Marita Odette Bonner (1899-1971)

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.