Frank Marshall Davis: Wikis


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Frank Marshall Davis
Born December 31, 1905(1905-12-31)
Arkansas City, Kansas
Died July 26, 1987 (aged 81)
Honolulu, Hawaii
Occupation journalist, poet
Nationality United States
Genres social realism
Subjects race relations, music, literature, American culture
Literary movement social realism

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.


Early life

Beginning at age 17, Davis was educated at Friends University (1923) and later at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) (1924-27, 1929) but didn't graduate. When Davis entered Kansas State, there were 25 other African-American students enrolled there.[1] 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.[1] Frank pledged Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity in 1925.


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.[2][3] 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[4] 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. Davis became interested in the Communist party in 1931 during the famous Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndon cases[5] and championed black activism to compensate for social ills not remedied by the larger white society. In the early 30s he warned against blacks accepting the Depression-era remedies being pushed by communists[6] but by 1936 Davis was listed as a contributing editor to the Spokesman, the official organ of the Youth Section of the National Negro Congress, a Communist front organization.[7]

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[8], 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.[9]

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[10] 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. During this time Hawaii was going through a non-violent revolution between colored labor workers and the white elite known as the Democratic Revolution. 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.

Davis 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. Davis' first column noted he was a member of the national executive board of the Civil Rights Congress,[11] cited as a Communist subversive organization by President Harry S. Truman's Attorney General Tom Clark.[12] The paper had been founded in 1948 by Koji Ariyoshi , and closed in 1958. 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.

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.


A 1950 FBI memo reports that members of the subversive element in Honolulu were

concentrating their efforts on infiltration of the Democratic party through control of Precinct Clubs and organizations. He said they were spending considerable time urging support for their candidates in these Precinct Club elections. In this regard, he noted on April 6, 1950, that subject [Davis] had been elected Assistant Secretary and Delegate to the Territorial Democratic Convention...attendance of Davis at the Territorial Democratic Convention was verified by [informant]. This convention took place on April 30 at Kalakana Intermediate School.[13]

Robert M. Kempa, a communist party informant who agreed to cooperate with government investigators, reported,

Late in the fall of 1950, I started contacting Frank Marshall Davis in connection with Communist Party matters, and relaying to him information received from my superior contact in the Communist Party, either James Freeman or [redacted].

During a portion of 1950, 1951 and part of 1952, I continued contacting Frank Marshall Davis and also transmitted dues for the Communist Party received from him to my contact above. During the period of my contacts with Frank Marshall Davis, he advised me that his wife, Helen was a member of Group #10. ...During a portion of 1951 [redacted] took over contacts with the Davis group but I resumed contacting Davis in 1952 and continued meeting him on Communist Party matters until I left the Party in June of that year."[14]

Later years

Davis also authored a soft-core pornographic novel, which was published in 1968 under a pseudonym. The book, titled Sex Rebel: Black (Memoirs of a Gash Gourmet), was written under the pseudonym “Bob Greene,”[15] and was published by William Hamling's Greenleaf Publishing Company.

Davis 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.


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.[1] Davis claimed his "greatest single influence" was the poetry of Carl Sandburg "because of his hard, muscular poetry."[1]

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

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.

One can only imagine Davis's frustrations at his inability to become a successful writer in Hawaii 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."[16]

Personal life

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.[17] The couple had four daughters named Lynn, Beth, Jeanne and Jill and a son named Mark.

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 heart attack, at the age of 81.

Davis and Barack Obama

In his memoir Dreams from My Father, 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."[18] 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." [19]

Gerald Horne, a contributing editor to the CPUSA official publication Political Affairs, identified "Frank" as Davis, and "a decisive influence in helping Obama to find his present identity" as an African-American.[20] Claims that Davis was a political influence on Obama were reiterated in the hotly-disputed anti-Obama book The Obama Nation.[21] A rebuttal to The Obama Nation released by Obama's presidential campaign, titled Unfit for Publication, confirmed that "Frank" was, in fact, Frank Marshall Davis, but disputes certain claims about the nature of their relationship.[22]


Selected works

  • Black Man's Verse; Black Cat, (Chicago, IL), 1935.
  • I Am the American Negro, Black Cat, (Chicago, IL), 1937, ISBN 978-0836989205
  • 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 978-0299135003
  • 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 1578069211; ISBN 978-1578069217


  1. ^ a b c d John Edgar Tidwell, An Interview with Frank Marshall Davis Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1985
  2. ^
  3. ^ History of African-American Newspapers
  4. ^ Atlanta Daily World website
  5. ^ FBI file Frank Marshall Davis, v.4, p. 29 & 30 pdf; Report of SAC Leo Brenneisen, 9/9/63, FBI file Frank Marshall Davis, v.2 pps. 55-59 pdf.
  6. ^ at page 15.
  7. ^ Daily Worker, Augst 12 1936, cited in Report prepared from the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities for Senator William E. Jenner, Chairman of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, October 20 1953, FBI file Frank Marshall Davis, v.5 pp.9-11 pdf.
  8. ^ Lawrence Daniel Hogan, Associated Negro Press Encyclopedia of Chicago
  9. ^ Jayne R Beilke, The changing emphasis of the Rosenwald Fellowship Program, 1928-1948 Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1997
  10. ^ Arthur M. Vinje, Abraham Lincoln School, Summer Institute, Wisconsin Historical Images
  11. ^ Honolulu Record, May 12 1949, v.1 no.41. p.3.
  12. ^ Attorney General's List furnished to the Loyalty Review Board and released to the press by the U.S. Civil Service Commission, December 4 1947 and September 21 1948. In the House Un-American Activities Committee Report on the Civil Rights Congress, it was cited as an organization formed in April 1946 as a merger of two other Communist front organizations, the International Labor Defense (ILD) and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties (NFCL); "dedicated not to the broader issues of civil liberties, but specifically to the defense of individual Communists and the Communist Party" and "controlled by individuals who are either members of the Communist Party or openly loyal to it." The organization was redesignated on April 27 1953 by the U.S. Attorney General pursuant to Executive Order 10450. Report prepared from the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities for Senate William E. Jenner, Chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, October 20 1953, reproduced in Who Was Frank Marshall Davis?, Cliff Kincaid and Herbert Romerstein. pp. 12-14.
  13. ^ FBI file Frank Marshall Davis, Report of SAC W. Knapp, 11/13/50, v.4 p.43 pdf.
  14. ^ FBI file Frank Marshall Davis, memo November 10, 1953.
  15. ^ “Frank Marshall Davis, alleged Communist, was early influence on Barack Obama,” The Telegraph (London), August 24, 2008
  16. ^ Frank Marshall Davis: Black Labor Activist and Outsider Journalist: Social Movements in Hawai`i, by Kathryn Waddell Takara, Ph.D.
  17. ^ William Disbro, TODAYS OBITS 5-30-98 Hawaii-L Archives, May 30, 1998
  18. ^ Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, Chapters 4-5, ISBN 978-1400082773
  19. ^ Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, Paper Back Edition, Chapter 8, Page 145
  20. ^ Gerald Horne, Rethinking the History and Future of the Communist Party, Political Affairs Magazine, March 28, 2007
  21. ^ The Obama Nation, Jerome Corsi, p. 85, Simon and Schuster (2008)
  22. ^ Unfit for Publication (pdf)


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