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Frank Marshall Davis

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Frank Marshall Davis
Frank Marshall Davis.jpg
Born (1905-12-31)December 31, 1905
Arkansas City, Kansas, United States
Died July 26, 1987(1987-07-26) (aged 81)
Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
Occupation Journalist, poet
Nationality American
Genre Social realism
Subject Race relations, music, literature, American culture
Literary movement Social realism

Frank Marshall Davis (December 31, 1905 – July 26, 1987) was an American journalist, poet, political and labor movement activist, and businessman.

Davis began his career writing for African-American newspapers in Chicago. He moved to Atlanta, where he became the editor of the paper he turned into the Atlanta Daily World, then moved back to Chicago. During this time, he was outspoken about political and social issues, while also covering topics that ranged from sports to music. His poetry work was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He also played a role in the South Side Writers Group.

In the late 1940s, Davis moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he ran a small business. He also became involved in local labor issues, where his actions were tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Davis died in 1987 in Hawaii.

Early life[edit]

Davis was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1905.[1] His parents divorced, and Davis grew up living with his mother and stepfather and with his grandparents.[2] In 1923, at age 17, Davis attended Friends University. From 1924 to 1927, and again in 1929, he attended Kansas State Agricultural College, now Kansas State University.

When Davis entered Kansas State, there were twenty-five other African-American students enrolled there.[3] He studied industrial journalism. He began to write poems as the result of a class assignment, and was encouraged to continue writing poetry by an English literature instructor.[3] Davis pledged Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 1925. He left college without getting a degree.[4]

Early career[edit]

In 1927 Davis moved to Chicago, where he worked variously for the Chicago Evening Bulletin, the Chicago Whip, and the Gary American, all African-American newspapers.[5][6] He also wrote free-lance articles and short stories for African-American magazines. It was also during this time that Davis began a serious effort to write poetry, including his first long poem, entitled Chicago's Congo, Sonata for an Orchestra.

In 1931 Davis moved to Atlanta to become an editor of a twice-weekly paper. Later that year he became the paper's managing editor. In 1932 the paper, renamed the Atlanta Daily World[7] became the nation's first successful black daily newspaper.[8] Davis continued to write and publish poems, which came to the attention of Chicago socialite Frances Norton Manning. She introduced him to Norman Forgue, the publisher of Black Cat Press. In the summer of 1935, Forgue brought out Davis's first book, Black Man's Verse.[citation needed]

In 1935, Davis moved back to Chicago to take the position of managing editor of the Associated Negro Press,[9] a news service for black newspapers, which had begun in 1919. Eventually, Davis became executive editor for the ANP. He held the position until 1947.[citation needed] While in Chicago, Davis also started a photography club, worked for numerous political parties, and participated in the League of American Writers. Davis was an avid photographer, and inspired Richard Wright's interest in the hobby.[10] Davis's wrote that his photography consisted in large part of nudes because "the female body fascinates me, both aesthetically and emotionally" and that when photographing, he focused on "contours" and the "wide range of tones".[11]

Davis, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and others were part of the South Side Writers Group, which met regularly beginning in 1936 to critique each other's work.[12][13] Davis worked as a sports reporter, in particular covering the rivalry between African American Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling, which he and other writers portrayed as democracy and equality vs fascism.[14] Davis saw sports as a way to break the color bar, and a way to reach out to a working class.[14] During the Depression, Davis participated in the federal Works Progress Administration Writers' Project. In 1937 he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.[15]

Davis used his newspaper platform to call for integration of the sports world, and he began to engage himself with community organizing efforts, starting a Chicago labor newspaper, The Star, toward the end of World War II. The paper had a goal to "promote a policy of cooperation and unity between Russia and the United States"[16] seeking to "[avoid] the red-baiting tendencies of the mainstream press."[17] In 1947, the Spokane Daily Chronicle called the paper "a red weekly", saying that it "has most of the markings of a Communist front publication."[18]

In 1945, Davis taught one of the first jazz history courses in the United States, at the Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago.[19] In 1948, with the encouragement of authors such as Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, Davis published a collection of poems, entitled 47th Street: Poems. The collection chronicled the varied life on Chicago's South Side.[citation needed] Davis had been a strong supporter of the work of Richard Wright, calling his Uncle Tom's Children "the most absorbing fiction penned by a Negro since George Schuyler's Black No More [1931],[20] but after Wright's break with the Left, Davis called Wright's public essays "an act of treason in the fight for our rights and aided only the racists who were constantly seeking any means to destroy cooperation between Reds and blacks."[17]

Davis became one of the first promoters of the concept of a "raceless" society, based on his belief that race as a biological or social construct was illogical and a fallacy.[20] Davis was a member of the Civil Rights Congress in 1947–1948,[4] and was vice chair of the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee from 1944 to 1947.[17] He was a supporter of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party.[21] In his posthumously published memoir Livin' the Blues, Davis wrote of the period 1935 to 1948, "... I worked with all kinds of groups. I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?"[22] Some libraries removed his books,[23] and he became the subject of FBI investigations.[21]

