The color of skin: Intra-racial prejudice in the Harlem Renaissance

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

17 Pages, Grade: 1- (A-)



1. Introduction

2. Prejudice – newly defined

3. The relationship of color and class consciousness to identity

4. The role of the protagonist in the Harlem Renaissance

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

THERE! That’s the kind I’ve been wanting
to show you! One of the best
examples of the specie. Not like
those diluted Negroes you see so much of on
the streets these days, but the
real thing.
Black, ugly, and odd. You
can see the savagery. The blunt
blankness. That is the real
thing. (Gwendolyn Brooks)[1]

It is not only Lincoln in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem (1970) who is regarded as ugly because of his pronounced black features. In Wallace Thurman’s novel The Blacker the Berry the protagonist also experiences different forms of intra-racial prejudice. Like Lincoln, Emma Lou is regarded as “the real thing [–] black, ugly and odd.”[2] This is at least how she feels and how she sees herself, always observing herself through the eyes of others. To give a brief introduction to the topic of intra-racial prejudice, Brooks’s poem was chosen to support the fact that people are prejudiced against other people; even though they belong to the same race. Although the utterance about Lincoln is made by a white man in a movie theater, it cannot be denied that those racist remarks also occur among people who are perceived to belong to one and the same race. Either way, Lincoln is regarded as being the ugliest boy that everyone ever saw. And this is exactly how Emma Lou feels. She supports the misconception of the white man at the movie theater and of society’s stereotypes that dark-skinned blacks do not know as much as light-skinned blacks and therefore are considered to be inferior. The author already makes a distinction between dark-skinned African Americans and not that dark-skinned African Americans when he compares the “real thing” black person with “those diluted Negroes you see so much of on the streets these days”. With this phrase she covers one of the major topics in Wallace Thurman’s novel which is about prejudice within one race. The protagonist is always aware of her color which is a result of her sstruggle with the society and herself and it will be described on several examples in the novel. Further, the protagonist’s social standing and her long way to an agreeable attitude in life will be presented in order to show the protagonist’s consciousness of other people’s complexion for she herself is troubled by the obvious presence of her dark pigmentation. As a last point, the time, in which the novel was published, will be compared to the protagonist’s attitude and it will be questioned if the novel supports the main goals of the progressive movement of that time.

It is important, however, to state some major definitions before going into detail of the analysis. Since the term ‘African American’ is considered to be the most appropriate, it is used in this paper. For the purpose of avoiding too many repetitions distinctions between the terms ‘African Americans’ or ‘Blacks’ will not be made. Further, as there do not only exist the two races black and white, it is important, however, to state that there is much of a diversity within these groups as well. To describe the variations within the black race for example, it was not only Thurman who used every known adjective to distinguish between the different shades of skin by using expressions like “high yaller, yaller nigger, blue veins, half white, dictys, mulattoes, high brown, etc.”[3] Not attempting to downplay the diversity of skin color and other physical appearances within the different races, in this paper there will be only put emphasis on the different shades of skin color within the group of African Americans. Since the novel’s central character is a dark-skinned girl, in many cases the point of view of this character will be taken over. All the color questions and struggle will find their origin in the protagonist’s mind.

2. Prejudice – newly defined

Why do people have prejudice against people perceived to belong to other races? Many believe that a difference in physical appearance has something to do with differences in behavior, attitude, intelligence, or intrinsic worth of people. The fact is, however, that all over the world humans “differ in their skin color, eye color and shape, hair color and texture, body shape, stature, limb proportions, and other physical characteristics”.[4] Yet, in Wallace Thurman’s novel The Blacker The Berry the visible differences of skin color and other physical characteristics are not the main reason for prejudices between different races but the reason for prejudice within one race. Concentrating on Emma Lou Morgan, the dark-skinned protagonist of the novel, Thurman describes on the one hand the suffer and pain of a young girl who cannot overcome her obsession with skin color and on the other hand he represents her class consciousness. She is always on the search for the “right sort of people”, which include the ‘right’ color of skin and the ‘right’ class. Her intention is “not to go out of her class”[5] and find someone with an acceptable skin color. Emma thinks that only those people matter who are northerners like herself or superior southerners. This attitude, however, does not make her less prejudiced than anyone around her. The only thing that really matters to her is people’s complexion, including her own. Since she is unwanted from birth on because of her dark skin pigmentation she makes skin color to be one of the most important worries of her life. “Whiter and whiter, EVERY generation” (p. 11) is the motto she adopts from her family. The “nearer white you are the more white people will respect you” (p. 19). From the moment that she enters the world – a black child not wanted by her own relatives – she is the alien member of her lighter-skinned family and the family’s social circle which partly is the cause for all her suffer. Her skin color is just too dark, too dark for her and too dark for her relatives. Facing the family’s motto from day to day gives her a constant source of torture. She feels rejected and unwanted by the majority because she does not only receive this feeling from most of her own relatives but also from other people. She constantly thinks to be the victim of discrimination. As a result, Emma Lou escapes in order to leave the prejudice she receives from people of her own race behind her. Nevertheless, when she searches for a job or looks for a room in Harlem she again is confronted with people who do not accept her. As an excuse for their missing tolerance the employers and landladies either have someone else in mind or they surprisingly have no rooms available any more. However, Emma finds out, they preferably want lighter-skinned people to work with them or live in their house.

The theme of intra-racial prejudice against Emma reaches one of its climaxes when Emma’s boyfriend Alva invites her to a house-rent party. What Emma does not know up to that point is that Alva is not less color prejudiced than the people she has become acquainted with so far. Being a mulatto himself he, like her family, lives under the motto that “black cats must go. ” (p. 126) He just uses Emma for he knows that his also color prejudiced friends do not accept Emma or his preference for ‘dark meat.’ When Alva joins the conversation at the party, for example, to say that he does not think of all light-skinned being color struck or color prejudiced, he is lying in order to impress Emma. He, instead, does not behave less discriminatory than her family. His awareness of her dark complexions is the reason for him escorting this group of young writers he hardly knows to the house-rent party, telling Emma that these people were his friends. He wants to avoid making her acquainted with his real friends. Further, at the party, Emma experiences one of the worst forms of intra-racial prejudice. Truman, one of the writers, introduces the others to his explanation for light Negroes being prejudiced against dark ones. He states that “white is a symbol of everything pure and good” (p. 132) whereas black stands for everything evil and bad. Since mulattos tend to be closer to the white race they are also accorded more consideration by white people than their darker brethren. He further argues that “people have to feel superior to something...[other than] domestic animals or steel machines...It is much more pleasing to pick some individual or group...on the same plane. (p.134)” With this statement he means that mulattos who ostracize darker-skinned African Americans merely follow a hierarchy of discrimination set by the dominant majority group. And since this majority group is favored because of their light skin color, being defined as everything pure and good, it also sets the standard for the rest of the people. This statement, being uttered and supported by Truman, a black African American himself, makes Emma Lou paralyzed throughout the whole discussion. On the background of her color consciousness she cannot understand how a person like Truman is not able to feel and show any race pride. Additional, she feels insulted and being made fun at since she is the one with the darkest skin color of all people at the house-rent party. The young writer, though, does not justify this thinking or behavior of lighter-skinned people towards darker-skinned people but he rather tries to explain it to the group.



[2] Ibid.

[3] Thurman, Wallace, The Blacker the Berry, The X Press (London, 1997).


[5] Thurman, Wallace, The Blacker the Berry, The X Press (London, 1997).

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The color of skin: Intra-racial prejudice in the Harlem Renaissance
University of Hamburg  (Institute for english language and culture)
Seminar II: Neither Black Nor White-Yet Both: Miscegenation and Passing in Interracial Literature
1- (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
510 KB
Intra-racial, Harlem, Renaissance, Seminar, Neither, Black, White-Yet, Both, Miscegenation, Passing, Interracial, Literature
Quote paper
Catrin Collath (Author), 2002, The color of skin: Intra-racial prejudice in the Harlem Renaissance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The color of skin: Intra-racial prejudice in the Harlem Renaissance

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free