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Margaret Esse Danner Biography

Developed Poetic Voice, Began Publishing Poetry, Influenced by Trip to Africa, Sketchy Details of Personal Life



Poet Margaret Esse Danner's vivid imagery and uplifting poetic voice most often focused on Africa. Although she wrote on a wide range of themes, it is likely that her African poems will be the most enduring of her work. Author of four compilations and contributor to numerous anthologies, Danner published the bulk of her poetry during the Black Arts Movements of the 1960s.

Developed Poetic Voice

Margaret Esse Danner was born in Pryorsburg, Kentucky, on January 12, 1915. Soon thereafter her parents, Caleb and Naomi Danner, moved the family to Chicago, where she spent most of her childhood. Danner won her first poetry prize in eighth grade for her poem titled "The Violin," which uses the famous Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins as its central images.

After graduating from Englewood High School in Chicago, Danner pursued her studies at numerous universities, including Chicago's YMCA College, Loyola University, Roosevelt College (now University), and Northwestern University, where she studied under poets Karl Shapiro and Paul Engle. Although she continued to develop her poetic voice during these years, Danner did not receive any public recognition until 1945 when she won second place at the Poetry Workshop of the Midwestern Writers Conference held at Northwestern.

In 1951 Danner became an editorial assistant for Poetry: The Magazine of Verse, a publication known for introducing talented poets to the public. In that same year, Poetry published Danner's "Far From Africa," a series of four poems. These poems would later appear in numerous anthologies and earned Danner the John Hay Whitney Fellowship. This fellowship provided funding for Danner to travel to Africa, but Danner postponed the trip until 1966. In 1956 Danner became the first African American to be promoted to assistant editor at Poetry, a position she held until 1957.

Began Publishing Poetry

Danner's first collection of poems, Impressions of African Art Forms, first published by the Contemporary Studies of Miles Poetry Association of Wayne State University in Detroit in 1960, was republished in 1961 by Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. The poems of Impressions, which earned critical acclaim, focused on Danner's understanding of Africa as a land and as a state of her being. Unlike other African American poets who voiced frustration in their incomplete identity and unity with Africa, Danner finds inspiration and fulfillment in her poems such as "Her Blood, Drifting Through Me, Sings." In "The Convert" she celebrates self-discovery: "I became a hurricane // of elation, a convert, undaunted who wanted to flaunt // her discovery, flourish her fair-figured-find." In her 1993 study of Danner's poetry, Claire Taft noted in The Langston Hughes Review, " Impressions of African Art Forms glories in the beauty, nobility, and knowledge Danner finds in her quest of understanding the identity of her ancestors. The vivid pictures of her journey involve her readers, helping them respect Africa."

Having gained exposure and recognition for her work at Poetry and her publication of Impressions of African Art Forms, in 1961 Danner was invited to serve as the poet in residence at Wayne State University in Detroit. During her stay in Detroit, Danner became involved in the community. Wishing to create an arts center, she enlisted other poets, including Robert Hayden, to help and convinced the minister of Detroit's King Solomon Church to allow her to use an uninhabited parish house. Boone Center, named after Dr. Boone, the minister of the church, became a community arts center, with numerous activities focused on reaching out to children. Danner honored the center in her poem "Boone House," which appeared in the Negro History Bulletin in 1962. Later, Danner would also found Nologonyu's, another such center for the arts in Chicago's Southside.

During the early 1960s Danner became active in the Bahá'í faith, which she shared with Robert Hayden. According to Bahá'í teachings, the world is moving toward a unity characterized by peace and harmony, free from prejudice, extremes of wealth and poverty, and inequality. Danner wrote a number of poems through which her Bahá'í faith is revealed, and from 1964 to 1966, she served as a touring poet under the sponsorship of the Bahá'í Teaching Committee.

Influenced by Trip to Africa

In 1966 Danner finally took her Whitney Fellowship trip to Africa. She traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where she read some of her poems at the World Exposition of Negro Arts. She also spent part of the year in Paris, staying long enough to peruse an exhibit of African art. Africa had long been a major theme of Danner's poetry, and her influential trip simply served to reinforce her preponderance on the land of her ancestors.

The bulk of Danner's work was published during the 1960s, as the Black Arts Movement emerged. She produced three other compilations of her poetry during that decade: To Flower in 1963, Poem Counterpoem in 1966, and Iron Lace in 1968. She also edited two anthologies, Brass Horses in 1968 and Regroup in 1969, and her poems appeared in numerous literary publications. In Poem Counterpoem she partnered with Dudley Randall to produce a volume of twenty poems, ten by each poet. The poems on the same topics are paired on opposite pages as a dialogue between the two poets. In 1964 Danner recorded readings with Langston Hughes as part of Black Forum series. Although the recording was not released until 1970 and did not receive significant attention, Danner appreciated Hughes's help in increasing her recognition in the literary community.

