Frank Marshall Davis

Frank Marshall Davis

Infobox Writer
name = Frank Marshall Davis

imagesize =
caption =
birthdate = birth date|1905|12|31|mf=y
birthplace = Arkansas City, Kansas
deathdate = death date and age|1987|7|26|1905|12|31
deathplace = Honolulu, Hawaii
occupation = journalist, poet
nationality = United States
period =
genre = social realism
subject = race relations, music, literature, American culture
movement = social realism
influences =
influenced =
website =

Frank Marshall Davis (December 31, 1905, Arkansas City, Kansas; July 26 1987, Honolulu, Hawaii) was an American journalist, poet and political and labor movement activist. He was widely known to be a member of the Communist Party USA [Mattias Gardell, "In the name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam", Duke University Prss, Durham, North Carolina (1996)] and was investigated for his links with the Communist Party USA in the United States. [ Report on the Honolulu record] "United States. Congress. House. Committee on Un-American Activities", October 1, 1950 (Report at p. 12)]

Early life

Davis’s parents divorced when he was one year old. In 1911, when he was five, a group of white third-graders who had heard about the lynching of black people tried to lynch Davis and nearly hanged him. [ [ at page 10-11]

Beginning at age 17, he was educated at Friends University (1923) and later at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) (1924-27, 1929) without taking a degree. When Davis entered Kansas State, there were 25 other African-American students enrolled there.John Edgar Tidwell, [ An Interview with Frank Marshall Davis] "Black American Literature Forum", Autumn 1985] 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.

Journalism and poetry

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. [] [ [ History of African-American Newspapers] ] 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, he moved to Atlanta to become an editor of a semiweekly paper. Davis transformed the "Atlanta World" [ [ Atlanta Daily World website] ] into a daily newspaper within two years of taking the job as the paper's managing editor in 1931. Under Davis's leadership the "Atlanta Daily World" became the nation's first successful black daily. In the pages of the paper, Davis articulated an agenda of social realism, which included appeals for racial justice in politics and economics, as well as legal justice. He championed black activism, especially to compensate for social ills not remedied by the larger white society. He warned against blacks accepting the Depression-era remedies being pushed by communists. [ [ at page 15.] ]

He continued to write and publish poems, which came to the attention of Frances Norton Manning, who introduced Davis to Norman Forge. Forge's Black Cat Press brought out Davis's first book, "Black Man's Verse", in the summer of 1935.

In 1935, Davis moved back to Chicago to take the position of managing editor of the Associated Negro Press [Lawrence Daniel Hogan, [ Associated Negro Press] "Encyclopedia of Chicago"] , a news service for black newspapers, which had begun in 1919. Eventually, Davis was named executive editor for the ANP. He held the position until 1947.

During the Depression, Davis participated in the federal Works Progress Administration Writers' Project. In 1937, he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. [Jayne R Beilke, [ The changing emphasis of the Rosenwald Fellowship Program, 1928-1948] "Journal of Negro Education", Winter 1997]

While in Chicago, Davis also started a photography club, worked for numerous political parties, and participated in the League of American Writers. With the encouragement of authors such as Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, Davis published in 1948 his most ambitious collection of poems, entitled "47th Street: Poems", which chronicles the varied life on Chicago's South Side. 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. In 1945, he taught one of the first jazz history courses in the United States, at the Abraham Lincoln School [Arthur M. Vinje, [ Abraham Lincoln School, Summer Institute] , "Wisconsin Historical Images"] in Chicago.

In 1948, Davis and his second wife, who had married in 1946, moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, at the suggestion of Davis’s friend Paul Robeson. There, Davis operated a small wholesale paper business, Oahu Papers, which mysteriously burned to the ground in March 1951. In 1959, he started another similar firm, the Paradise Paper Company.

