Marita Bonner: Escaping Imposed Identities

Word comes from Don Evans, founding director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, that Marita Bonner is to be inducted into the CLHOF this November.  He said I was the “most knowledgeable” person he knew on the subject, though that’s not saying much.  In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I did not include anything from Marita Bonner, though I did write this paragraph in the Afterword, which, more than anything else, is a list of regrets about people I wanted to include but just couldn’t for one reason or another.

Bonner“Of Chicago’s many fine short story writers, I would highlight here Marita Bonner, whose work has been collected by Joyce Flynn and daughter Joyce Occomy Stricklin in Frye Street & Environs.  Though her vision of the possibilities Chicago offered Blacks had turned quite pessimistic by 1940, her 1926 story “Nothing New” introduced her mythical Frye Street as a vision of the multi-ethnic neighborhood that held hardship, certainly, but also promise.  Bonner’s work set tones and themes that deeply influenced writers like Alice Browning and Era Bell Thompson, and echoes of her work can be heard in younger writers like Audrey Petty.  Bonner also wrote plays, perhaps most famously the reader’s play The Pot Maker.”

The title of this article I write here is a riff on a passage from Emily N. Hinnov’s “Manneuvers of Silence and the Task of ‘New Negro’ Womanhood” in the Spring 2012 Journal of Narrative Theory, where she comments on Bonner’s use of silence “as a means to maneuver among the various identity positions that comprise the interstices of ‘New Negro Womanhood.’”  Initially, I didn’t include Marita Bonner in Black Writing from Chicago because she is perhaps first identified with the Harlem Renaissance, a period and movement I wanted to challenge a bit in my book.  I wanted to show that Chicago Black Writing was as rich, and in many ways more important than the more acknowledged writers from Harlem, an effort writer/scholar Carla Cappetti noted when she said my selections celebrated “the vital traditions of African American writing in Chicago as an important counterpoint to African American Writing in New York and the Harlem Renaissance.”

Yet, while identified with the Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro” movement, Marita Bonner escaped these identities in all sorts of ways, even geographically. She was born (1899) and went through high school in Boston, then taught in West Virginia before moving to Washington, D.C., where she was an integral part of poet/playwright/composer Georgia Douglas Johnson’s S Street Salon, a major gathering place for writers and artists of the New Negro Renaissance movement.  While in D.C. she met William Almy Occomy. Shortly after marrying, the pair moved to Chicago, where her greatest period of writing success occurred, and where she died in 1971.

FryeStreetIn her 2008 book Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernisms, Jennifer M. Wilks studies four writers, two from the U.S.—Marita Bonner and Dorothy West—and two from the Carribean—Suzanne Lascascade and Suzanne Césaire—as writers who tried continually to escape identities imposed on them by race and gender.  Yes, Marita Bonner embraced the New Negro* concept and was part of the Harlem Renaissance, yet seems just as ambivalent about both—even, like me, wanting to de-center Harlem.  In her 2009 review of Wilks’ book Patricia Burns writes that Bonner, who resisted the suggestion “that women should fold themselves into the imagined black collective in order to advance black manhood (and, ostensibly, the whole race), neither celebrates intraracial harmony nor excludes interracial community. Wilks portrays Bonner’s work as multiethnic, gender- and class-focused, and experimental—qualities not often associated with the concept of the New Negro. Wilks writes, ‘for subjects whose experiences of race, gender, and class are not found in representations of model modernity, Bonner’s work proposes an alternative modernist cartography, one that ‘removes Harlem from the center of African-American modernity and places multiethnic and multiracial concepts before ‘race’ and ‘nation.’ By depicting communities with ‘multiple boundaries,’ Bonner, Wilks argues, like Lacascade, Césaire, and West, challenges constructions of ‘archetypal blackness’ by interrogating and redefining the tropes of model modernity.”

