Thursday, February 13, 2020

Tracing The Saying "The Blacker The Berry, The Sweeter The Juice" From The 1922 To 2015

Edited by Azizi Powell

Update: February 22, 2020- title change and other examples of this saying added

This post traces the saying "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" from its inclusion in African American Thomas W. Talley's 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise to Kendrick Lamar's 2015 Hip Hop record that has that saying as its title.

I've added an Addendum to that 2015 post that suggests that the lyrics "Melanin too dark to throw her shade" in Beyonce's song "Brown Skin Girl" can be considered an updated version of (or at least quite similar in sentiment) to the saying "The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice".

The content of this post is presented for historical, sociological, and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Most of this post is a re-print of a June 2015 pancocojams post entitled "A Timeline For The Use Of The Saying "The Blacker The Berry, The Sweeter The Juice" ".

Click for a modified version of this timeline that only includes the dates and the name/title of the book, song, movie, or television show that has "The Blacker The Berry/The Sweeter the Juice as its title or otherwise includes that saying.

These are the examples that I'm aware of. I'd appreciate information about any other examples.

1922 - Thomas W. Talley, editor Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise
You loves yō' gal?
Well, I loves mine.
Yō' gal hain't common?
Well, my gal's fine.
I loves my gal,
She hain't no goose—
Blacker 'an blackberries,
Sweeter 'an juice.

[p. 95] "Negro Folk Songs, Wise And Otherwise"; Gutenberg electronic edition. This collection of rhymes was originally published in 1922.

December 1923 - Edmonia Henderson's song "Black Man Blues".
The opening line of that song is "The blacker the berry/the sweeter the juice" [Hat tip to Anonymous February 22, 2020 for sharing this information.]
for a sound file of that song.

1929 - [novel] The Blacker The Berry by Wallace Thurman
The Blacker the Berry...
"One of the most widely read and controversial works of the Harlem Renaissance, The Blacker the Berry...was the first novel to openly explore prejudice within the Black community. This pioneering novel found a way beyond the bondage of Blackness in American life to a new meaning in truth and beauty.

Emma Lou Brown's dark complexion is a source of sorrow and humiliation -- not only to herself, but to her lighter-skinned family and friends and to the white community of Boise, Idaho, her home-town. As a young woman, Emma travels to New York's Harlem, hoping to find a safe haven in the Black Mecca of the 1920s. Wallace Thurman re-creates this legendary time and place in rich detail, describing Emma's visits to nightclubs and dance halls and house-rent parties, her sex life and her catastrophic love affairs, her dreams and her disillusions -- and the momentous decision she makes in order to survive.

A lost classic of Black American literature, The Blacker the a compelling portrait of the destructive depth of racial bias in this country."

..."Variations in skin tone has historically related to European and Native American ancestry among African Americans, and the tangled history of slave societies, and benefits that some mixed-race children received from white fathers.* The topic of behavior related to differing skin tones has since been treated by other artists and writers, and the issue of skin bias has been studied as a sociological and psychological issue among academics.[2]

Despite the calls for Black Power and "Black is beautiful" in the mid-twentieth century, studies have found that skin tone bias continues. It is more openly discussed, studied and, at times, mocked.[2] The director Spike Lee has explored this topic, particularly in his film School Daze (1988), about students at a prestigious college (modeled on Spelman College and Morehouse College).

In 2001 Maxine S. Thompson and Verna M. Keith presented the results of a study on gender, skin tone and self efficacy. They found darker skin more problematic for women, for whom skin tone had more effect on self-esteem, especially for lower and working class women. Higher class women could escape the effects of skin color by other accomplishments. Skin tone presented less of a self-esteem issue for men, but did affect their sense of self-efficacy.[2]

...In the 1993 song Keep Ya Head Up by rapper Tupac Shakur, the novel's line "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" is referenced. The novel is also referenced in Kendrick Lamar's 2015 song "The Blacker the Berry"."**
*It’s significant that the editors wrote “from their white fathers” and made no reference to the possibility of people who are mixed race having non-Black mothers.

**It's more accurate to say that these Hip Hop examples and other usages of the line "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" quote the saying and not necessarily the book with that title. However, the book is an early documented example of the use of Black folk's use of that saying to mean that dark skinned Black females are just as good if not better than other females.

1969 - The Isley Brothers- The Blacker The Berrie (a/k/a Black Berries)
From "The Blacker The Berries (aka Black Berries) The Isley Brothers" AllMusic Review by Andrew Hamilton
"The late '60s and early '70s remain a favorite period in the Isley Brothers evolution. Ronald sung hard, and brothers O'Kelly and Rudolph supplied church-inspired backing whoops to his lead. The tunes had catchy titles and creative, rhyming lyrics. This recording is loaded with that rocking, "It's Your Thing" style. "The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter Juice" isn't about fruit but speaks of the desirability of dark-complexioned women."...

The Isley Brothers- The Blacker The Berrie (a/k/a Black Berries)

#TheIsleyBrothers Published on Nov 6, 2014

April 5, 1974- Foxy Brown movie
U"Pam Grier's character says "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" in her starring role in Foxy Brown." [Hat tip to Unknown February 25, 2017] for sharing this information.]

