To lessen black
children's feelings of inferiority to white America, DuBois generally
depicted the physical appearance of African Americans as pleasing
and attractive. However, by focusing so closely on looks, he created
a new kind of self-consciousness--one evidenced in children's letters
and contributions. Many readers identified themselves largely by
the shades of their skin. Fourteen-year-old James Alpheus Butler
(1: 215), for example, writes, "I am a colored boy, brownskinned
and proud of it." Alice Martin laments:
In the geography
lesson, when we read about the different people who live in the
world, all the pictures are pretty, nice-looking men and women,
Africans. They always look so ugly. I don't mean to make fun of
them, for I am
not pretty myself; but I know not all colored people look like
me. I see lots of
ugly white people, too; but not all white people look like them,
and they are not
the ones they put in the geography (1: 178).
also interjects a physical concern into her letter, asking "If
I should write a good piece, would you put it in? I am twelve years
old, but most folks think I am younger because I am so short. But
you don't have to be tall to write, do you?"(1: 111). Her anxiety,
though not color-related, indicates an assumed connection between
one's physical traits and one's ability to achieve. Similarly, in
"Not Wanted," 15-year-old contributor Grace White pens
a story about an orphan who feels unloved and unwanted solely because
of her appearance. Grace starts her story with this simple explanation:
would be ten her next birthday and ever since she could remember,
she had never been wanted
.Beautiful women in furs came
into the Faculty Room to ask for a little girl to keep, and
Mrs. Trumble always brought in pretty little girls, with fluffy
curls and big brown eyes (1: 115).
The child blames
her "skinny arms and legs, large mouth, and--freckles!"
for this unfortunate lot in life. She eventually finds a loving
mother, despite the freckles, but the fact that a Brownies' Book
reader placed such a premium on appearances, suggests an internalization
of DuBois' compulsive focus on the physical.
like "Impossible Kathleen" reflect a reality of African
American life at least during the twenties, if not longer: the insistent
pairing of self-worth with the shade of skin. In 1929 Wallace Thurman
published the wildly popular and highly contentious The Blacker
the Berry, a heart-wrenching story of a dark-skinned girl's
maturation into womanhood and her desperate attempts to align herself
with the more "congenial," or light-skinned, members of
her race. Thurman's title refers to the Southern adage "the
blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice," which was loaded
with ambiguity. As Lee Taylor Hazlip notes in an introduction, "For
some the saying had to do with attaching pride rather than stigma
to dark skins; for others, it suggested a sexual connotation"
(12). Wallace offers an equally ambivalent interpretation of his
title. Emma Lou, the central character, was born into a pale-skinned,
"blue vein" family of African Americans, but she doesn't
inherit their light color. In the opening chapter the narrator clearly
articulates Emma Lou's position, claiming, "The tragedy of
her life was that she was too black" (23).
novel, Emma Lou blames her unhappiness, sordid sexual affairs, and
lack of true friendships on her color--not blackness but excessive
blackness--and makes numerous attempts to lighten her skin with
bleach, lemon juice, and arsenic wafers and to camouflage it with
heavy layers of rouge and powder. However, Emma Lou, herself, partakes
in intra-race elitism, refusing to befriend a Southern girl she
finds beneath her or to date a well-intentioned man because his
dark color would do little to further her own social aspirations.
In the end, after years of misery and failed attempts to start over
first in Los Angeles and then in Harlem, Emma Lou realizes that
she has allowed her color consciousness to poorly influence her
needed to do now was to accept her black skin as being real
and unchangeable, to realize that certain things were, had been,
and would be, and with this in mind begin life anew, always
fighting not so much for acceptance by other people, but for
acceptance of herself by herself. In the future she would be
eminently selfish. If people came into her life--well and good.
If they didn't--she would live anyway, seeking to find herself
and achieving meanwhile economic and mental independence (217).
Wallace advocates an acceptance of self, he does so at the expense
of social connections. Emma Lou can be deeply black and happy, if
she isolates herself from the world. Moreover, though her resolution
suggests a joyful turn, the reader can only predict such results.
The final scene shows Emma Lou packing her bags, but not yet leaving
much less securing happiness.
of Thurman's 1929 book suggests an accurate depiction of race consciousness,
for a number of readers seem to have sympathized with Emma Lou's
plight. In addition because Thurman himself lived in Los Angeles
and Harlem before writing The Blacker the Berry, his plotline
also implies a long-brewing situation among African Americans. However,
it is a situation that the pan-Africanist DuBois should have been
countering, not furthering, in his writing for children.