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

By Scott, Daniel M.,, III | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Scott, Daniel M.,, III, MELUS


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.