Danner, who appeared at a variety of writers conferences and poetry festivals, spent the remaining years of her professional life as a poet in residence, first at the historically black Virginia Union University from 1968 to 1969 and then at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1970 to 1975.

At a Glance …

Born on January 12, 1915, in Pryorsburg, Kentucky; died on January 1, 1984, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Caleb and Naomi Danner; married Cordell Strickland (divorced); married Otto Cunningham; children (first marriage): Naomi. Education: Attended YMCA College, Chicago, IL, Loyola University, Roosevelt University, and Northwestern University. Religion: Bahá'í.

Career: Poetry magazine, Chicago, IL, editorial assistant, 1951-55, assistant editor, 1956-57; Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, poet in residence, 1961-62; touring poet, Bahá'í Teaching Committee, 1964-66; Whitney fellow, Senegal, Africa, and Paris, France, 1966; Virginia Union University, Richmond, VA, poet in residence, 1968-69; LeMoyne-Owen College, Memphis, TN, poet in residence, 1970-75.

Selected memberships: Society of Afro-American Culture, member; Contemporary Artists, member; National Council of Teachers of English, member; Boone House, director; Nologonyu's, Chicago Southside Community Art Center, life member.

Selected awards: John Hay Whitney Fellowship, 1951; African Studies Association Award, 1961; Harriet Tubman Award, 1965; Poets in Concert Award, 1968.

In 1976 Danner published her final major work, The Down of a Thistle, which she dedicated to Robert Hayden. As in her other works, Africa is the central theme of much of the poetry. Richard K. Barksdale noted in Praisesong of Survival, "In the poetry of Margaret Danner…there is no questions nor doubts about a broad cultural highway from black America to black Africa, and her firm belief irradiates her work." Several other poems offered homage to Langston Hughes, who also displayed a strong connection to his African heritage in his writing and had inspired and influenced Danner throughout her life. In "The Rhetoric of Langston Hughes," she writes, "Langston Hughes (in his traveling) // has sung to so many for so long // and from so very Black a Power // that we have clearly seen the 'angles' and dedicated ourselves // to the unraveling."

Sketchy Details of Personal Life

The available details of Danner's personal life are not complete. She was by Danner, these poems cover a range of issues and include "Black Power Language" and "Muffin, His Baba and the Boneman."

Although Danner was not the most widely acclaimed poet of her time, she earned the respect of her peers as an artistic voice for those who wished to find meaning and inspiration in the relationship between black Africa and black America. Her message was one of hope but she did not trivialize the difficulty of being black in America. In her introduction to her poems that appeared in The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Danner wrote, "As for my poetry: I believe that my dharma is to prove that the Force of Good takes precedence over the force for evil in mankind. To the extent that my poetry adheres to this purpose it will endure." Danner died in Chicago on January 1, 1984.

Selected writings


Impressions of African Art Forms, Wayne State University, 1960.

To Flower, Hemphill Press, 1963.

(With Dudley Randall) Poem Counterpoem, Broadside Press, 1966.

Iron Lace, Kriya Press, 1968.

The Down of a Thistle: Selected Poems, Prose, and Songs, Country Beautiful, 1976.

Contributions to Anthologies

Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes, Hand and Flower Press, 1962.

American Negro Poetry, Hill and Wang, 1963.

For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, Broadside, 1967.

(Editor) Brass Horses, Virginia Union University, 1968.

(Editor) Regroup, Virginia Union University, 1969.

To Gwen With Love, Johnson Publishing Company, 1971.

The Black Poets, Bantam, 1971.

Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, Macmillan, 1972.

The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century, Harper & Row, 1973.

Understanding the New Black Poetry, Morrow, 1973.

Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980, Indiana University Press, 1981.


(With Langston Hughes) Writers of the Revolution, Black Forum, 1970.



Bailey, Leaonead Pack, ed., Broadside Authors and Artists, Broadside Press, 1974.

Barksdale, Richard, Praisesong of Survival: Lectures and Essays, 1957-89, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

King, Woodie, Jr., ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975.

Lee, Don I., Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s, Broadside Press, 1971.

Notable Black American Women, Gale Group, 2004.

Redmond, Eugene B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, Anchor Books, 1976.

Stetson, Erlene, "Dialectic Voices in the Poetry of Margaret Esse Danner," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986.


Booklist, November 15, 1976.

The Langston Hughes Review, Spring 1984, pp. 7-9; Fall 1993, pp. 45-49.

School Library Journal, January 1977.


"Margaret Danner," Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC -(December 3, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

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