Frank Marshall Davis Speaks

Frank Marshall Davis Speaks


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In the hope of obtaining a little eating money, I hacked out a second short

story with The Light and Heebie Jeebies in mind and took it forthwith

to Percival Prattis, the owlish looking editor who was also responsible

for getting out Associated Negro Press releases.



Books by  Frank Marshall Davis


Livin’ The Blues:Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet  / Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press


Black Moods: Collected Poems


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Livin’ The Blues

Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet

By Frank Marshall Davis

Edited by John Edgar Tidwell

*   *   *   *   *


Oh yes, Chicago was quite a town.

By contrast with the raw, savage strength of Chicago, I looked upon New York, as a slick sissy although I had never been there

I, of course, was aware of the Harlem Literary Renaissance of the early 1920s, I had read Cal Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, some of the short stories of Rudolph Fisher and Jean Toomer, and the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. I had heard of Claude McKay at Kansas State; he attended there for a brief period after coming from the West Indies. But other than Fenton Johnson, I knew of no black bards in the Windy City. I had read and reread the work of Carl Sandburg whom I considered the nation’s greatest poet, the Edgar Lee Masters of Spoon River Anthology fame, and the jazzlike rhythms of Vachel Lindsay, although I did not like his chauvinism. I did not not identify with those I considered Eastern writers.

But I could find only the first weak contractions of a movement which might later give birth to literary creativity on the South Side. There was no contact with the white writers of that period; our worlds were still separate. I recall an abortive attempt to start a writer’s group back in 1927. Fenton Johnson, a small, dark brown, very retiring man who had been one of the pioneers in the free verse revolution of the previous decade, was among those attending. Lucia Mae Pitts, a young woman showing real promise in this field, and Barfield Gordon, a University of Chicago student who wrote very proper sonnets and was an uncle of Frank Yerby, who had not yet started writing, were two others.

But the dominant figure was a dapper, graying man known as Judge Moore who had the most caustic tongue I have ever heard. He gloried in shooting his opinions like napalm. Nothing pleased him except possibly his own work. Nobody dared criticize his mediocre efforts for fear of being orally annihilated. I never read anything before this assemblage. I think it burned itself to death through a blaze set by Judge Moore’s tongue.

In the main I had to depend on myself, and I had plenty of time to write. you know, starving poet in a great garret turning out deathless literature. But how could a two-hundred pounder convince anybody he was starving?

This lack of communication between poets, and the realization there was nothing in Chicago even remotely resembling the Harlem Renaissance firmed my ambition to do for the Windy City in verse what others had done for Harlem. I felt there were all kinds of materials shouting for attention. if ever I became well known, I intended that it be for my portraits of the South side. In order not to come under the influence of mighty Gotham, I have in my life spent less than a week in New York, and that was in 1943. It was some ten years after I arrived in Chicago, before I established any significant relationships with white Chicago writers.

I also so learned in 1927 of a group called the Inter-Collegiate Club composed of current and recent college students. I joined. The president was a smooth young man named Frederick H. Hammarubi Robb, who today would undoubtedly be a leading black activist; as it was he got into trouble with Uncle Sam during World War II for aiding the Black Dragon Society of Japan. The club was preparing an ambitious yearbook intended to reflect all spheres of black achievement in the metropolitan area. When it became known that verse of mine had appeared in the Crisis magazine, I was asked to contribute several poems. The results were a disaster. Either the printer suffered from temporary insanity or the proofreader stepped out when my copy appeared, for the published results were such a jumble of pied type that they made Gertrude Stein seem as clear as a first-grade teacher.

Nevertheless, I wrote my first long poem during this period, an effort which years later resulted in a close association with the most fantastic woman I have ever met.

Chicago’s Congo

(Sonata for an Orchestra)

Chicago is an overgrown woman

         wearing her skyscrapers

         like a necklace

Chicago’s blood is kaleidoscopic

Chicago’s heart has a hundred auricles

*   *   *

                                                       From the Congo

                                                       to Chicago

                                                       is a long trek

                                                       —as the crow flies

Sing to me of a red warrior moon victorious in a Congo sky

        . . . show me a round dollar moon in the ragged blue purse

        of Chicago’s heavens . . . tell me of a hundred spoil laden

        blacks tramping home from the raid . . . point me out a

        hundred brown men riding the elevated home on payday . . .

        pick me the winners . . . in Chicago? . . . in the Chicago?


Skyscraper pinnacles rip great holes in the rubber balloon

        bag of the sky . . . do spears kill quicker than printed words?

