African American Women and Education: Marita Bonner's Response to the "Talented Tenth."

By Musser, Judith | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

African American Women and Education: Marita Bonner's Response to the "Talented Tenth."


Musser, Judith, Studies in Short Fiction


Alain Locke's call for the "New Negro" and W. E. B. Du Bois's classification of "the Talented Tenth" created a myriad of creative interpretations during the Harlem Renaissance, especially by women writers. Marita Bonner's work responds to the need for an examination of the lives of characters who must cope with economic hardships, discrimination, deterioration of family relationships, illnesses that are particular to urban life, new religious communities, and multi-ethnic neighborhoods within urban settings. Her themes are unique in comparison to stories written by other African American women., She is the only Harlem Renaissance woman to write short stories set in Chicago. Although she follows the African American women's writing tradition in portraying women as her main characters, these women are not independently strong, not individualized and not triumphant. She avoids any autobiographical elements from her distinctive childhood. She adheres to a social-realist mode of writing about multi-ethnic Chicago, an environment that directs not only her themes, but her craft as well. Her stories present a unique perspective on the struggles of those twentieth-century African Americans who live outside the Mecca of art in Harlem, who do not live in all-African American rural communities, who must face a completely different set of Jim Crow laws from those of the post-Civil War South, and whose daily existence depends on the economic prosperity of Midwestern industry. In particular, several of Bonner's short stories reflect the often overpowering barriers that African American women faced when they attempted to follow the Harlem Renaissance's call for self-improvement through education.

Locating Bonner in the history of African American writing is essential to understanding both her short fiction and the sociological map of the Renaissance era. She lived during the Harlem Renaissance, published in two of the leading African American journals (Opportunity and The Crisis), participated in writing groups such as Georgia Douglas Johnson's "S" Street Salon,(1) and lived in three urban setting's (Boston, Washington, DC and Chicago) that were centers for vigorous African American reform activities. She was a contemporary of such well-known women Renaissance writers as Zora Neale Hurston,(2) Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Gwendolyn Bennet, Dorothy West, and Ann Petry. She was the most prolific woman short story writer for Opportunity, publishing seven short stories whereas the average for other women writers was one to two stories. Compared to male short story writers, Bonner's total publication number for Opportunity was exceeded by only two--Henry B. Jones and John Frederick Matheus, who each published nine stories.

Until at least 1987, Bonner was unknown to contemporary readers. With the publication of her works in the Beacon Press Black Women Writer's series,(3) her short stories have begun to appear in anthologies.(4) Not surprisingly, scholarship on Bonner has been slight. Cheryl Wall's more recent book Women of the Harlem Renaissance discusses Bonner's essay "On Being Young--A Woman--and Colored." Joyce Flynn's brief introduction to Bonner's works provides only summaries of her short stories. More has been written on her three plays--The Pot Maker: A Play to Be Read (published in Opportunity 5 [Feb. 1927]), The Purple Flower (published in The Crisis 35 [Jan. 1928]), and Exit, an Illusion: A One-Act Play (published in The Crisis 36 [Oct. 1929]).

Bonner's pre-publication life is important when one considers her presentation of education in the lives of her characters.(5) She does not incorporate her own family into her stories,(6) and she does not draw on her own early personal experiences for the plots, settings and themes. The violence and poverty of inner-city life found in her stories are not part of her early life experiences. In fact, her childhood and education could be considered privileged. …

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