1980 Fame [movie]
The character Coco played by Irene Cara says "The blacker the berry/the sweeter the juice" to a White female dancer, indicating that the Black dancer Leroy doesn't like "vanilla". The White dancer's response was "Yes, but who wants Diabetes."

Warning- This exchange includes profanity. Click Fame (1980)-The Darker The Berry (claws come out).mpg, published by cosmojay, Feb 3, 2012

[Hat tip to Unknown, June 7, 2019 who sent a comment in to this post saying that Leroy said "The blacker the berry etc. I don't know if Unknown was referring to the character Leroy in the movie Fame or the Leroy in the television series with that same title.]

1993- Tupac's Hip Hop record Keep Ya Head Up
The first two lines of that rap are:
Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots"
Click for a pancocojams post on this rap.

Here's a response to a question page about the second line of that rap:
"The darker the flesh then the deeper the roots? What do you think this means?" [The question and all responses are from 2008.]
"he was talkin about black people..."the darker you are the closer you are to your ancestors"...the darker the flesh(skin) then the deeper the roots(where it began, ancestors),"
The responder alludes to Tupac's "Keep Ya Head Up" rap. The only other commenter who answered this, a blogger using the tag name "The Evil Genius", wrote "the darker your flesh is the closer you are to your ancestors."
It's important to recognize that Tupac's "the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots" can be considered an expression of colorism, i.e. thinking that darker skinned people have more roots (or recognize and honor their roots-for instance their "blackness"- more than light skinned black people. That's significant because in the late 1960s and 1970s some afrocentric Black people accused light skinned Black people of not being "as black" as brown skinned or darker brown skinned Black people. And in 2008 some Black Americans labeled then candidate for US President Barack Obama as being "not Black enough" because he was mixed race and had no slave ancestors.

Usually colorism is thought of as people favoring light skinned people over dark skinned people, but being prejudiced against a person of color because of their light complexion is also a type of colorism.

January 27, 1995 - The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip (Author)
"The Sweeter the Juice is a provocative memoir that goes to the heart of our American identity. Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, in an effort to reconcile the dissonance between her black persona and her undeniably multiracial heritage, started on a journey of discovery that took her over thousands of miles and hundreds of years. While searching for her mother's family, Haizlip confronted the deeply intertwined but often suppressed tensions between race and skin color.

We are drawn in by the story of an African-American family. Some members chose to "cross over" and "pass" for white while others enjoyed a successful black life. Their stories weave a tale of tangled ancestry, mixed blood, and identity issues from the 17th century to the present. The Sweeter the Juice is a memoir, a social history, a biography, and an autobiography. Haizlip gives to us the quintessential American story, unveiling truths about race, about our society, and about the ways in which we all perceive and judge one another."

1995 "blacker the berry" is part of an exchange in the movie Friday
This line is spoken in an exchange between two Black young men [the character played by Ice Cube and the character played by Chris Tucker] after watching a young, dark skin Black woman jog past them.

The character played by Chris Tucker says "The older the berry the sweeter the juice" and the character played by Ice Cube corrected him saying "It’s blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”.
Warning: This exchange includes profanity.

2002- The song "Run Tell That!" from the 2002 Broadway show Hairspray
"Hairspray is an American musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray. The songs include 1960s-style dance music and "downtown" rhythm and blues. In 1962 Baltimore, Maryland, plump teenager Tracy Turnblad's dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.[1] When Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, and meets a colorful array of characters. She then launches a campaign to integrate the show. Hairspray is a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s...

The musical's original Broadway production opened on August 15, 2002."
Excerpt of the song "Run Tell That!"
[singer: Black male character "Seeweed"
I can't see
Why people look at me
And only see the color of my face

And then there's those
That try to help, god knows
But have to always put me in my place

Now i won't ask you to be color blind
'Cause if you pick the fruit
Then girl, you're sure to find...

The blacker the berry
The sweeter the juice
I could say it ain't so
But darlin', what's the use?

The darker the chocolate
The richer the taste
And that's where it's at... run and tell that!!

Run and tell that!

Click for a video clip of "Hairspray - Run And Tell That (with subtitles)"
I believe that the lines quoted above from the song "Run Tell That!" from the 2002 Broadway show Hairspray mark the beginning of the sexualization of the saying "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice". Prior to that among Black people the saying served as an affirmation about the desirability of dark skinned females.

Another meaning that I've read online* that has been given to "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice is that it refers to things or people getting better with age. I don't think that was what most Black Americans meant when we use that saying (prior to that song). That meaning is also alluded to in Kendrick Lamar's 2015 Hip Hop record that is highlighted below.

*Here are responses from a question pages about the meaning of "the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice":
"What does this old saying mean the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice?" [The question and all of the responses are from 2008]

"It means that Things improve with age"
"isn't it obvious? Look at a berry, when it is darker in color it tastes better becuase it has ripened. The more "ripened" the berry the better it tastes.."

♥Slim Diva♥™
"It refers to black women too. Whoo hoo!!!!!"

