Wallace Henry Thurman (b. August 16, 1902, Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S. - d. December 22, 1934, New York, New York), was an American novelist active during the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote essays, worked as an editor, and was a publisher of short-lived newspapers and literary journals. He is best known for his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), which explores discrimination within the black community based on skin color, with lighter skin being more highly valued.
Thurman was born in Salt Lake City to Beulah and Oscar Thurman. When Thurman was less than a month old, his father abandoned his wife and son. It was not until Wallace was 30 years old that he met his father. Between his mother's many marriages, Wallace and his mother lived in Salt Lake City with Emma Jackson, his maternal grandmother. Jackson ran a saloon from her home, selling alcohol without a license.
Thurman's early life was marked by loneliness, family instability and illness. He began grade school at age six in Boise, Idaho, but his poor health eventually led to a two-year absence from school, during which he returned to his grandmother Emma in Salt Lake City. From 1910 to 1914, Thurman lived in Chicago. Moving with his mother, he finished grammar school in Omaha, Nebraska. During this time, he suffered from persistent heart attacks. While living in Pasadena, California, in the winter of 1918, Thurman caught influenza during the worldwide Influenza Pandemic. He recovered and returned to Salt Lake City, where he finished high school.
Thurman was a voracious reader. He enjoyed the works of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Havelock Ellis, Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and many others. He wrote his first novel at the age of 10. He attended the University of Utah from 1919 to 1920 as a pre-medical student. In 1922 he transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, but left without earning a degree.
While in Los Angeles, he met and befriended the writer Arna Bontemps, and became a reporter and columnist for a black-owned newspaper. He started a magazine, Outlet, intended to be a West Coast equivalent to The Crisis, operated by the NAACP.
In 1925, Thurman moved to Harlem. During the next decade, he worked as a ghostwriter, a publisher, and editor, as well as writing novels, plays, and articles. In 1926, he became the editor of The Messenger, a socialist journal addressed to blacks. There he was the first to publish the adult-themed stories of Langston Hughes. Thurman left the journal in October 1926 to become the editor of World Tomorrow, which was owned by whites. The following month, he collaborated in founding the literary magazine Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists. Among its contributors were Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, and Gwendolyn B. Bennett.
He was able to publish only one issue of Fire!!. It challenged such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois and African Americans who had been working for social equality and racial integration. Thurman criticized them for believing that black art should serve as propaganda for those ends. He said that the New Negro movement spent too much energy trying to show white Americans that blacks were respectable and not inferior.
Thurman and others of the "Niggerati" (the deliberately ironic name he used for the young African American artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance) wanted to show the real lives of African Americans, both the good and the bad. Thurman believed that black artists should fully acknowledge and celebrate the arduous conditions of African American lives.
During this time, Thurman's flat in a rooming house, at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem, became the central meeting place of African-American literary avant-garde and visual artists. Thurman and Hurston mockingly called the room "Niggerati Manor." He had painted the walls red and black, which were the colors he used on the cover of Fire!! Nugent painted murals on the walls, some of which contained homoerotic content.
In 1928, Thurman was asked to edit a magazine called Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life; its contributors included Alain Locke, George Schuyler, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. He put out only two issues. Afterward, Thurman became a reader for a major New York publishing company, the first African American to work in such a position.
Thurman married Louise Thompson on August 22, 1928. The marriage lasted only six months. Thompson said that Wallace was a homosexual and refused to admit it. They had one child together.
Thurman died in 1934 at the age of 32 from tuberculosis, which many suspect was exacerbated by his long fight with alcoholism.
Thurman's dark skin color attracted comment, including negative reactions from both black and white Americans. He used such colorism in his writings, attacking the black community's preference for its lighter-skinned members.
Thurman wrote a play, Harlem, which debuted on Broadway in 1929 to mixed reviews. The same year his first novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929) was published. The novel is now recognized as a groundbreaking work of fiction because of its focus on intra-racial prejudice and colorism within the black community, where lighter skin has historically been favored.
Three years later Thurman published Infants of the Spring (1932), a satire of the themes and the individuals of the Harlem Renaissance. He co-authored The Interne (1932), a final novel written with Abraham L. Furman, a white man.
The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929) is a novel by the American author Wallace Thurman, associated with the Harlem Renaissance. It was considered ground breaking for its exploration of colorism and racial discrimination within the black community, where lighter skin was often favored, especially for women.
The novel tells the story of Emma Lou Morgan, a young black woman with dark skin. It begins in Boise, Idaho and follows Morgan in her journey to college at UCLA, and a move to Harlem, New York City for work. Set during the Harlem Renaissance, the novel explores Morgan's experiences with colorism, discrimination by lighter-skinned African Americans due to her dark skin. She learns to come to terms with her skin color in order to find satisfaction in her life.