So Marita Bonner turned to multi-ethnicity, to a deep faith in diversity, as ways to escape identities imposed by race, class, and gender.  She explored both the possibilities of escape and the continual dangers of entrapment through creating a mythical Chicago neighborhood, Frye Street, which she introduces this way in her story “Nothing New”: “You have been down on Frye Street. You know how it runs…from freckled-faced tow heads to yellow Orientals; from broad Italy to broad Georgia, from hooked nose to square black noses. How it lisps in French, how it babbles in Italian, how it gurgles in German, how it drawls and crawls through Black Belt dialects. Frye Street flows nicely together. It is like muddy water.”  The nice flow is still a dream, one glimpsed poorly through very muddied waters.

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has made a stunning choice for its 2018 class of inductees, which will include, besides Marita Bonner, Robert S. Abbott (publisher of The Chicago Defender) and fiction writer Henry Blake Fuller.  Wanting to keep a Chicago focus, in the paragraph I wrote about her in Black Writing from ChicagoI mentioned how Marita Bonner’s work echoes in Alice Browning, Era Bell Thompson, and Audrey Petty—all writers firmly associated with Chicago.  But just as her geography ranged more widely, so does her influence, and I should mention at least one person to whom some have linked her as a fore-mother: Toni Morrison, our country’s most recent Nobel Laureate, an author obsessed with shape shifting, with how races entwine, and with flowing away from the multitude of things—including gender and blackness—that lay in wait to trap us.

* I write about the “New Negro” in my expanded introduction to “The Intercollegiate Wonder Book,” a selection I included in Black Writing from Chicago.

  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

Posted in Black Writers, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2018 – Part 2

I have never done a “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” video.  Until now.  The VIDEO BELOW shows about 3 minutes of a month-long stay in Arizona and California, where we worked on our place in Sedona (it gets deep-cleaned only once a year!), drove nearly 2000 miles visiting family (especially the grand kids) in California, and tried to relax some and enjoy the sights and sounds along the way.

The Arellano's at Bryan's tree.

The Arellano’s at Bryan’s tree.

We talked some about possibly leaving Sedona one day, maybe leaving everything in Arizona for a place in California closer to family.  We found, however, that what we could afford was probably just a trailer in a crowded trailer park.  It’s true what they say about California property: way, way, way through the roof.  We don’t know how a normal, young family can finally afford to stop renting.

In Sedona we also had a visit from some friends, the Arellano’s, who were on their way to a new life in Nevada.  It was a treat to show them around, if only for a day.  They were both great supporters of Emmanuel House, the organization Rick and Desiree Guzman founded in memory of the youngest of the family: Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  Obe and Jacque asked, “What was Bryan like?”  We enjoyed answering that most of all, including climbing up Bell Rock—what we call Bryan’s Mountain—to Bryan’s tree, a small pine we placed some of his ashes under shortly after he died.

Bryan asked us to stop so many times on our first trip to Sedona. Here he checks out formations just across from Midgely Bridge.

Bryan asked us to stop so many times on our first trip to Sedona. Here he checks out formations just across from Midgely Bridge.

The video shows pictures of the Arellano’s at an overlook on the way to Flagstaff, at Midgely Bridge, and on Bell Rock at Bryan’s tree. It begins with my first glimpse of Bryan’s tree this year, shows waterfalls pouring off Bell Rock when the monsoons returned, and ends with some wonderful music at a Sedona institution: Tlaquepaque.  There’s “flamenco” music there three times a week during the Summer, and Jacque made us promise to go before she and Obe left for Nevada.

It would be hard to leave Sedona, partly because such strong memories of Bryan are rooted there, but there’s change and change and change. You never know.

  View or download for free Remembering Bryan, a small book of pictures and thoughts from family and friends.

  Learn more about Emmanuel House (now The Neighbor Project), and it being named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

  Go to the Lead Post in the series Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.

Posted in Family | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Barack Obama: Race, Class, and Legacy

