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Franklin Marshall Davis

Frank Marshall Davis

 

Black Man's Verse

 

I Am The American Negro

 

47TH STREET

 

Awakening and Other Poems

 

Livin The Blues

 

Black Moods

 

Writings of Frank Marshall Davis

 

Biography  
          

Frank Marshall Davis was a central figure in the literary history of African Americans. He was also a contemporary of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. He was born on December 31, 1905 in Arkansas City, Kansas. His parents divorced one year later. A group of white boys tried to lynch him when he was five years old. When he was eight years old, Davis found his “long lost brother” when he got hooked by the blues. At the age of seventeen, Davis moved to Wichita and enrolled at Friends University. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan to study journalism. He wrote his first poem as an assignment. That assignment hooked Davis on poetry and ultimately started his writing career.

In 1927, after moving to Chicago, Davis wrote short stories and articles for both the National Magazine and the Chicago Evening Bulletin. He also wrote for the Chicago Whip, for the Gary American, and for the Associated Negro Press.

In 1930, he moved to Atlanta to work as editor for a semiweekly black newspaper. Later, Davis became the editor of the Atlanta Daily World. His editing innovations made the newspaper into the first successful African American daily.

In 1935, Davis published his first critically successful book, Black Man’s Verse. The book was an alliance of free verse written in the rhythm of jazz that condemned racial prejudice. “Ebony Under Granite,” one of the sections in the book, chronicles of lives of African Americans buried in a cemetery.

In 1937, his second book, I Am the American Negro, loudly critiqued racism and its social connotations. The following year, Davis published his third book, Through Sepia Eyes (1938), which contained four poems. The poems were published in later volumes of Davis’ books. In 1948, Davis published 47TH STREET which many believe to be his best work. In his title poem, Davis chronicled a “rainbow race” of south side Chicagoans and their commonalities of economic class rather than race.

In 1948, Davis went to Honolulu, Hawaii, on an extended vacation. Hawaii impressed him so much that he withdrew from the limelight of the United States to build a new life in Hawaii. Davis and his second wife, Helen, raised five children there. He also continued to write a weekly column for the Honolulu Record.

In the 1960s, during the Black Arts Movement, the writings of Frank Marshall Davis were rediscovered and have redefined some of the traditionally accepted boundaries of African American literary history.

By 1973, Davis had regained some of his earlier notoriety.

In 1978, Davis published his final volume, Awakening and Other Poems from selected poems taken entirely out of his second book, I Am the American Negro.

On July 26, 1987, Frank Marshall Davis died in Honolulu leaving the world his resounding vision of what should never have been and what could still be. Three other books about his life and work, Livin’ the Blues: Memories of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992) and Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002), Writings of Frank Marshall Davis (2007), all edited by University of Kansas English professor John Edgar Tidwell, were published after his death. They contain information about the writer's life, his vision, and samplings of his poetry and journalistic work that challenged the social discords and racial barriers that existed in America. Davis ultimately rejected the existence of race as an absurdity in favor of an America without a qualifier in front of American. Davis hoped that someday all of this country's members could just be plain Americans without the baggage of race or class constructs.    


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Published Work  
 

Black Man's Verse is a miniature book of poetry that combines Davis' interest in free verse and jazz into a bitterly direct image of the issues that feed racial oppression and its impact of the social struture of the American society. In the first section of the book, called "Fragments," Davis writes about finding a woman's soul in his poem entitled "Finding." He also wrote a seasonal poem from his home state, titled "Kansas Winter."

I Am the American Negro is a collection of poems about the American Negro experience. It includes a combination of poems that were published in earlier books and previously some of Davis' unpublished work. The title poem is written as scenes of a play or opera. It is a story about a man who is a giant in spirit and insight. He is shackled literally and figuratively by the American Social System. His strong, resonant voice tells his story. He is neither for assimilating with the white race nor for clinging to his own culture. He is a “bleached” man set apart from everything and everyone. He speaks out about his place in the world. He sees a formless stranger peering at him. He doesn’t know who it is. “The giant turns…looks at the emptiness around him…frowns in disgust…opens his mouth to speak when the temple falls in a crash…and the voice of the giant is stilled” (22). The man with the giant understanding is stilled by the social structure that restricts him. The book includes other poems about historical moments in time and other people living during those times.

