In African Literature these two names Wallace Thurman and Richard Wright have contributed some of the most famous fictional works depicting Black culture in America. Since the two authors come from the same time period they share the experience of what it is like to be apart of the black race in America and depict it in separate but common ways.
Both writers created works in the first half of the twentieth century that will be marked as some of the century’s most prolific novels. Coming from different periods, Thurman the Harlem Renaissance and Wright the Chicago Renaissance of the African-American Culture movement. The two authors have some differences in their works but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels that can be drawn between the two also.
The two authors grew in slightly different environments, which largely affected the substance of their fiction novels. A common parallel that can be drawn is that each knows first hand how prejudices can get in the way of a person’s life and block a person’s thoughts. The focus here is how Wright targets racism and how Thurman targeted Intra-racism.Thurman was born at the turn of the century and did not live past the age of thirty-two but he still left behind him three books, one of which is The Blacker the Berry.
Unlike Wright, Thurman chose several different settings in following the protagonist from home, to school, and then the city. As some African-American authors choose to write about the racial prejudices in the nation Thurman, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, choose to use Intraracial color prejudice as the theme to write The Blacker the Berry (1929). The protagonist, Emma Lou Morgan, is a very dark girl “born into a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one, and those few dark elements that had forced their way in either way had either been shooed away or else greeted with derisive laughter.” From this community, Boise, Idaho, Emma Lou goes to Los Angeles and then to Harlem, but she can escape neither the handicaps imposed by the notion that light is right nor her own resulting self-hatred.
Throughout the book Thurman makes several references as to how the prejudice thoughts can affect how Emma Lou is treated but it also affects how she sees people too. Self-actualization appears at the end of the story to be what Emma has been searching for all along but, like the reader, she does not notice it until its there.In Richard Wright’s Native Son Bigger Thomas, the protagonist, is a young man in his late teens living with his mom, sister, and brother in a one-bedroom rat infested apartment in Chicago. Throughout the book it becomes evident that Wright is using this book as a form of protest against the Status Quo which is the oppressive white society.
With the creation of the character Jan, the white upper class and communist party are represented. Jan tries to explain that communism would be better for “Your People” and that everyone would be treated equally in the Marxist society. Jan is just one of the characters in the book who thinks he knows Bigger, based on the color of his skin.
It is at this time where Bigger becomes further confused and unfortunately stays this way all the way until the very end of the book. Through the use of Environmental Deterism Wright makes it clear that Bigger is a product of his environment and although his lawyer tried to explain this to the jury when Bigger is on trial for murder, the defense did not have a chance because of Bigger’s race.At the very beginning of the story the reader can conclude right away that Bigger’s family is very poor and that he is the eldest man in the family. When Bigger goes to the Dalton’s on the first day of his new job he experiences the feeling of being looked down upon, by the Dalton family who are upper class whites that Wright has representing the Status Quo. From the very beginning of The Blacker the Berry Emma Lou Morgan is plagued by negative thoughts about herself regarding the darkness of her skin. Since she was a young girl it was mainstream that the little the skin the better because they were considered higher up than ordinary blacks. If you could see the veins in your arm this meant you were apart of the Blue Vein Society other wise known as blacks who have some of Master George’s blood in them.
It was also normal thinking that the lighter skinned blacks wanted to be associated with whites rather than darker skinned blacks because they were considered outcasts of black sheep of the family. Emma was one of those “black sheep” her bothers and sisters had lighter skin than she and her grandmother used to make sure she was aware of that by criticizing her for being darker than everyone else. Emma left her home state of Idaho for California to attend college at the University of Southern California.
Before attending, Emma thought that she could meet “the right sorts of people”. She looked forward to being with more open minded people in college and that there was more diversity, she was right about it having more diversity but unfortunately she was wrong about people being more open minded. This didn’t seem right to Emma, she gave the lighter skinned blacks a chance but they didn’t give her one. It was hard for Emma to make friends so she became acquainted with a girl named Hazel Mason. Emma did not take to Hazel as much as Hazel had taken to her.
