Who was Frank Marshall Davis, and what did he contribute to American literature?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frank Marshall Davis was a voice who was truly ahead of his time.  While that might sound cliche, when we analyze what Davis believed and what he did, it becomes clear that Frank Marshall Davis was a trendsetting pioneer in the field of sociology and understanding the social construction of race that envelops American society.

Growing up in Kansas, Davis was one of the first African- Americans to attend Kansas State University.  In his undergraduate course of study, Davis studied English literature and advanced his writing.  Accordingly, Davis settled in Chicago where he began writing for and working on African- American newspapers.  While he grew in his poetry, Davis took a job editing a biweekly newspaper in Atlanta, primarily designed for the growing African- American market, then moving back to Chicago to assume responsibility for the Associated Negro Press in the mid 1930s.  Davis's writing assumed a distinct sociological analysis in which he asserted that issues such as race and class had to be directly confronted.  Through his work, he began to pull other writers and thinkers into his mode of thought.  At the same time, Davis began to take a keen interest in photography, which interested fellow author Richard Wright, and recognized the potentially liberating condition of the sports world with his focus on the Louis vs. Schmeling fight.

It is from this where Davis becomes his most insightful in both thought and work.  In the late 1930s, Davis establishes a newspaper called The Star, and suggests that its purpose should be to "promote a policy of cooperation and unity between Russia and the United States."  Davis began to make the argument that issues such as class and race were actually social construction. Yet, these realities had to be actively confronted in order to ensure that they did not silence voice.  At a point in American History where few had the courage or insight to even propose such an argument, Davis was ahead of his time.  The Star  was meant to "[avoid] the red-baiting tendencies of the mainstream press" in advocating a dialogue that was all encompassing.  Davis believed that the issues of race and class went together in how both played a role in oppressing and silencing individual voice.  This made him a target of other publications and made Davis a figure of the national intelligence agencies, who monitored him.  He taught one of the first courses on Jazz, reflecting an insight and understanding into the genre that few others could even begin to comprehend.  Of this time period in his life, Davis wrote that ".. I worked with all kinds of groups. I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?"  This becomes one of his most significant legacies and contributions to American literature as he boldly identifies himself as a voice to stand for voice and against oppression in all forms.

Davis's contribution to American literature was the advocacy of voice in a time where so few did so.  Davis was keenly aware of the issues such as race and class that played vital roles in oppressing millions of people.  He sought to liberate these voices and transform the dialogue into one of progressive change.  Davis took unpopular stances, primarily because they were the right ones to take.  He undertook the starting of news organizations because he felt there was a need to disseminate information to many people. Davis wrote and articulated realities that other people were experiencing, never losing sight of his responsibility to transform the fabric of the social order around him.

paulaj67 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A quick research results in finding he was allegedly part of the Communist Party USA, and supposed role model / father figure to our current president, Barack Obama. 

His many contributions to American Literature include his poetic publication, Black Man's Verse (1935). He went on to write more poetry, but was considered a social realist to those who didn't share his perspective. One critic suggested his poetry shouldn't be exclusive to the "Black reader."

While one article states he was under FBI investigation for several years because of his propagandist behavior, the other indicates he moved to Hawaii to escape the racial bullying he experienced since childhood and to be "treated as a man instead of a Black curiosity," nurturing his feelings of dignity and respect.