- Part 1 Emma Lou
The only "Negro pupil in the entire school," Emma feels conspicuous at graduation in their white robes. Her Uncle Joe encourages her to go to the University of Southern California (USC). He says she can find other black students for friends, and encourages her to study education and move to the South to teach. He believes that smaller towns like Boise "encouraged stupid color prejudice such as she encountered among the blue vein circle in her home town." Emma Lou’s maternal grandmother was closely associated with the "blue veins", those blacks who had skin light enough to show veins. Uncle Joe thought that Emma Lou could find a better life in Los Angeles, where people had more to think about.
At USC, Morgan intends to meet the "right" crowd among other Negro students. On registration day, she happens to meet Hazel Mason, another black girl, but decides when she speaks that she is lower class and the wrong sort. Other girls are pleasant enough, but never invited Emma Lou into their circle or sorority. Hazel drops out of school and Grace Giles becomes Emma Lou’s friend. One day Grace says the sorority only took light-skinned, wealthy girls.
By summer, Emma Lou felt more trapped by her skin. She began to notice that black leaders tended to have light skin or were married to women with light skin. At a picnic, she meets Weldon Taylor, a young black man. Although darker than her ideal, he attracts her. By the end of the night, she thought she was in love. Over the next two weeks, she is thrilled to be with Taylor, for "his presence and his love making."
However, Weldon traveled from town to town, finding work and a new girl each time. He was leaving Boise to become a Pullman porter but, Emma Lou took his departure as due to her color, and associated it with any setback. Two years later after graduation, she decides to move to New York City and Harlem.
- Part 2 Harlem
Mrs. Blake tells her about work prospects, saying that black business men had certain images for the women they hired; they wanted them pretty and light skinned. She suggests that Emma Lou go to Columbia Teacher's College to complete training for a job in the public school system. After lunch, Emma Lou began to walk along Seventh Avenue. While stopping to check her reflection, she noticed a few young black men walking by. One said to another, "There’s a girl for you ‘Fats.’" Fats replied, "Man, you know I don’t haul no coal."
- Part 3 Alva
Intrigued by the cabaret, Emma Lou talks to the stage director about being in the dance chorus. He tells her plainly the girls are chosen in part for appearance, and notes they all have lighter skin than hers. She decides to look for a new place to live, hoping to meet "the right sort of people."
One evening she goes to a casino, where she recognizes Alva. After a while she approaches him and asks if he remembers her. He politely acts as if he does, and talks and dances with her, even giving her his phone number. She calls him a couple of times before they make plans. Braxton is critical of Alva's seeing her, but he thinks, "She’s just as good as the rest, and you know what they say, ‘The Blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’"
- Part 4 Rent Party
The next morning, her landlady told her she had to leave, as she wasn't meeting her boarding house's respectable standards. Emma Lou had consumed enough alcohol to warrant a visit from her land lady the next morning. Emma Lou thought more about Alva, who seemed kinder than others in her life, but she was aware of his manipulation.
Alva was having his own trouble with Braxton, who had no job and did not pay rent. He finally moved out, but Alva did not want Emma Lou to move in. One night the couple went to a theatre show, which included jokes about skin color. Emma Lou said to Alva, "You’re always taking me some place, or placing me in some position where I’ll be insulted."
One night, after an argument with Emma Lou, Alva returned to his room to find Geraldine sleeping in his bed. She told him she was pregnant with his child.
- Part 5 Pyrrhic Victory
Alva and Geraldine struggled with the problem of their boy, who was born disfigured. Sometimes they wished he was dead, as he seemed to have brought trouble. Alva had become alcoholic and wasted money. Geraldine worked and saved, planning to escape.
Having moved to the Y.W.C.A., Emma Lou had found some new friends. She also was studying teaching. Her friend Gwendolyn Johnson tried to make Emma Lou feel better about her appearance, but she still struggled with it. She continued to work.
Emma Lou started seeing Benson Brown, a light-skinned man described as a "yaller nigger." His appearance seemed reason enough to see him.
Emma Lou learned that Geraldine had abandoned Alva and their son. She went to him, and this time he welcomed her to his place, to care for Alva, Jr. After six months, Emma Lou begins teaching at a Harlem public school. She helped the boy to get along, but her relationship with Alva was uneasy. At the school, Emma Lou wore a lot of make-up to disguise her dark skin, but her colleagues teased her for it. Her economic independence did not totally free her.
Deciding to leave Alva and his son, Emma Lou returns to the YWCA, and calls Benson. He announces that he and Gwendolyn had been dating. They are marrying and invite her to the wedding.
Emma Lou realizes she has spent her life running. She ran away from Boise to get away from the color prejudice. Then she left Los Angeles for similar reasons. But she decide she is not running away again. She knows there are many people like her, and she has to accept herself.