2006 - Field Mob - "Blacker The Berry" [Rap song] in the album Light Poles And Pine Trees

In this song the rapper recollects his experiences and how he felt growing up being very dark skinned. This song includes the "blacker the berry" hook from Tupac's song "Keep Your Head Up".

There's one use of profanity in these lyrics [the word "sh&t"].

Apr 22, 2011 - Jimmy Black - Blacker The Berry The Sweeter The Juice hip hop rap music video [video publishing date; This probably isn't the date that this song was released. I don't have any other information about this song.

February 2015 Kendrick Lamar [Hip Hop] - The Blacker The Berry
WARNING: This song contains profanity, sexually explicit language, and the use of a form of the n word.

"Kendrick Lamar's Grammy wins are further proof that he's undoubtedly one of the best artists in the rap game right now, but his latest work also shows that the 27-year-old is using his talent and status in the industry to deliver messages that matter.

The Compton rapper dropped a fiery new single on Monday titled "The Blacker the Berry" (inspired by the old saying "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice," which was also famously used in Tupac Shakur's "Keep Your Head Up"), and not only does it have a crushing beat that inevitably causes you to head-nod for five minutes straight, but each lyric is laced with a powerful and emotional response to the ongoing race and violence issues in America.

Combine that with Kendrick's aggressive and passionate delivery, and you have a musical gem that evokes the frustrations and thoughts of protesters in the streets after the tragic killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and other victims.”

Lyric excerpt from

The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot

[Hook: Assassin]
I said they treat me like a slave, cah' me black
Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah' we black
And man a say they put me inna chains, cah' we black
Imagine now, big gold chains full of rocks
How you no see the whip, left scars pon' me back
But now we have a big whip parked pon' the block
All them say we doomed from the start, cah' we black
Remember this, every race start from the black*, jus 'member dat"
*Correction from a commenter. The onsite transcriber of those lyrics had written “block” instead of "black", but I agree that the word "black" is a much better fit for the meaning of that verse.


I believe that this Pancocojams Editor's note which was added to the pancocojams post entitled "What Do The Lyrics "Melanin Too Dark To Throw Her Shade" REALLY Mean In Beyonce's "Brown Skin Girl" Song?" may be of interest to this post's readers.

The 1929 novel The Blacker The Berry, written by African American author Wallace Thurman popularized the saying "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice", I've been thinking about that saying after recalling that Tupac included the line "The blacker the berry" in his 1993 Hip Hop song "Keep Ya Head Up" and Kendrick Lamar used that same line as the title of his 2015 Hip Hop song.

It occurs to me that the line "melanin too dark to throw her shade" in Beyonce's 2019 song "Brown Skin Girl is another way of praising very dark skin color. If "melanin too dark" in those lyrics mean "skin so dark" or "very dark", and if "throwing shade" means that you are putting down (insulting) someone, then those lyrics can have the same or similar sentiments as "The blacker the berry/the sweeter the juice".

The terms "melanin" and "melanated" have been widely used since around 2014 among certain populations of African Americans (those who are "woke" - conscious of the political & social realities of race). Among this population, "melanated" is an adjective that means "full of melanin" (i.e. full of Black African ancestry). "Melanated" is especially used to refer to Black people with dark brown skin.*

My guess is that "Melanin so dark to throw her shade" means that the person's skin is so dark that- just by that person's very presence- it throws shade (put down/insults anyone who isn't that dark. In other words, her very dark skin (melanin) by its very being excels over anyone who isn't that same skin color.

If this is the correct meaning of "melanin so dark to throw her shade", then that line is a contemporary version of "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice". As such it's the complete reversal of how colorism usually operates throughout Western history and culture, in that colorism usually considers light skin (skin color that is white or near white) to be far better than black or brown skin.

From "5 Truths About Colorism That I've Learned As a Black Woman In NYC" by Kristin Collins Jackson, Nov 18 2014
..."Colorism is the principle that those with lighter, fairer skin are treated with a higher regard than those with darker skin, and it happens both between racial communities and within them. Media outlets have long been accused of using Photoshop to lighten darker-skinned folks in order to make them more appealing to the masses. During Obama's first run for president, sources audaciously pointed out that our first black president was a light-skinned man, suggesting that he may not have been elected or had the same opportunities to be elected if he were darker-skinned. This discrimination has historical roots — during slavery, lighter-skinned black people often worked in the house, while darker-skinned black people were relegated to work in the fields.


colorism is one of the worst types of discrimination, it in itself does not discriminate. It exists everywhere, in all cultures, and in all races."...

"Melanin so dark to throw her shade" lyric is part of the contemporary "Black girl magic"/"melanated people" meme that echos the much older "The blacker the berry/the sweeter the juice" saying. Although these sayings are reactions to deep seated prejudice against dark skinned people, my position is that colorism that favors dark skin people over light skin people is just as problematic and poisonous as its reverse.

*Also, click for the May 2019 pancocojams post entitled "What Does The Term "Melanated" Mean & When Did "Melanin" Become A Popular Referent For Black People?"

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