Career in Hawaii[edit]

In 1948 Davis and his second wife, whom he had married in 1946, moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. In a 1974 interview with Black World/Negro Digest, Davis said that the move was because of a magazine article his wife had read.[24] In Hawaii, Davis also wrote a weekly column, called "Frank-ly Speaking", for the Honolulu Record, a labor paper published by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).[25] Davis's early columns covered labor issues, but he broadened his scope to write about cultural and political issues, especially racism. He also included the history of blues and jazz in his columns.[citation needed] Davis published little poetry between 1948 and 1978, when his final volume, Awakening, and Other Poems, was published.

In 1968 Davis authored a pornographic novel, titled Sex Rebel: Black under the pseudonym Bob Greene,[11] which was published by William Hamling's Greenleaf Publishing Company. In 1973 Davis visited Howard University in Washington, D.C., to give a poetry reading, marking the first time he had seen the U.S. mainland in 25 years. His work began to appear in anthologies.

Davis died in July 1987, in Honolulu, of a heart attack, at age 81.[26][27] Three works were published posthumously: Livin' the Blues: Memories of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992), Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002), and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press (2007).

Personal life[edit]

Davis was married to Thelma Boyd, his first wife, for 13 years. For a time while Davis worked in Chicago, Thelma lived and worked in Atlanta[11] and later in Washington DC.[11] In 1946 he married Helen Canfield, a white woman that he had met in one of his classes who was 18 years younger than he.[11] Davis and Canfield divorced in 1970.[28] Davis had a son, Mark, and four daughters Lynn, Beth, Jeanne, and Jill.[8]

Analysis of literary work[edit]

Davis said he was captivated early on by "the new revolutionary style called free verse. Sonnets and, in fact, all rhyme held little interest for" him.[3] Davis found inspiration in Midwestern poets and their use of vernacular language[29] and claimed his "greatest single influence" was the poetry of Carl Sandburg "because of his hard, muscular poetry."[3]

Richard Guzman highlights Davis' poetry for its "social engagement, especially in the fight against racism" as well as its "fluent language and stunning imagery".[30] Stacy I. Morgan states that in his work, Davis "delighted in contradicting reader expectations".[29]

Legacy and impact[edit]

Kathryn Waddell Takara has made this evaluation of Davis's political legacy.

"No significant African American community existed in Hawai`i to provide Davis with emotional and moral support, and an expanded audience and market for his writing. Also, because he was still concerned with the issues of freedom, racism, and equality, he lacked widespread multi cultural support.... It can be argued that Davis escaped defeat like a trickster, playing dead only to arise later and win the race, although the politics of defeat were all around him. If society seemed to defeat him by denying him financial rewards, publication, and status, he continued to write prolifically. He stood by his principle that the only way to achieve social equality was to acknowledge and discuss publicly the racial and ethnic dynamics in all their complexity situated in an unjust society. He provided a bold, defiant model for writers to hold onto their convictions and articulate them."[31]

Davis has been cited as being an influence on poet and publisher Dudley Randall[32] and through exposure provided by Randall, Stephen Henderson and Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, Davis became an influence to the Black Arts Movement.[33]

Obama's Dreams from My Father[edit]

In his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama mentions a friend of his grandfather named Frank, whom he later identified as Davis.[34][35] Obama said Davis told him that he and Obama's maternal grandfather Stanley had grown up only 50 miles apart, near Wichita, although they did not meet until Hawaii. He described the way race relations were back then, including Jim Crow, and his belief that there had been little progress since then. As Obama remembered, "It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii had created."[36] Obama also remembered Frank later in life when he took a job in South Chicago as a community organizer and took some time one day to visit the areas where Frank had lived and wrote in his book, "I imagined Frank in a baggy suit and wide lapels, standing in front of the old Regal Theatre, waiting to see Duke or Ella emerge from a gig."[37]


Selected works

  • Black Man's Verse; Black Cat, (Chicago, IL), 1935.
  • I Am the American Negro, Black Cat, (Chicago, IL), 1937, ISBN 978-0-8369-8920-5
  • Through Sepia Eyes; Black Cat, (Chicago, IL), 1938.
  • 47th Street: Poems; Decker (Prairie City, IL), 1948.
  • Black Man's Verse; Black Cat (Skokie, IL), 1961.
  • Sex Rebel: Black (Memoirs of a Gash Gourmet), (written under pseudonym "Bob Greene"); Greenleaf Publishing Company (Evanston, IL), 1968.
  • Jazz Interludes: Seven Musical Poems; Black Cat (Skokie, IL), 1977.
  • Awakening and Other Poems; Black Cat (Skokie, IL), 1978.
  • Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet, ed. John Edgar Tidwell; University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-299-13500-3
  • Black Moods: Collected Poems, ed. John Edgar Tidwell; University of Illinois Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-252-02738-3
  • Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press, ed. by John Edgar Tidwell; University Press of Mississippi, 2007. ISBN 1-57806-921-1; ISBN 978-1-57806-921-7


  1. ^ Andrews, William L.; Foster, Frances Smith; Harris, Trudier (January 16, 2001). The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. pp. 100–. ISBN 9780199839568. Retrieved December 2, 2012. 
  2. ^ Tracy, Steven C. (November 16, 2011). Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance. University of Illinois Press. pp. 14–. ISBN 9780252036392. Retrieved December 2, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d John Edgar Tidwell, An Interview with Frank Marshall Davis Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1985
  4. ^ a b The Authors By Philip A. Greasley
  5. ^ [1][dead link]
  6. ^ "History of African-American Newspapers". Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  7. ^ "Atlanta Daily World Web site". Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  8. ^ a b Kenan Heise (August 9, 1987). "Frank Marshall Davis, A Jazz Expert And Poet – Chicago Tribune". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 10, 2013. 
  9. ^ Lawrence Daniel Hogan, Associated Negro Press Encyclopedia of Chicago
  10. ^ Richard Wright: The Life and Times By Hazel Rowley
  11. ^ a b c d e Davis, Frank M.; Tidwell, John Edgar (May 1, 2003). Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 26–. ISBN 9780299135041. Retrieved March 9, 2013. 
  12. ^ The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago ... – Robert Bone, Richard A. Courage –. August 27, 2011. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  13. ^ James Edward Smethurst. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  14. ^ a b Erenberg, Lewis A. (October 14, 2005). The Greatest Fight of Our Generation:Louis vs. Schmeling: Louis vs. Schmeling. Oxford University Press. pp. 255–. ISBN 9780195177749. Retrieved November 27, 2012. 
  15. ^ Jayne R Beilke, The changing emphasis of the Rosenwald Fellowship Program, 1928–1948 Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1997
  16. ^ Steven C. Tracy. Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Retrieved 2012-07-18. 
  17. ^ a b c Mullen, Bill (1999). Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–46. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252067488. Retrieved December 2, 2012. 
  18. ^,2720766&dq=chicago-star+newspaper+davis&hl=en
  19. ^ Arthur M. Vinje, Abraham Lincoln School, Summer Institute, Wisconsin Historical Images
  20. ^ a b Ward, Jerry W.; Butler, Robert J. (June 30, 2008). The Richard Wright Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 96–. ISBN 9780313355196. Retrieved December 2, 2012. 
  21. ^ a b Bone, Robert; Courage, Richard A. (August 27, 2011). The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932–1950. Rutgers University Press. pp. 229–. ISBN 9780813550732. Retrieved November 28, 2012. 
  22. ^ Livin' the Blues
  23. ^ Jarrett, Gene Andrew (February 12, 2010). A Companion to African American Literature. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 6–. ISBN 9781444323481. Retrieved November 28, 2012. 
  24. ^ Black World/Negro Digest Jan 1974
  25. ^ "Frank Marshall Davis' Blog 1949". Retrieved 2012-05-25. 
  26. ^ Most sources list the date of his death as July 26. However, the Social Security Death Index gives July 15, 1987 as his date of death, as does his college fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma.
  27. ^ "K-State Libraries". Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  28. ^ Davis, Frank Marshall; Tidwell, John Edgar (June 1, 2002). Black Moods: Collected Poems. University of Illinois Press. pp. 57–. ISBN 9780252027383. Retrieved March 9, 2013. 
  29. ^ a b Morgan, Stacy I. (2004). Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930–1953. University of Georgia Press. pp. 22–. ISBN 9780820325798. Retrieved November 28, 2012. 
  30. ^ Guzman, Richard R. (June 30, 2006). Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?. SIU Press. pp. 48–. ISBN 9780809327034. Retrieved November 28, 2012. 
  31. ^ Frank Marshall Davis: Black Labor Activist and Outsider Journalist: Social Movements in Hawai`i, by Kathryn Waddell Takara, Ph.D.
  32. ^ Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall By Dudley Randall, Melba Joyce Boyd
  33. ^ The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature
  34. ^ Obama, Barack, Video of Sep 1995 Book Talk at Cambridge Library where Obama explicitly identifies "Frank" as Frank Marshal Davis >
  35. ^ Jarrett, Gene Andrew (2013-02-25). A Companion to African American Literature. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 297–. ISBN 9781118651193. Retrieved 18 September 2014. 
  36. ^ Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, Chapters 4–5, ISBN 978-1-4000-8277-3
  37. ^ Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, paperback edition, Chapter 8, p. 145


External links[edit]