Emma didn’t like being around someone who had rustic language, ugly, and from the south. This is ironic because the lighter skinned blacks were looking at Emma, in the same way she looked at Hazel. To add to Emma’s discomfort and insecurity about her complexion she became known as “Hottentot”, the name of a South African tribe. After being denied acceptance into Sorority because her skin is too dark Emma decided to leave school for the east.
After moving to Harlem, NY she began to look for a husband, the ideal qualities she is looking for in a man are, well educated, cultured, no Ebonics, from the North, and light skinned. This is another example of how she contradicts herself. Finally it appears that she has found a man who treats her with respect in John but she decided things would not work out because he was too dark and from the south. Thurman further reiterates the notion once again that Emma’s dark skin will find her up against the color of her skin when she goes to the Real Estate Company and the two lighter skinned females make comments that she is “coal black”. Another example of Emma becoming the prejudicial victim of her own race would be when she attended a party in Harlem as the guest of Alva.
Here she had the experience of associating with people whom she felt she wanted to be around but after spending time with members of the talented tenth she quickly became uneasy and uncomfortable with herself especially when she overheard them making comments about her complexion. Tired of being acknowledged solely by her skin color. She questioned Alva as to why he didn’t stick up for her and he responded by wondering why she would be upset about such a thing. He obviously didn’t see anything wrong with what took place and rightfully because as the story continues he repeatedly shows that he has no regard for her feelings whatsoever. Emma becomes so insecure about herself that she actually tries to lighten her skin with creams she thought would work, but they only made her dark complexion stand out more.
As the story concludes Emma becomes more in touch with herself and gains the self-esteem she needed throughout the book. Thurman’s purpose behind this book was to show us how people see their weak points. Without detailing the several prejudices that Emma encounters she would have been comfortable in the many events that she wasn’t.
As Thurman’s story deals primarily deals with prejudices from within the black race, Wright’s Native Son involves the pressure on the protagonist from white people. Where the feeling of being looked down upon based on skin color is similar between Emma Lou and Bigger Thomas, the stories are quite different.Richard Wright shows how being oppressed can be responsible for the extreme reactions in specific situations. Bigger Thomas lived in a predominately black neighborhood that he seldom left to go elsewhere.
Unlike Emma Lou, who had the opportunity to relocate when she felt necessary, Bigger could not afford to go to move away from his family. He was not educated well and did very little work up until his job with the Daltons. Right away we can see that Bigger is frustrated with the way blacks are treated in the country, for example, when Bigger meets up with some friends at the beginning of the story and they talk about how the white people make sure that the black man is below them.
The reader is built up to see that Bigger is up against more than just his own nervousness around white people. After murdering Mary Dalton, Bigger immediately becomes the real victim. Committing murder and being tried for murder and rape Bigger is seen as an animal in society that must be killed for his actions. If Bigger had killed a black person he would not have gained the media attention that he did. As Bigger sat in his cell a group of protesters were outside yelling, “Kill that black Ape” (p. 253) and “That Black Sonofabitch” (p.
253). Remarks like those are what Bigger wanted to avoid and did in his own neighborhood, but as soon as he left the environment that he was accustomed to he had trouble handling himself. In one situation he is bossing his friends around and in another he is confused, nervous, and wary when he drives Mary and Jan to the restaurant.
At the conclusion of the book it is hard for the reader to feel bad about the victim Mary Dalton and her family when the real victim Wright depicts is the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. One can easily believe that if Bigger had been exposed to more and had more opportunities that he would not have committed murder. It can be viewed that when he killed Mary it was a simple mistake but the root of the problem goes further. Mary getting drunk was just one of the problems. In both works it is clear that both protagonists faced several elements of prejudice opinion.
Emma Lou and Bigger Thomas each faced many difficulties because of their skin color. Emma Lou faced the majority of her problems with insecurity from other blacks with lighter skin. This is called Intra-racism or racism within a race. Bigger Thomas on the other hand had to deal with being put in an environment that because of the prejudices against him was very uncomfortable. He grew up under the status quo, thinking that he wasn’t supposed to be equal to whites, and because of the oppression that he experienced, he ended up fumbling when it tested the hardest.