He also wrote a weekly column, styled “Frank-ly Speaking,” for the "Honolulu Record", a labor paper published by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), headed by Harry Bridges. The paper had been founded in 1948 by Koji Ariyoshi. As editor, Arioyshi lambasted labor conditions for the working class, advocated the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and targeted other social inequalities in the islands. In 1958, Ariyoshi was forced to close his newspaper due to lack of funds.

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. In 1950, the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee accused Davis of involvement in several communist-front organizations. The committee concluded that the "Honolulu Record" was “a front for the Communist Party, despite the fact that the paper does not make this admission.” The committee’s report on the "Honolulu Record" states the following about Davis:

quotation|Mr. Davis' column defends Communists and attacks capitalism with the same vigor as columns appearing regularly in the Daily Worker and other frankly Communist publications. Typical of Mr. Davis' remarks are the following:

“Democracy today lies weak and slowly dying from the poison administered by the divident doctors in Washington and Wall Street who have fooled a trustingpublic into believing that they are the specialists who would save us from the dread diseases of socialism and communism. . . . They hope to hand us fascism disguised as the healed democracy.” (Honolulu Record, July 28, 1949, p. 8).

Mr. Davis constantly defended the 11 top United States Communist officials recently convicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence. One of Mr. Davis' comments on the case was as follows :

“I feel strong sympathy for the Communist minority who are being oppressed for their political beliefs.” (Honolulu Record, October 20, 1949, p. 6).

When Mr. Davis' column first appeared in the Record in May 1949, the Record boasted that the author was a member of the national executive board of the Civil Rights Congress. The organization is cited as Communist by Attorney General Tom Clark as well as by the Committee on Un-American Activities. Mr. Davis has signed a number of statements in behalf of Communists under the sponsorship of the Civil Rights Congress; one of these defended was Gerhart Eisler, notorious Communist international agent who escaped jailing for passport fraud by fleeing to the Soviet sector of Germany.

Other front organizations of the Communist Party with which Mr. Davis has associated include : American Youth for Democracy, Abraham Lincoln School, National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, League of American Writers, the National Negro Congress, and the Hawaii Civil Liberties Committee.

A 1951 report of the Commission of Subversive Activities to the legislature of the Territory of Hawaii identified Davis as a CPUSA member.

Because he published little poetry between 1948 and his final volume, "Awakening, and Other Poems", published in 1978, Davis’s reputation as a poet diminished, but he was rediscovered during the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.

He visited Howard University in Washington, D.C., 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 appear in anthologies.

"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) were published posthumously.

In 1946, Davis married Helen Canfield, a white Chicago socialite, who was 19 years his junior. The couple divorced in 1970, and Canfield Davis herself died in May 1998 in Honolulu. [William Disbro, [ TODAYS OBITS 5-30-98] "Hawaii-L Archives", May 30, 1998] The couple had five children, four girls and a boy.

At one point during a particularly difficult time in their marriage, Davis wrote a poem, entitled "To Helen", in which he attempted to re-earn her love. The poem reads in part:

:I shall make you part of me,:My darling,:Fundamental as heart:Primary as mind:And to you I shall become:As the blood in your veins.

Davis died in 1987, in Honolulu, of a massive heart attack, at the age of 81.

Analysis of his literary work

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. Davis claimed his "greatest single influence" was the poetry of Carl Sandburg "because of his hard, muscular poetry."

During the middle of the twentieth century, Davis set forth a radical vision that challenged the status quo. His commentary on race relations, music, literature, and American culture was precise, impassioned, and engaged. At the height of World War II, Davis questioned the nature of America’s potential postwar relations and what they meant for African Americans and the nation. His work challenged the usefulness of race as a social construct, and he eventually disavowed the idea of race altogether.

In his reviews on music, he argued that blues and jazz were responses to social conditions and served as weapons of racial integration. His book reviews complemented his radical vision by commenting on how literature reshapes one’s understanding of the world. Even his travel writings on Hawaii called for cultural pluralism and tolerance for racial and economic difference.

