The Renaissance Revolutionary
Born August 16, 1902 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wallace Thurman was a novelist, dramatist, columnist, essayist, editor, publisher, and intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance. He is best known for his novel “The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life”, which explores the insulated discrimination among black people, based on skin color.
Thurman was born in Salt Lake City to Beulah and Oscar Thurman. Between his mother's many marriages, Wallace and his mother lived with Emma Jackson, his maternal grandmother. His grandmother's home doubled as a saloon where alcohol was served without a license. When Thurman was less than a month old, his father abandoned him and his mother. It was not until Wallace was 30 years old that he met his father.
Thurman's early life was marked by loneliness, family instability, and illness. He began grade school at age six in Boise, Idaho but his poor health eventually led to a two-year absence from school, during which time he returned to Salt Lake City. From 1910 to 1914, Thurman lived in Chicago, but he would have to finish grammar school in Omaha, Nebraska. During this time, he suffered from persistent heart attacks. While living in the low altitude town of Pasadena, California in the winter of 1918, Thurman came down with influenza during the worldwide Influenza Pandemic. Considering his history of illness, he surprisingly recovered and then returned to Salt Lake City, where he finished high school.
Wallace Thurman, The Blacker the Berry
Throughout it all, Thurman was reading voraciously. He enjoyed the works of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Havelock Ellis, Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and many others. He wrote his first novel at the age of 10. He attended the University of Utah from 1919 to 1920 as a pre-medical student. However, in 1922 he transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, though he never got his degree. While in Los Angeles, he met and befriended Arna Bontemps and became first a reporter for an African-American-owned newspaper and then a columnist. He also started his first magazine, “Outlet”, which was intended to be a West Coast equivalent to The Crisis.
In 1925 Thurman moved to Harlem. In less than 10 years, he obtained various employments as a ghostwriter, a publisher, an editor, and a writer of novels, plays, and articles. 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 to publish the adult-themed stories of Langston Hughes. Thurman left the journal in October 1926 to become the editor of a white-owned magazine called World Tomorrow. The following month he collaborated in publishing the literary magazine Fire!!, devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, with the likes of Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, and Gwendolyn B. Bennett.
Wallace Thurman, Infants of the Spring
Only one issue of Fire!! was ever published. In the issue, the magazine challenged the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois and many of the African American bourgeoisie, who, in their search for social equality and racial integration, believed that black art should serve as propaganda for those ends. It expressed many of the ideas in tandem with The New Negro movement, which wanted to show white Americans that blacks were not inferior.
Fire!! was conceived with the notion of expressing the black experience during the Harlem Renaissance in a modern and realistic fashion, using literature as a vehicle of enlightenment. The authors of this magazine wanted to create an arena in which they could express the changing attitudes of younger African Americans. Furthermore, they used Fire!! to facilitate the exploration of issues in the Black community that were not in the forefront of mainstream African American society such as homosexuality, bisexuality, interracial relationships, promiscuity, prostitution, and color prejudice within the Black community itself.
The publication was so named, according to Langston Hughes, "to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past ... into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing.” Ironically, Fire!! magazine's headquarters burned to the ground shortly after releasing the first issue.
Wallace Thurman, Fire
Unsurprisingly, the magazine was found offensive for many reasons and it was denounced by Black leaders of Du Bois’ Talented Tenth, "who viewed the effort as decadent and vulgar" as they felt that the content relating to prostitution and homosexuality was degrading. They thought the magazine’s content was a step back for the public image of African Americans because it invoked negative stereotypes such as blacks speaking in southern vernacular (Zora Neale Hurston’s footprints), which were undignified and reflected poorly on the Black race
But Thurman and others of the "Niggerati" (the deliberately ironic name Thurman used for the young African American artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance) wanted to show the real lives of African Americans, both the good and the bad. Thurman believed that black artists should be more objective in their writings and not so self-conscious that they failed to acknowledge and celebrate the arduous conditions of African American lives. As Singh and Scott put it, "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."
Wallace Thurman, Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman
During this time, Thurman's rooming house apartment at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem became the main hub where the African-American literary avant-garde and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance met and socialized. 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!! Richard Bruce Nugent painted murals on the walls, some of which contained homoerotic content.
In 1928, Thurman published another magazine called Harlem: a Forum of Negro Life, whose contributors included Alain Locke, George Schuyler, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The publication lasted for only two issues.
Thurman married Louise Thompson Patterson on August 22, 1928. The marriage lasted only six months. Thompson said that Wallace was a homosexual and therefore reasoned that their union was incompatible.
According to Langston Hughes, who noted Thurman's 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." In other words, Thurman was described as black and also as a passionate reader. These two qualities allowed him to reach great heights as a writer in the Harlem Renaissance. From a young age, Thurman's dark skin color was always an issue; it prompted negative comments and reactions from various black and white Americans. Unfortunate though it might be, his blackness, and the discrimination he was subject to because of it, provided excellent fuel which propelled his writing career.
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 intraracial prejudice and colorism– specifically between light-skinned and dark-skinned black people. Three years later Thurman published “Infants of the Spring”, a satire of the themes and the individuals of the Harlem Renaissance. He co-authored The Interne, a final novel with A.L. Furman, published in 1932.
Brought to you by Paris-based black painter Ealy Mays
REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS
- African American portal
- Harlem Renaissance
- African American literature
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In Aberjhani & Sandra West (Ed.),Wallace Thurman, pp.328-330
- Singh & Scott. (2003), p.3
- Aberjhani.(2003). p.328
- Hardy, Sheila J. & Hardy, P.S. (2000). In "Wallace Thurman",Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, p.136. Children's Press.
- Singh & Scott. (2003), p.19-20
- West (2003), p.242.
- Aberjhani. (2003).p.329
- 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, but he was. Never, never, not to me at any rate." Rampersad, vol.1,(1986),p. 172
- Aberjhani and West, Sandra, eds.Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, "Wallace Thurman", pp.328-330. (2003)
- Singh, Amritjit, & Scott, Daniel M. (2003).The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader. Rutgers University PressISBN 0-8135-3301-5
- Aberjhani and West, Sandra, eds.Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, "Wallace Thurman", (2003). Checkmark PressISBN 0-8160-4540-2
- Rampersad, Arnold (1986).The Life of Langston Hughes Volume 1: I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University PressISBN 0-19-514642-5
- Hughes, Langston.The Big Sea. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994. (pgs 233 through 238)
- Huggins, Nathan Irvin.Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Thurman's bibliography and a copy of table of contents from literary magazineFire!!
- Detailed biography of Thurman
- Wallace Thurman at glbtq