47th Street is the fourth book of poetry written by Frank Marshall Davis. This collection of poems addresses the impact of discrimination on the author and other American Negros. This book reflects on the specialized treatment Negros must live with. It also reveals how this treatment continues to divide people into groups, perpetuating the domination of perceived “superior” groups over perceived “inferior” groups.

Pages of the titled poem (courtesy of Decker Press at Western University):

[1] / [2] / [3] / [4] / [5] / [6] / [7] / [8] / [9] / [10] / [11] / [12] / [13] / [14] / [15] / [16] / [17]

Awakening And Other Poems is a miniature book that contains a collection of free verse poems. It was originally published in March 1933 and reissued in 1961 as a miniature book. The book sold out in three weeks. Its title poem, "Awakening," opens with an awakening to love, “Born in the pages of letters/ Nursed by strong sweet words/ Reared in the vast expanse of two/ wild animals/.” It ends with, “our world will always be…for/ Our love belongs to the Infinite…/.” It provides a unique reflection about human emotions. Other poems in the book reflect of everything from social disorder to characterizations of people the author wrote about.

[1] / [2] /[3]

Living the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist And Poets, ed. John Edgar Tidwell, was printed 15 years after Davis died in 2002. It tells the life story of Frank Marshall Davis and served as proof that he was here. The book provides readers with an opportunity to rediscover Frank Marshall Davis as a  contemporary of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. It also sheds light on what it was like for him to be an African American poet and journalist in the United States. His directness was both refreshing and risky for him because of his "race." Davis was an advocate for a society where no race is inferior or superior to the other. He became disenfranchised by the racial incongruities he was forced to live with in the United States. His memoirs record his childhood experiences as well as his work as a jazz history teacher, a journalist and a poet. Davis was also an active part of the civil rights movement. This book is an effort to dissipate some of the mystery surrounding the life and work of this once prominent African American.

Black Moods, ed. John Edgar Tidwell, includes a collection of poems from Black Man’s Verse (1935), I Am the American Negro (1937), 47th Street: Poems (1948) and some of Marshall's uncollected and unpublished poems. It also provides a wonderful overview of his style, his vision, and his convictions. Marshall speaks out on subjects that are often hard to face, including civil rights issues, racism and insights into the world of the American Negro.

Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press, ed. John Edgar Tidwell, focuses on the author's vision and insight on social issues and his use of the media to express it. Davis sought to transform America’s thinking through his writings. It reveals his keen interest in jazz and his longing for a true unity of the American culture where its entire membership enjoys full citizenship. He also reveals his realistic viewpoint. Davis said, “I long for the day when there will be no color distinction in America. But this goal can be reached only a step at a time….When it becomes commonplace instead of an oddity to see sepia and ofay musicians side by side on the same bandstand, it will mark another milestone in our fight for recognition as full-fledged American citizens” (41). His work reveals how the literary field can work to disassemble the structure of America’s political machine


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Writing Samples  
 

Davis wrote this poem about Hawaii:

"This Is Paradise"

He also wrote the following Poems:

"Finding"

"Four Glimpses of Night"


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Interviews About the Author

 
 

Q: John Edgar Tidwell, associate professor of English at Kansas State University, edited Davis' last three books and made the following statement when asked why Davis became interested in writing.

A: Frank Marshall Davis started writing because he thought he was taking the easy assignment choice. His professor liked the poem he turned in and asked him if he had anymore and he went off to write them.

In the foreword of 47TH STREET, the author comments on race...

“Frankly, I should like to see the term, race, cast out of our language. The word itself, because of its implications, is a barrier to the smooth relationships between individuals and groups.”

Davis talks about almost being lynched when he was five years old...

Lynching


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