Obama1Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States, winning terms in 2008 and 2012. In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included a passage from his best-selling autobiography Dreams from My Father.  That passage focused on his first meeting with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who subsequently became his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity Church, then subsequently not his pastor after videos—edited and, many said, without proper context—surfaced of a controversial Wright sermon.  His break with Wright was one of the crises of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The passage I chose also highlighted a major theme of my book: the tension between class and race, and the fraught territory of Black middleclassness in particular.  When Obama brings up class, the jovial first meeting with Wright takes a serious turn.  “We don’t buy into these false divisions here,” Wright says sharply.  “It’s not about income, Barack.  Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car.  These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’  Now, what country is he living in?”  And Obama takes special note of something in Trinity’s brochure.  “There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though,” writes Obama, “a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration.  ‘A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,’ the heading read.  ‘While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,’ the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve Obama-Precludedsuccess in the American mainstream must avoid the ‘psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!’”  This tension between race and class was, for many, including myself, one of the dominating factors of Obama’s Presidency.  Though he sometimes engaged race directly in ways no other President had, perhaps his status as the first Black President actually precluded him from taking the nation deeper into confronting racism—what many have called our country’s “original sin”—and forced him to focus more on class instead.  Or maybe he actually believed class was more important, an attitude Americans would readily embrace, as most of us would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.

Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama also spent some of his younger years in Indonesia with his mother and step-father, Lolo.  After graduating from Columbia University he became a community organizer in Chicago, working in some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side.  He left Chicago for three years to obtain a law degree at Harvard, where he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.  In 1992 he married Michelle Robinson, a life-long resident of the South Side and another Harvard Law School graduate, and directed Illinois Project VOTE, registering 150,000 new voters.  He practiced Civil Rights law, became a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, and served three terms in the state senate before winning a landslide victory for the U.S. Senate in November 2004.  Earlier that year, the keynote address he gave at the Democratic National Convention propelled him to stardom.  Even before he arrived in Washington to take his Senate seat, talk of an eventual run for the presidency swirled, and he spent some time in his early Senate career lowering expectations.  I saw him in early February 2005 at a town meeting he held at my college in Naperville, Illinois, and he joked that a Senate colleague had said to him, “Barack, you’ve been here a week already, and we still have poverty and unemployment.  You’re not living up to the hype!”


He wrote Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance—a wonderfully articulate, probing memoir—in 1995, long before he was such a luminous national figure. Sandwiched between details of his origins and his trip to Kenya to trace his father’s roots is the story of his coming to Chicago, where he first fully worked out his desire to be a community organizer.

It’s too early to gain a deep perspective on Obama’s Presidential legacy, though an early poll of respected historians and analysts has put him as #14 on a list of the most significant/successful Presidents, a ranking Fox News—in its typically ridiculous way—interpreted as a sign of sure failure. Another recent poll, decidedly less rigorous, has him ranked as #12 on a list of the most popular Presidents in American History, and this year a Pew Research poll puts him #1 on a list that asked people to rank the “Best or Second Best President in My Lifetime.”  His reputation has risen since 2011 when only 20% named him as such.  In seven years that number has doubled to 40%, and even Republican appreciation has risen from 5% to 13%.  A quick review of several polls—scholarly, popular, and in-between—seems to place him somewhere between the 11th and 14th best President in U.S. history.  Today, at least.

Obama-Jesus2I’ve often looked back at my Obama choices of passages for Black Writing from Chicago with some degree of wonder, not knowing, for example, that months after the book came out his relationship with Jeremiah Wright would play so large in his Presidential bid.  Speaking of legacy, I also find it a bit eerie that I end with Obama’s reflections on the sudden death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.  He describes the turmoil so well, and I ended the excerpt as he leaves a Chicago City Council meeting after witnessing so much wheeling, dealing, and power-brokering.

“I pushed through the crowds that overflowed into the street,” he writes, “and began walking across Daley Plaza toward my car. The wind whipped up cold and sharp as a blade, and I watched a hand-made sign tumble past me.  HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, the sign read in heavy block letters. And beneath the words that picture I had seen so many times while waiting for a chair in Smitty’s Barbershop: the handsome, grizzled face; the indulgent smile; the twinkling eyes; now blowing across the empty space, as easily as an autumn leaf.”  As it turns out, Harold Washington’s legacy really does live on—and powerfully, too—as it appears Obama’s may also, in ways more fundamental than most of us, conservative or liberal, have yet to fully understood.

♦  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

  For more on Black middleclassness, read my Introduction to Black Writing from Chicago, and the intros I wrote to writers like Leanita McClain.  Related to all this is The U.S.’s growing income inequality.  See “Graphic Inequality” for more on this issue.

Posted in Black Writers, Social Change | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment