Image: The Blacker The Berry (Penguin Random House

Publisher Synopsis: The groundbreaking Harlem Renaissance novel about prejudice within the black community

Emma Lou Morgan’s skin is black. So black that it’s a source of shame to her, not only among the largely white community of her hometown of Boise, Idaho, but also among her lighter-skinned family and friends. Seeking a community where she will be accepted, she leaves home at age 18, traveling first to Los Angeles and then to New York City, where in the Harlem of the 1920s she finds a vibrant scene of nightclubs and dance halls and parties and love affairs...and, still, rejection by her own race.

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One of the most widely read and controversial works of the Harlem Renaissance, and the first novel to openly address prejudice among black Americans, The Blacker the Berry...is a book of undiminished power about the invidious role of skin color in American society.


The story of Emma Lou Morgan is one that stuck with me.

I’m not exactly sure why or when I bought this book, though it was sometime in the ’90s. Admittedly, when I bought it, I didn’t know who Wallace Thurman was or that this book was a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, I didn’t even know (I feel like I’m just baring my soul here) that when Tupac said “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice...” his well-read ass was probably (even likely) referring to this novel about Emma Lou Morgan and the seeming tragedy of her life, about how her dark skin affected her family, others around her, and even Morgan herself.

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But this book unlocked a lot of the Harlem Renaissance for me. It unearthed the Niggerati, and FIRE!! and Thurman’s take on what he viewed as what amounted to him as respectability politics as way of gaining white respect. Thurman was definitely more of a “’bout that black life.” Point is, Thurman was a door opener for me. And The Blacker the Berry seemed to follow a lot of Thurman’s own path in life.

She went from Boise, Idaho, to Los Angeles, to Harlem in search of something better, but often found that happiness wasn’t just around the corner. The book focused heavily on the intraracial discrimination many face in our community due to colorism and did an excellent job of expressing much of what we view as colorism, especially in elite society. Set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, I imagine this book may have caught some flak because of that.

Thurman, whose life was cut short at 32, is a very relatable writer. It didn’t take me long to get through the book, and it turned Thurman into one of my favorite writers.

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The Blacker The Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman