Frank Marshall Davis Biography
Victim of Attempted Lynching, Worked for Associated Negro Press, Moved to Hawaii, Selected works
A central figure in African-American literary history, Frank Marshall Davis was a poet whose work drew on and put a personal stamp on many of the trends in black poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. He was influenced by jazz and tried to evoke its rhythms in words. He drew detailed portraits of urban African-American life. And like Langston Hughes and many of his other contemporaries, he was a social activist who used literature to illustrate injustice in no uncertain terms.
Davis was also a pioneering figure in the field of African-American journalism. Insufficient recognition of the role Chicago writers played in African-American cultural life contributed to a long-lasting underestimation of Davis's work, as did his move to Hawaii in midlife, under threat from a growing wave of anticommunist repression. Davis was rediscovered enthusiastically, however, by politically oriented black writers of the later twentieth century.
Victim of Attempted Lynching
Frank Marshall Davis was born on December 31, 1905, in Arkansas City, Kansas. The violence of small-town Midwestern life was unrelenting; Davis was told by teachers and townspeople that blacks were inferior, and when he was five a group of white boys tried to lynch him. He took heart, though, when he first heard a new music that was spreading across the South. "The blues? We were formally introduced when I was eight; even then I had the feeling we weren't strangers," Davis wrote in his autobiographical Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet. "So when the blues grabbed me and held on, it was like meeting a long-lost brother."
Davis graduated from Arkansas City High School and moved to Wichita, Kansas, around 1924, taking journalism classes at Friends College and at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State Universityof Agricultural and Applied Science). As a freshman there, he faced the option of writing either an essay or a poem for an English class and took what he thought was the easy way out. The professor liked his poem, and Davis ran off to the library to write more. Hooked on writing, Davis moved to Chicago in January of 1927 and soon had some stories published in National Magazine. Some of his work is published under his pen name Frank Boganey—the last name of his mother's second husband. In April of 1927 Davis began his journalism career as an editor and columnist with the Chicago Evening Bulletin.
Working for the Chicago Whip, the Gary (Indiana) American, the Associated Negro Press, and (from 1931 to 1934) the Atlanta World, Davis became a jack-of-all-trades. "I served not only as straight news reporter but as rewrite man, editor, editorial writer, political commentator, theatrical and jazz columnist, sports writer, and occasionally news photographer," Davis wrote in his autobiography. As managing editor of the Atlanta World he transformed the paper from a weekly to a thrice-weekly and finally to a daily publication. All the while, he was writing poetry, and in 1934 he moved back to Chicago from Atlanta. The year 1935 saw the publication of Davis's first book, Black Man's Verse, by Black Cat Press. Davis followed up that volume with I Am the American Negro two years later.
Worked for Associated Negro Press
Those books made Davis's reputation and cemented his relationships with Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and other leading black writers whom he met while participating in the federal Works Progress Administration Writers' Project and other organizations. In 1937 Davis received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and through World War II he continued to earn a living as a journalist and editor with the Associated Negro Press. His poetry involved itself with various subjects and sources; two series of poems set in a graveyard and describing its occupants (one in each of his first two books) seemed influenced by a parallel section of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. He depicted urban scenes and wrote occasional lyric poems of great beauty. "Peddling/From door to door/Night sells/Black bags of peppermint stars/Heaping cones of vanilla moon," he wrote in one poem.
Most often, though, Davis was identified with militant poems. His works dealt with lynching, poverty, and the other grinding conditions under which African Americans live, and he indicted the hypocrisy of white America repeatedly. Several poems, including "'On-ward Christian Soldiers,'" took direct aim at white violence on a global scale; "Day by day // Black folk learn // Rather than with // A heathen spear // 'Tis holier to die // By a Christian gun." These works made a strong impression, but some critics shied away from them; Hughes (as quoted by Davis biographer John Edgar Tidwell) offered the even-handed but cautionary assessment that "when [Davis's] poems are poetry, they are powerful."
Davis broadened his activities into many areas of black culture and society in the 1930s and 1940s. He 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. In 1945 he taught one of the first jazz history courses in the United States at the Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago. He briefly joined the Communist Party, although he had disparaged the efforts of Communist organizers while living in the South in the 1930s and later downplayed the extent of his involvement.
Moved to Hawaii
Still, Davis's leftist associations were strong enough to attract unwelcome attention from the government after the war, and by the time his third book, 47th Street: Poems, was published in 1948, he was under pressure from the Un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives. That book, often considered Davis's best, aimed at a readership that extended beyond African-American circles and offered portraits of a broad range of Chicagoans. On vacation that summer in Hawaii with his second wife, Chicago socialite Helen Canfield Davis, he decided to stay on in Honolulu and remained there for the rest of his life. The interracial marriage lasted 24 years but finally ended in divorce. Davis first became a father at age 44, and the couple raised five children.
Davis said that he was drawn to life in Hawaii because of the islands' multiethnic culture. He wrote some poetry in Hawaii and worked on his autobiography beginning in the early 1960s. He penned a column for a Honolulu labor newspaper. But mostly he dropped off the literary radar, starting a paper-supplies company, Oahu Papers, which mysteriously burned to the ground in March of 1951. In 1959 he started another similar firm, the Paradise Paper Company. Several times he was questioned about his leftist affiliations by congressional investigators, but by the late 1950s the anticommunist hysteria had died down.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young African-American writers (especially those affiliated with the Black Arts Movement) began to rediscover Davis's work. He visited Howard University in Washington to give a poetry reading in 1973, marking the first time he had seen the U.S. mainland in 25 years. His work began to show up in anthologies, and in the late 1970s he published two more small volumes of poetry, Jazz Interludes: Seven Musical Poems and Awakening and Other Poems. Davis died in Honolulu on July 26, 1987, just before a group of young scholars became interested in documenting his life and work. Livin' the Blues was published posthumously in 1992. It was assembled from Davis's notes by John Edgar Tidwell, who in 2002 edited a publication of Davis's collected works, Black Moods.
Black Man's Verse, Black Cat, 1935.
I Am the American Negro, Black Cat, 1937.
Through Sepia Eyes, Black Cat, 1938.
47th Street: Poems, Decker (Prairie City, IL), 1948.
Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet, ed. John Edgar Tidwell, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Black Moods: Collected Poems, ed. John Edgar Tidwell, University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Davis, Frank Marshall, Black Moods: Collected Poems, University of Illinois Press, 2002.
King, Woodie, Jr., ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975.
African American Review, Summer-Fall 2003, p. 466.
Black Scholar, Summer 1996, p. 17.
Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2002, p. 215.
"Black Poet's Works Reflected Fire, Love, Strength," University of Kansas Office of University Relations, www.ur.ku.edu/News/02NSeptNews/Sept13/martin.html (August 2, 2004).
"Frank Marshall Davis," Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (August 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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