Frank Marshall Davis: A Forgotten Voice in the Chicago Black Renaissance

Article excerpt

Finding a Voice

The rebellious voices of Frank Marshall Davis (1907-87) and his contemporaries, who advocated themes of "cultural conservatorship, racial advancement and political protest" (Barnes, 53), and who explored the complexities of the black urban migration experience, creatively pressured black citizens of the era to revise their racial attitudes. By studying his voice, one sees how mid-western black journalism, culture, and activism remain a largely neglected yet critical site for exploring black agency in American post-Depression history.

This article examines Davis's aesthetic perceptions and sociopolitical analysis through an examination of his editorials and poetry written during the Chicago Black Renaissance (1930s-1940s), his seminal role in establishing black jazz criticism, and his joining of these works to political activism. The study of journalism and poetry is especially important to the understanding of black literary history because it reveals how the black intellectual's voice was forged in response to political and cultural movements. Finally, I will make the case for connective marginalities by showing how the black voice functions both as a tool for unity linking oppressed communities of the African diaspora, and a confrontational force linking the black community with the white, alternately using lyricism and satire (Tidwell, 1996, 74) to push for social reform.

Davis was a courageous agent of change from 1933, when he returned to Chicago from his two year job as editor of the Atlanta Daily World, until 1948, when he departed for the territory of Hawai'i. His empowerment as an intellectual developed from a multilayered experience including writing, radical political activism, interracial contacts, and labor struggles, which developed both because of, and despite, the forces of racism and discrimination prevalent in America. As a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist; as activist in both labor and Civil Rights; as poet; as a leader of the African American community; and as a man with a sharp social conscience, Davis embodied the many roles that African American intellectuals must juggle to survive.

Davis does not recede from a point of centrality in the Black Chicago Renaissance, as suggested by Lester and Tidwell in their Introduction to the Langston Hughes Review. Rather, he remains a pivotal figure in Chicago's political, labor, literary, jazz, and journalism history, and thus is an excellent case study for understanding black life as a social, geo-political, and cultural signifier. He remains an as yet understudied resource for understanding the Great Negro Migration to the urban Midwest. Like Fenton Johnson, another black poet, author, editor, and activist who spent most of his early life in Chicago, Davis experimented with literary form and themes, and "embraced the experimental versification, political dissent and racial consciousness" (Woolley, 36) in significant counterpoint to more mainstream canonical black writers, who limited their themes to the racial signifiers of poverty and urban despair. Davis affirmed his belief in American democracy even as he critiqued its shortcomings.

When Davis accepted a job in Chicago in 1932 with the Associated Negro Press (ANP), there was little work in the factories and slaughterhouses. African American workers who had gone North in search of work and equality had been displaced by whites, and European immigrants had largely replaced African Americans in the traditional service jobs--as garbage collectors, street and gutter cleaners, ditch diggers, barbers, and domestics. African Americans earned about one tenth of the wages of whites, provided they had work, and poverty exacerbated their marginalized status. In his poem "47th Street," Davis vividly describes the debilitating effects:

This street is a woman of bulging bust and ready hips Many scars cover her body, for the Depression was a cruel lover Her breath shouts of gin, for she and the taverns live as man and wife Speak to her softly, and she will tell of her dark children who have grown hard and strong as any others in this broad city from the thin milk of her brown breasts (2002, 115)

Economic problems were compounded by the fact that many African Americans from the South--tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and service personnel--decided to flee racist intimidation and migrate North, in search of better-paying jobs with benefits. …