Literary inquiry explores legacy of poet, journalist Frank Marshall Davis

Frank Marshall Davis at his Paradise Paper Company in Honolulu, 1959. Credit: Courtesy of the John Edgar Tidwell Collection on Davis, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Photographer unknown.

LAWRENCE – Frank Marshall Davis was virtually lost to the canon of African American poets when he left the 48 contiguous states for the Territory of Hawaii in 1948. Twenty-five years later, he would be discovered and brought back to the mainland to an appreciative audience of students at several historically Black colleges and universities. In new work, a University of Kansas professor emeritus of English maintains that the time is right for rediscovering Davis again.

At the invitation of the prestigious Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, John Edgar Tidwell assembled a portfolio on Davis. It consists of Tidwell’s essay “Weaving Jagged Words into Song,” an excerpt of a long interview he conducted with Davis, a sheaf of Davis’ poetry, photographs of Davis and a remembrance of Davis by his daughter Beth Charlton.

Although separated by generations, both Davis and Tidwell were both born and reared in southern Kansas: Davis in Arkansas City and Tidwell in Independence. Tidwell’s lengthy essay on Davis for The Dictionary of Literary Biography propelled him on the path to editing Davis’ memoirs, his collected poems and a selection of his news writing.

A consistent theme in Davis’ journalism – he wrote for the African American press in the mid-20th century — and a fair share of his poetry is the writer’s responsibility to engage social issues. But this doesn’t mean being strident, propagandistic or declamatory. Instead, as he described himself: “Since I am blues-oriented, I try to be as direct as good blues. This implies social commentary.”

His characterization often confounded and confused his critics. They seemed unable to separate his leftist politics from his vision of art, Tidwell said. Consequently, they branded him as “unpoetic” or “bitter.” But, as Tidwell wrote, “Davis found interesting ways of weaving jagged words into song.”

It was probably this quality that endeared him to the younger generation of students and insurgent writers who embraced the tenets of the 1970s Black Arts Movement, Tidwell said. They saw in Davis’ poetry precursors of their ideas about an aesthetic committed to transforming Black cultural norms and perceptions into a more dignified racial representation. “Black Man’s Verse,” Davis’ first collection of poems, was inspirational in that respect. Seeing him as a literary forefather, they discovered, offered a broader perspective of their project. Instead of inaugurating a decidedly new approach to art, they now understood they were part of a continuing historical narrative.

Davis was not always so highly regarded. A few writers attempted to distort his background into a negative representation. For example, as he was about to leave Hawaii for undergraduate study in California, young Barack Obama, then called “Barry,” sought advice from Davis about the politics of racial identity. Obama detractors would later draw upon Davis’ 1940s closet membership in the Communist Party to misrepresent this inquiry as an occasion for communist mentoring.

Others would offer the baseless claim that Davis was actually Obama’s father. While neither assertion was true, both gained currency and were widely discussed as if they were credible.

“Given the political environment in which we now live,” Tidwell said, “Davis’ art and imagination are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s and 1970s. Davis engaged public discourse and public politics in enlightening ways.  

“Today, we see a resurgence of social practices that defined the era of Jim Crow. Voter suppression, the erosion of personal liberties, anti-immigration campaigns and much more have launched assaults on our very personhood. If the past has anything to teach us, we can learn from Frank Marshall Davis’ efforts to reclaim our humanity from those who would seek to deny us.”

Image: Frank Marshall Davis at his Paradise Paper Company in Honolulu, 1959. Credit: Courtesy of the John Edgar Tidwell Collection on Davis, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Photographer unknown.

Mon, 12/18/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service