Over the past week, I finished reading two phenomenal books dating from the Harlem Renaissance. Passing by Nella Larsen and The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman were both stemmed off of major color issues at the time, but were taboo to speak aloud. On the other hand, in today’s society, both are known to be common themes of the past. However, do we accept that they are still prevalent today?
In the story of Passing, a young fair-skinned woman is reunited with a close mulatta childhood friend. However, after a number of family hardships, the friend goes to live with her white side of the family, never speaks of her black side again, and goes forward in life passing as a white woman. After the two rekindle their friendship, this creates issues as the “passer” becomes obsessed with the black social life of Harlem that she never got to live, even having an affair with her friend’s black husband. Mind you, the “passer” is married to a prominent white man, who is not only intolerable of blacks but nearly detests them.
Moving forward to The Blacker the Berry, our main character is a young, darker-skinned black woman who travels from American coast to coast trying to find herself and her identity outside of color boundaries. She is ridiculed for her darker complexion, lacks friends due to it, her mother loathes the fact that she bred with the girl’s father to create “such a dark child”. She can never find her place in life and nearly accepts mediocrity. Always aware of her skin color from others around her, she too becomes color conscious and finds a way to degrade herself.
Both novels displayed inner-racial issues based upon color and their respective social constructs. It hurt me to see the main characters believe the stereotypes of themselves. Though in Passing, the “passer” was oblivious to the real world, while her friend, also very fair but accepting of her background, began to believe the negative connotations of lighter-skinned blacks. She saw herself in a different category and soon hated her passing friend for her “racial betrayal”. Whereas, The Blacker the Berry demonstrated how a young girl hated herself over something that she couldn’t and shouldn’t control (though she tried with bleaching and lightening creams).
Are these two issues still something that we face within our ethnic communities, or have we finally learned to accept our backgrounds and histories in order to love ourselves? I think you know the answer to this, but it is a growing process. What truly affected me was to read about the heroine in The Blacker the Berry be ridiculed by other black men, even of her same complexion, joke and laugh that they would never date a girl like her. That she was not worthy of their time. Even nearly a century after this book has been written, we still face the same issues: self-denial, self-hatred, and it always seems to affect us women first.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t believe how both books went under the radar and never appeared on any of my reading lists. They were the first of their kind and definitely inspired others. Please enlighten yourselves and pick up some easy reads.