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Marita Bonner Essays

On Being Young-a Woman-and Colored

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Marita Bonner starts her short essay by describing the joys and innocence of youth. She depicts the carefree fancies of a cheerful and intelligent child. She compares the feelings of such abandonment and gaiety to that of a kitten in a field of catnip. Where the future is opened to endless opportunities and filled with all the dream and promises that only a youth can know. There are so many things in the world to see, learn, and experience that your mind in split into many directions of interest. This is a memorable time in life filled with bliss and lack of hardships.

Then the story slowly slides into a time of testing all you've learned with `acid testing', moment to see if what you learned is truly somehow connected and a part of you. Where you realize that "All your life you have heard of the debt you owe `Your People' because you have managed to have the things they have not largely had." In other words, for a colored person, your life was quite blessed in a time filled with the ignorance of racism. While you lived a splendid life, others who are colored suffered great hardships just for the color of their skin. Since you were lucky, you should give something back to the colored community so that others may be afforded a life such as yours.

At this point of the story it is reflective of a teenager. A teenager is at a time in life where boundaries and knowledge is merely a challenging thing to test and in some instances hurdled. Where even though you may realize the responsibilities and resources you have, there is still a longing for the more sunny feelings of youth.

Marita then speaks of how you feel more like a `prodigal' if you have never lived among your own. That you feel like a phenominum because you were not raised among other people of your color. If I may be as so bold to assume to compare the feeling to that of what Phillis Wheatley must have felt.

Then a description of the education of one's heritage and the culture becomes somewhat overwhelming. The culture and passion of the people are so great she describes it almost like an ocean current that is warm and strong that flows within the people and seems to just pull you in.

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"On Being Young-a Woman-and Colored." 10 Mar 2018

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Being Young         Colored         Memorable Time         Phillis Wheatley         Other People         Instances         Heard         Abandonment         Yours        

Such an experience is mixed with a multitude of negative things that one is not only overwhelmed but has a distinct moment of being dragged down, tangled up, and unable to free one's self. There is now a reality where the character of a person is not established by intelligence, skills, or morals, but on hatred and bias beliefs for having colored skin. Marita depicts a life where " Milling around like live fish in a basket. Those at the bottom crushed into a sort of stupid apathy by the weight of those on top. Those on top leaping, leaping; leaping to scale the sides; to get out. These sentences is that of someone who has

Marita Odette Bonner (Occomy) was an African American writer, essayist, and playwright associated with the Harlem Renaissance Era.  Born on June 16, 1899 to Joseph Andrew and Anne Noel Bonner in Boston, Massachusetts, she and her three siblings grew up in Brookline, a suburb of Boston.  Bonner attended Brookline High School where she first began to write when she became involved in a magazine organized by the student body called the Sagamor. Bonner was by that point a talented pianist who played in school recitals.  In 1918 Bonner graduated from Brookline High School and enrolled in Radcliffe College in Cambridge.  She was forced to commute from Brookline because African American students were not allowed to live in campus dormitories. While at Radcliff, Bonner majored in both Comparative Literature and English. She also studied German and music composition.  While at Radcliff she won two music competitions. She was also the founder of the Boston-area chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

In 1922 Bonner graduated from Radcliffe and began teaching at Bluefield Colored Institute (now Bluefield State University) in Bluefield, West Virginia.  Two years later, in 1924, she abandoned the isolation of southern West Virginia to take a teaching position at all-black Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. When both parents died within a year of her relocation to Washington, Bonner turned to writing to address her grief.  Her first essay, "Being Young-A Woman- And Colored" was published in December of 1925 by The Crisis magazine. The essay addressed the discrimination that African Americans and in particular black women faced at the time.  The essay called on young black women to rely on their strength and resilience in dealing with these situations. 

Soon after her initial success Bonner was drawn into a circle of Washington, D.C. writers, poets, playwrights, and composers who met regularly at composer Georgia Douglass Johnson's "S" street salon.  With their encouragement, Bonner for the next five years wrote a series of short stories which appeared in Crisis and in Opportunity, the magazine for the National Urban League.  During this time she met her future husband William Almy Occomy.  The couple married in 1930 and the following year moved to Chicago where Bonner over the next decade enjoyed her greatest success as a short story writer.  Most of her stories in the Chicago period centered around a fictitious Frye Street and Environs which included a multiracial and multicultural universe of people drawn to Chicago by the promise of urban life.  As with her earlier work these writings emphasized self-improvement through education.   

In 1941 Bonner abandoned writing to care for her family which now included three children.  She returned to teaching and remained in Chicago's public school system until her retirement in 1963.  Eight years later in 1971 Bonner died on December 7, 1971 of complications from smoke inhalation after her Chicago apartment caught fire.

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Joyce Flynn and Joyce O. Stricklin, eds., Frye Street and Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987); Jessie Carney Smith, Notable Black American Women, Book II (Detroit-London: Gale Research Inc, 1996)


University of Washington

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