Wallace Thurman is revered as one of the most significant writers during the Harlem Renaissance, though he is often forgotten amongst the more prolific members of the movement. His groundbreaking 1929 novel, The Blacker the Berry: A Novel Of Negro Life, focused on the internal discrimination the African American community battles due to skin color. His literary views and topics still remain a relevant in today’s society.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah on August 16, 1902, Thurman dealt with tough circumstances from a very young age. He suffered from heart attacks, battled influenza and various other maladies. He found salvation in literature and stints at the University of Utah and the University of Southern California would inspire move to Harlem. In 1925, he became a managing editor of the Black periodical Messenger, which was founded by activist A. Phillip Randolph and economist Chandler Owen.
Messenger would bring Thurman close to notable writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, with whom he worked to develop Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, an African-American literary magazine. The first—and final—issue spoke directly to W.E.B. Dubois and other racial integrationists, calling them out for devoting their energy towards working alongside Whites. The magazine aimed to take on more controversial concepts than other Black publications, including homosexuality, interracial dating and color prejudice.
Thurman’s ideas and views, shared among many of the Harlem Renaissance’s notable contributors, focused on the idea that Black artists should celebrate both the positive and negatives aspects of Black America. He asserted that Black artistic expression should not pander for acceptance by White society. The term “Niggerati” was coined by Thurman to define the artists and speakers of the Harlem Renaissance period.The writer’s Harlem flat, dubbed “Niggerati Manor,” was a hub for local artists.
Thurman would marry college professor/activist Louise Thompson on August 22, 1928, but the marriage lasted only six months. At the time of their divorce, Thompson revealed that her ex was actually gay.
His most famed work, The Infants of the Spring, was published in 1932 and focused on his “Niggerati Manor” and the Harlem Renaissance culture. A satirical look at some of the scene’s most influential figures, the book received mixed reviews.
In 1934, Thurman was stricken with tuberculosis. He would pass away from the disease soon thereafter at only 32, leaving behind both a tremendous influence and significant void.
Stephon Wynn is an intern for EBONY.com and a sophomore at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.