Legacy of political activism

One writer has made this evaluation of Davis's political legacy.

quotation|"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.

One can only imagine Davis's frustrations at his inability to become a successful writer in Hawai`i after his promising beginnings in Atlanta and Chicago. He rarely complained, but he must have felt incomplete if not bitter when he found dignity but not freedom to develop his potential and lead the distinguished life to which he was accustomed. Considering the controversial subject matter of Davis' writing, it is little wonder that some whites looked askance at his presence in the islands. He worked quietly, he wrote even when he no longer published his writings, and he talked with those who came to visit him--always seeking to present the truth of his vision, confident that social justice and human dignity would finally prevail. Indeed, despite his radical rhetoric, Davis was optimistic that good relations between ethnic groups could and would lead to a better world.

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." ["Frank Marshall Davis: Black Labor Activist and Outsider Journalist: Social Movements in Hawai`i", by Kathryn Waddell Takara, Ph.D.]

Relationship between Davis and Barack Obama

In his autobiographical "Dreams from My Father", U.S. Senator and Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama wrote about "Frank", a friend of his grandfather's. "Frank" told Obama that he and Stanley (Obama's maternal grandfather) both 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 view 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." [Barack Obama, "Dreams from My Father", Chapters 4-5, ISBN 978-1400082773] Obama also remembered Frank later in life when he took a job in South Chicago as a community organizer when he took some time one day and visited 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." [Barack Obama, "Dreams from My Father", Paper Back Edition, Chapter 8, Page 145]

Gerald Horne, a Communist Party historian and contributing editor of "Political Affairs", claims that "Frank" was Davis, and further claimed he was a "decisive influence" on Obama. [Gerald Horne, [ Rethinking the History and Future of the Communist Party] , "Political Affairs Magazine, March 28, 2007] Similar claims were made about Davis in the anti-Obama book "The Obama Nation"."The Obama Nation", Jerome Corsi, p. 85, Simon and Schuster (2008)]

A rebuttal to "The Obama Nation" released by Obama's presidential campaign, titled "Unfit for Publication", confirms that "Frank" was, in fact, Frank Marshall Davis, but disputes claims made about the nature of their relationship. [ [ "Unfit for Publication"] (pdf)]


Selected works
*"Black Man's Verse"; Black Cat, (Skokie, IL), 1935.
*"I Am the American Negro", Black Cat, (Skokie, IL), 1937, ISBN 978-0836989205
*"Through Sepia Eyes"; Black Cat, (Skokie, IL), 1938.
*"47th Street: Poems"; Decker (Prairie City, IL), 1948.
*"Black Man's Verse"; Black Cat (Skokie, IL), 1961.
*"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 978-0299135003
*"Black Moods: Collected Poems," ed. John Edgar Tidwell; University of Illinois Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0252027383
*"Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press", ed. by John Edgar Tidwell; University Press of Mississippi, 2007. ISBN-10: 1578069211; ISBN 978-1578069217



*King, Woodie, Jr., ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975.
*An Interview with Frank Marshall Davis, by John Edgar Tidwell. "Black American Literature Forum", Vol. 19, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 105-108
*African American Review, Summer-Fall 2003, p. 466.
*Black Scholar, Summer 1996, p. 17.
*Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2002, p. 215.
* [ Frank Marshall Davis: Black Labor Activist and Outsider Journalist: Social Movements in Hawai`i by Kathryn Waddell Takara, Ph.D]

External links

* [ Excerpts from "Livin' the Blues" and two poems, "Chicago's Congo" and "Gary, Indiana", by Frank Marshall Davis]
* [ "Four Glimpses of Night", a poem by Frank Marshall Davis]
* [ "This is Paradise", a poem by Frank Marshall Davis]
* [ Frank-ly Speaking editorials from the Honolulu Record, Center for Labor Education & Research, University of Hawaii - West Oahu]

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