Wallace Henry Thurman (1902-1934) was an African American novelist during the Harlem Renaissance. He is best known for his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, which describes discrimination based on skin color, with lighter skin being more highly valued among black people.

Thurman's Life

Thurman was born in Salt Lake City in 1902 to Beulah and Oscar Thurman. Beulah Thurman was reportedly never fond of Wallace; she would marry six times during her lifetime. Between his mother's many marriages, Wallace Thurman and his mother lived with Emma Jackson, the maternal grandmother to Wallace. His grandmother's home doubled as a saloon where alcohol was served without a license. The relationship between Wallace and his father was a distant one. While Wallace was less than a month old, Oscar Thurman abandoned and lived apart from his wife and son. Wallace was almost thirty years old when he met his father. [1]

Thurman's early life was marked by loneliness, family instability and poor health. He began grade school at age six in Boise, Idaho, but poor health eventually led to a two year absence from school during which he returned to Salt Lake City. Thurman lived in Chicago from 1910 to 1914 but finished grammar school in Omaha, Nebraska. [2] During this time, he suffered from persistent heart attacks which made him spend winter of 1918 in the lower attitude of Pasadena, California where he became infected with influenza. He returned to Salt Lake City and finished high school. Throughout it all, Thurman was a voracious reader, writing his first novel at the age of ten. He enjoyed the works of Plato, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Havelock Ellis, Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and many others. He attended the University of Utah from 1919 to 1920 as a pre-medical student. Later, in 1922, he transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles but left without receiving a degree. While in Los Angeles, he met and befriended Arna Bontemps and became a reporter for an African American owned newspaper where he wrote his first column. Though short-lived, Thurman also started his first magazine while in Los Angeles called Outlet which was suppose to be the equivalent of The Crisis.

In 1925 he moved to Harlem in New York City. During his time in Harlem and in less than ten years, he obtained various employments as a publisher, an editor for magazines and a major publisher, a writer of novels, plays, and articles, and at various times he served as a ghostwriter to various persons.[3] The following year he became the editor of The Messenger, a socialist journal aimed at black audiences. While at the Messenger, Thurman became the first person to publish the adult-themed stories of Langston Hughes.[4] Thurman left the Messenger in October of 1926 to become the editor of a white owned magazine called World Tomorrow. The following month, he collaborated in the publishing of the literary magazine Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists whose contributors were Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn B. Bennett and others. Only one issue of Fire!! was ever published. Fire!! challenged the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois who believed that black art should serve as propaganda and many within the African American bourgeoisie who sought social equality and racial integration at the expense denying certain less-than-stellar aspects of black life in the United States, aspects not aligned with a more traditional and eurocentric model. Thurman, like his fellow contributors to the magazine, attempted to show the real lived lives of African Americans, both the good and the bad. He opined that black artists should be more objective in their writings and not so self-conscious that they did not acknowledge and celebrate the arduous conditions of African American lives, as many actually existed instead of presenting a singular false facade to win white approval.[5] This was in contrast to African American leaders and middles class who saw the goal of the New Negro movement as showing white Americans that blacks were not inferior.[6]

During this time, Thurman's rooming house apartment at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem became the main place where the African American literary avant-garde and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance met and socialized.[7] Thurman and Hurston mockingly called the room Niggerati Manor, in reference to all of the black literati who showed up there. The walls of Niggerati Manor were painted red and black, colors to be emulated on the cover of Fire!! The residents, Thurman, Hughes, Nugent and others were described as unconventional by Jessie Redmon Fauset. Painted on the walls were said to be homoerotic murals by Nugent.

In 1928, Thurman published another magazine called Harlem: a Forum of Negro Life whose contributors were Alain Locke, George Schuyler, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The publication lasted for only two issues. Afterwards, Thurman became a reader for a major publishing company. He was the first African American such a position in a New York publishing house.

Thurman married Louise Thompson Patterson on August 22, 1928. The marriage lasted only six months. Thompson noted that Wallace was a homosexual and thus their union was incompatible. [8]. [9]

Thurman died in 1934 at the age of 32 from tuberculosis, which many suspect was exacerbated by his long fight with alcoholism.

Thurman's Writings

According to Langston Hughes who also referenced Thurmans very dark complexion in this statement, Thurman was "...a strangely brilliant black boy, who had read everything and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he read." Though it was to become the basis for some of his strongest writings, from the very beginning Wallace Thurman's very dark skin color was an issue and prompted negative comments and reactions from various black and white Americans.[10]

Thurman wrote a play, Harlem, which debuted on Broadway in 1929 to mixed reviews. The same year his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life was published. The novel is now recognized as a groundbreaking work of fiction because of its focus on intra-racial prejudice and colorism, specifically between light-skinned and dark-skinned black people. However, at the time many African Americans did not like the public airing of their community's so-called "dirty laundry."

Three years later Thurman published Infants of the Spring, a satire about the themes and the individuals of the Harlem Renaissance. He co-authored a final novel with A.L. Furman, The Interne, published in 1932.


  1. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In Aberjhani & Sandra West (Ed.), Wallace Thurman, pp.328-330
  2. Singh & Scott. (2003), p.3
  3. Aberjhani.(2003). p.328
  4. Aberjhani.(2003). p.328
  5. Thurman's Harlem Renaissance is, thus, staunch and revolutionary in its commitment to individuality and critical objectivity: the black writer need not pander to the aesthetic preferences of the black middle class, nor should he or she write for an easy and patronizing white approval. Singh & Scott. (2003), p.19-20
  6. Hardy, Sheila J. & Hardy, P.S. (2000). In Wallace Thurman. Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, p.136. Children's Press
  7. the Big Sea, Langston Hughes writes that he lived with Thurman rooming house.... West.(2003). p.242
  8. Aberjhani. (2003).p.329
  9. Louise Thompson said, "I never understood Wallace. He took nothing seriously. He laughed about everything. He would often threaten to commit suicide but you knew he would never do it. And he would never admit that he was a homosexual. Never, never, not to me at any rate." Rampersad, vol.1,(1986),p. 172
  10. Aberjhani.(2003). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In Aberjhani & Sandra West (Ed.), Wallace Thurman, pp.328-330


  • Singh, Amritjit, & Scott, Daniel M. (2003). The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader. Rutgers University Press ISBN 0-8135-3301-5
  • Aberjhani. (2003). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In Aberjhani & Sandra West (Ed.), Wallace Thurman. Checkmark Press ISBN 0-8160-4540-2
  • Rampersad, Arnold (1986). The Life of Langston Hughes Volume 1: I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-514642-5

External links

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