Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Wallace Thurman's the Blacker the Berry and the Question of the Emancipatory City

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Wallace Thurman's the Blacker the Berry and the Question of the Emancipatory City

Article excerpt

"There was no place in the world for a girl as black as she," Emma Lou, the protagonist of Wallace Thurman's 1929 The Blacker the Berry, despairingly laments. Indeed, I Emma Lou is very black, "too black" as she learns growing up in Boise, Idaho in an African-American community that desperately hopes to get "whiter and whiter every generation" (29). Her grandmother is the founding member of the Boise "blue veins," an elite circle of black Americans who are fair-skinned enough for their blood to be seen "pulsing purple through the veins of their wrists" (28). But to Emma Lou's great misfortune--and as a result of her mother's disastrous marriage to a "full-blooded Negro"--she has been born dark (30). She consequently becomes the ostracized member of her family and their exclusive social set. Due to her skin colour, whose hue is constantly invoked with disdain, her grandmother, mother, and the rest of the blue veins isolate Emma Lou and she, in turn, eventually rejects her family and sets out on her own.

Thurman's novel traces Emma Lou's various attempts to escape the virulent intra-black racism of her hometown and its psychic effects. Her flight leads her first to Los Angeles, where she enrolls as a student at the University of Southern California. But collegiate life in Los Angeles turns out not to be as radically different from Boise as Emma Lou had hoped--at least not in terms of the middle-class African-American community's colour consciousness and racialized gender hierarchy. This realization propels Emma Lou to move on to Harlem. She is, we are told, absolutely determined to "escape the haunting chimera of intra-racial color prejudice" (70) and believes that in the "world's greatest colored city" life will be more cosmopolitan and the people more civilized (187). Harlem does indeed prove to be vastly more heterogeneous but, to her dismay, Emma Lou discovers that though the largest black metropolis is indeed unlike any other space, it is not, by any means, a panacea for all her woes.

Given the novel's overt thematization of colour prejudice within the African-American community and its candid description of sexuality outside the confines of marriage and heteronormativity, scholars have recently returned to The Blacker the Berry, underscoring its sophisticated "denaturing" of race as well as gender and sexuality. (1) These scholars also suggest that Harlem plays an emancipatory role in the novel. Building on the insights of this scholarship, in what follows I investigate the connection the text makes between gender, race, and space. My point of departure is Emma Lou's disturbing lament regarding the difficulty, if not near impossibility, of a "black girl" finding a site where she feels she belongs, a theme that recurs almost obsessively throughout the narrative. The Blacker the Berry, I suggest, can productively be read as Emma Lou's excruciating search for her own place--as a young black middle-class woman--in the world.

Such a reading draws out a series of theoretical insights. A close analysis of Thurman's use and construction of the city, which is portrayed as the only kind of space in which Emma Lou can realize her desire for happiness, helps reveal how spatiality and place function in relation to gender and race norms. The description of Emma Lou's geographical odyssey--from a small town to a larger city and eventually to the largest black metropolis--highlights the way spatiality influences the "effectiveness" of dominant norms. The Blacker the Berry dramatizes, however, that even though Harlem does open up more possibilities for its female protagonist, the greatest black urban space ultimately fails to live up to its reputation as a Mecca of limitless opportunity. Dominant gender and race norms continue to circulate and regulate life even in this cosmopolitan metropolis, and Emma Lou's ability to forge her own place becomes possible only within the interstices of the social fabric of urban life. …

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