Frank Marshall Davis


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(1905–1987), poet, journalist, and autobiographer.

During the Depression and World War II, Frank Marshall Davis was arguably one of the most distinctive poetic voices confronting W. E. B Du Bois's profound metaphor of African American double consciousness. Complementing a career that produced four collections of poetry was one as a foremost journalist, from 1930 to 1955. Through the “objective” view of a newspaperman and the “subjective” vision of a poet, Davis struggled valiantly to harmonize Du Bois's dilemma of the color line.

Frank Marshall Davis was born on 31 December 1905 in Arkansas City, Kansas,“ … a yawn town fifty miles south of Wichita, five miles north of Oklahoma, and east and west of nowhere worth remembering” (Livin’ the Blues). His mention of interracial schools suggested a harmonious small-town life; the reality, however, barely concealed deeper racial tensions. Housing, jobs, movie theaters, and all facets of life were tacitly divided by the color line. Retrospectively, he describes his life in “Ark City” as suspended uncertainly in limbo, between the worlds of Euro- and African Americans.

At Kansas State College, Davis nurtured his twin passions of journalism and poetry from 1923 to 1926 and again from 1929 to 1930. His successful careers as newsman and poet rendered unimportant the fact that he never received a baccalaureate degree. For over thirty years he served as editor, managing editor, executive editor, feature writer, editorial writer, correspondent, sports reporter, theater and music critic, contributing editor, and fiction writer for the Chicago Evening Bulletin, Chicago Whip, Gary (Ind.) American, Atlanta World, Chicago Star, the Associated Negro Press, Negro Digest, and the Honolulu Record. In a rather difficult period for publishing African American poetry, he brought out Black Man's Verse (1935), I Am the American Negro (1937), Through Sepia Eyes (1938), and 47th Street: Poems (1948). These two modes of self-expression effectively placed him in a unique position to observe African American cultural development and to advocate social change.

Davis's various news writings generally challenged such persistent lies as the position that African Americans had no cultural past and therefore had contributed very little to American cultural development. In this case, Davis made “Rating the Records” and “Things Theatrical,” two of his weekly features for the Associated Negro Press, collectively imply a composite history of African American music. The social consequences of this strategy were enormous. The columns demonstrated West African roots of African American music; provided, in their promotion of racially integrated bands, a model for American society to aspire to; and demonstrated African Americans’ contributions to American cultural distinctiveness.

Davis found poetry to be a complementary mode of self-expression. Esteemed critics like Harriet Mon-roe, Stephen Vincent Benét, Alain Locke, and Sterling A. Brown perceived much to celebrate in Davis's poetry. In Black Man's Verse (1935), they saw “authentic inspiration,” technical innovation, wonderfully realistic portraiture, and vivid images. Davis's verse is characterized by robust statements of urban themes, a fierce social consciousness, a strong declamatory voice, and an almost rabid racial pride. Technically, he found free verse to be the best form to “contain” his thought since, like jazz and improvisation, it represented a rebellion against conventional or standardized forms of poetry. Davis's poem “Lynching,” for instance, offers “stage” directions for performing the poem to the accompaniment of orchestral music. But the experiment with music, mood, and language did not consistently win critical approval. Other Davis poems sometimes invited disagreement about whether they achieved epic sweep or simple oratory.


Subjects: Literature.

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