformations of identity that could re-organize and complicate the way the self is perceived and presented. In a 1927 essay, "Harlem: A Vivid Word Picture," Thurman writes:

   Harlem is not to be seen. Or heard, it must be felt. Life there
   is deeper than laughing externalities, bold fronts, and grim
   exteriors. Behind a brownstone front may be a clay brick rear.
   In a sordid tenement may be found a well appointed drawing room.
   Poet and bootlegger live side by side. Musician and pickpocket
   eat in the same radio-entertained dining rooms. Preacher and
   physician, undertaker and dentist, "number" banker and postal
   clerk, Pullman porter and real estate shark are all aristocrats.
   Society seldom knows competition. It occasionally knows notoriety
   or family or achievement or color.
   (Collected 33)

Indeed, Thurman's letters and essays indicate that traditional readings of Blacker--with their emphasis on the autobiographical parallels between Emma Lou Morgan, the protagonist, and Thurman--fail to reflect Thurman's commitment to viewing Harlem critically, a commitment that also informs his attitudes toward definitions of race and other categories of identity. In this light, rather than being a reflection of Thurman's anxiety over his own dark skin, Blacker becomes a text that deliberately interrogates several dimensions of identity in order to explore identity categories as staged in Harlem, the "city of surprises."

There is currently a renewed interest in Thurman, especially in understanding the leadership role he played among the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers and as the black public intellectual who, well before Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison, interrogated with wit and vigor the construction of racial identities in the US. Through the 1992 publication of Infants of the Spring with a foreword by Amritjit Singh and the 1996 publication of Blacker the Berry with an introduction by Shirley Haizlipp, Thurman's writings have attracted fresh attention from Harlem Renaissance scholars. Bisexual, highly self-critical, and dismissive of the "current faddistic interest in things Negroid," Thurman is a figure who consciously raised questions about the status of the Renaissance and the "race" it represented ("Stranger" 191). Just as the discussion of the multiple and diverse dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance has expanded, so too has a re-evaluation of Thurman's place in the Harlem Renaissance and in African American letters. Thurman's writings are deeply invested in the interrogation of identity and in the analysis of what Haizlipp terms the "context of how black self-hate, black rage is created and how black self-love, black empowerment can triumph" (14).

Thurman frames his questions concerning identity and self-love by using multiple points of view within the context of Harlem. …