Frank Marshall Davis rose to prominence as a poet and journalist during the Depression and the Second World War. Prior to his departure for the Territory of Hawaii in 1948, he found himself the subject of adulation by many readers but also the target of careful scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Part of the reason for these diverging, oppositional interests was his social realist poetry. Poetry for him became an alternative mode of expression, one that provided release from the “objectivity” demanded by the medium of journalism. It enabled him to respond “subjectively” to a world of racial discrimination, labor inequity, differential politics, and so much more that burdened and stifled one’s very humanity. As a result, manifested in his poetry is a profound celebration of the self, characteristically revealed in robust statements of urban themes, a fierce social consciousness, a strong declamatory voice, and an almost rabid race pride. Given American racial dynamics during this period, Davis’s verse, in some ways, was appropriate for its day and time. Arguably, it might even be considered an apt representative of the challenge made by Black art to a world of de jure and de facto racial discrimination. In any case, Davis was positioned at the center of debate and discussion about the role art should play in liberating African Americans from the clutches of Jim Crow. Reductively stated, his poetry was either thoroughly appreciated or roundly criticized.
Davis’s birth, in 1905, in south central Kansas, hardly portended the greatness he would attain. According to his Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992), racial inferiority was hammered in him consistently in the public schools and in his daily life away from home. What rescued and sustained him until he was able “to escape” was his discovery of the blues, when he was eight years old. “The blues,” he wrote, “talked my language. The blues were basic, vital black music; the rapport was natural.” In the years following this initial discovery, Davis would interpolate the blues, along with jazz, into a penetrating aesthetic and political lens through which to view the world. This writerly strategy is best described as a blues perspective, since it exhibits a powerful thematic commitment to self-assertion, self-preservation, and survival. It resists the common signification of blues as extended moans over lost love, defeatism, and other manifestations of emotional and social malaise. The blues provided him a means through which to reflect on a life that confronted lived experience, transcended the obstacles to his achieving full self-actualization, and culminated eventually in triumph.
At Kansas State College, from 1924 to 1926 and again from 1929 to 1930, he would combine this vision with free verse to imagine a new way of expressing himself poetically. Ultimately, he would write three major collections of poetry: Black Man’s Verse (1935), I Am the American Negro (1937), and 47th Street: Poems (1948). All of these collections as well as his chapbooks and previously unpublished and uncollected works have recently appeared as Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002).
In addition to a way of viewing art, Kansas State also provided Davis with the education that defined his vocation for the next 30 years: that of being a journalist. As a practising journalist, from 1927 to about 1967, he earned an enormous reputation as editor, managing editor, executive editor, feature writer, editorial writer, correspondent, sports reporter, music and theatre critic, contributing editor, and fiction writer for the Chicago Evening Bulletin, the Chicago Whip, the Chicago Star, the Gary (Indiana) American, the Atlanta World, the Associated Negro Press, The Negro Digest, and the Honolulu Record. In each of these sites, Davis proved unafraid or unapologetic. He fashioned his news writing into a counter-narrative to the usual “white washing” of interracial problems by the mainstream papers. Of course, such militancy was not without its consequences.
In Chicago, Illinois, for example, where he worked for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), his assertive quest for improved working conditions and wages for laborers became interpreted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Committee on Un-American Activities as advocating the overthrow of the federal government in this pre-McCarthy era. His practice of “critical journalism,” while intended to point up racial and class inequities, became misunderstood during the Second World War as a “social experiment” since it strongly lobbied for such matters as racially-integrated armed forces. Add to this a socially-engaged poetry he wrote, in an effort to promote more harmonious racial relations, and the reasons become clear why Davis was severely criticized by more “conservative” writers and viewed by others as a subversive.
Poetry in the post-New Negro (or “Harlem”) Renaissance shifted its focus from a folk-based metaphysic to a more proletarian cultural emphasis. This shift also records the manner in which Davis, along with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, and many others, wrestled with the conceptual marriage of art and political engagement. Collectively, these poets sought to demonstrate the humanity of African American people. Their effort to establish a single standard of evaluating poetry, instead of different standards for African American and white poets, led many to view poetry as a discourse capable of redefining the nature of human relations. In this effort, a few critics, including Nick Aaron Ford, found Davis’s poetry to be too bitter to foster the creation of idealized social arrangements. For them, poetry could only be worthy of its name if the material conditions creating the great division among races could be rendered with less acerbity than Davis sometimes did. Thus Davis poems like “Lynched” and “War Quiz for America” were, for those critics, too militant, propagandistic, and bombastic.
But Davis’s work cannot be so easily summarized or dismissed. Langston Hughes said it best: “When [Davis’s] poems are poetry, they are powerful.” This view is echoed by other commentators who saw his poetry evince “authentic inspiration,” “natural dignity,” and “intelligence.” Such reviews aptly describe most of Davis’s poems written in a social realist mode. His portraits of Chicago’s Southside racial landscape, as found in his “Chicago’s Congo” and “47th Street,” are unmatched by his contemporaries, including Carl Sandburg, an admitted poetic influence for Davis. His satirical poems reflect the influence of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, but their point and pith reveal Davis’s distinctive vision as he made light of African Americans’ faults and foibles. Arguably Davis achieves his most distinctive voice in his blues and jazz-inspired poems. “Cabaret,” “Dancing Gal,” “Charlie Parker,” and “Louis Armstrong” are a few of those music-inflected poems representing Davis’s centrality in a sub-genre that has yet to be successfully defined. Finally, his series of lyric and love poems await a penetrating analysis for what they reveal about the man, his life, and his many loves.
Davis, it seems, has been too narrowly defined. His breadth and reach are only now being fully explored. When that effort has been successfully made, his voice will be seen as an enduring one, and his centrality in the history of African American poetic development will be assured.