        . . . midnight lies and cobra fangs . . . ask me if civilization

        produces new forms of biting and tearing and killing . . .

        see three million whites and two hundred thousand blacks

        civilized in Chicago


                                                       From the Congo

                                                       to Chicago

                                                       is a long trek

                                                       —as the crow flies

*   *   *

I’m a grown-up man today in Chicago

My bones are thick and stout

         (when I move to new districts bombings

         couldn’t break them)

My flesh is smooth and firm

        (look—the wounds you give me heal quickly)

See how the muscles ripple under my night-black skin

My strength comes not from resting

You should be proud of me Chicago

I’ve got a lion’s heart and a six-shooter

I’ve got a fighter’s fist and five newspapers

I’ve got an eye for beauty and another for cash

Nothing you’ve got I can’t have


A song dashes its rhythms in my face like April rain

My song is a song of steel and bamboo, of brick flats and

        reed huts, of steamboats and slim canoes, of murder

        trials and jackal packs, of con men and pythons

My tune I get from automobiles and lions roaring, from the

        rustle of bank notes in a teller’s window and the rustle

        of leaves in Transvaal trees

I ask you to find a better song, a louder song, a sweeter


Here’s something Wagner couldn’t do


State Street is a wide gray band across Chicago’s forehead

At night a white face mother moon clothes skyscrapers in

        gray silk

At night when clocks yawn and hours get lazy

At night when the jungle’s a symphony in grays . . .

Oh mother moon, mother of earth, bringer of silver gifts

Bring a veil of stardust to wrap this Congo in

Bring a shawl of moonmist to clothe Chicago’s body


*   *   *

Between the covers of books lie the bones of yesterdays

Today is a new dollar


My city is money mad


*   *   *

Across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist church

        women with cast-iron faces peddle love

In the flat above William Funeral Home

        six couples sway to the St. Louis blues

Two doors away from the South Side Bank

        three penny-brown men scorch their guts with

        four bit whiskey

Dr. Jackson buys a Lincoln

His neighbor buys second hand shoes

        —the artist who paints this town must

        use a checkered canvas . . .


Tired looking houses of brown stone

Ramshackle flats with sightless eyes

A surface car throws a handful of white sparks at cracked

        red bricks

An L train roars oaths at backyard clotheslines

Mornings on South Parkway flats sit like silent cats watching

        the little green mice of buses running up and down

        the boulevard

And only grass has heard the secrets of vacant lots


*   *   *

This song has no tune. You cannot hum it.

This song has no words. you cannot sing it.

This song everybody knows, nobody knows.

It is in a pattern of brown faces at the Wabash Y.M.C.A.,

        a 35th Street gambling place, a parkway theatre

        —you get it or you don’t

It is a melody of everything and nothing


I saw twelve stars sitting along the edge of a four-story flat

I saw a moon held by leaflets tree fingers

I heard a shot tear huge holes in the blanket of silence

Later—just a little later—the moon got away and

        the stars stepped back into the sky


There will always be new wordless songs, new harmless tunes

Chicago sings these songs each day

Chicago who wears her skyscrapers like a necklace . . .

However, the bulk of my writing was for bread and beans, translated, that means I prepared articles for use in the National Magazine when and if it ever appeared. Henry Brown illustrated some of the material. And I wrote my first short story which Perry pounced on and filed.

In the hope of obtaining a little eating money, I hacked out a second short story with The Light and Heebie Jeebies in mind and took it forthwith to Percival Prattis, the owlish looking editor who was also responsible for getting out Associated Negro Press releases.

ANP, operated by Claude Barnett, a suave, six foot five, slender, and resourceful man with a quiet way and big feet, was located in a small, crowded office only a few doors from the Defender, but so far as Robert Sengstacke Abbott was concerned it didn’t exist. There was no official relationship between ANP, the standard news gathering and distributing agency for the nation’s soul sheets, and the Defender which scorned any affiliation. This condition existed until Abbott died some years later. . . .

I was in Gary only a short time before I wrote this poem:


Gary, Indiana


In Gary

The Mills


on ore and men . . .


Like potbellied hoboes

the mills snore

lying face upward

on the north horizon

their breath

like winter exhalation

fogs redly

the night sky

capers madly

on a black stage


their stomachs filled

with ore

and men



they’ll hit the road tomorrow

if the food runs low


The mills are always hungry

what a beast

they make steel in their bellies

it’s hard to tell

men from steel


To the south

the town

squats on sand—

a lanky woman

the steel mills’



A hundred thousand people

Europe in America

Africa in Indiana

an extension of Mexico

the Orient transplanted

another Babel

all different

all alike

steel faced men

iron featured women

and plenty of women

for the steel faced men


A mayor


and a city council

and officials

and graft


and banks

and stores

and places

they eat the crumbs

the hoboes drop

and grow potbellies



now and then

in the town

in hoboes

get indigestion

now and then

and don’t feast

on ore and men



old judge Gary

knew his stuff . . .

Source: Livin’ The Blues:Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet (1992). By Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987). Edited by John Edgar Tidwell. The University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 130-135; 157-159

posted 13 May 2006

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P.B. Young, Newspaperman

Race, Politics, and Journalism in the New South, 1910-1962

By Henry Lewis Suggs

P.B. Young, the son of a former slave, published the Norfolk Journal and Guide , a black weekly, for more than 50 years, until his death in 1962. From a circulation of a few hundred in 1909 to a circulation of 75,000 during the 1950s, the Guide became the largest press in the South. This book explores P.B. Young’s personal history and charts his positions on a variety of social issues.

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*   *   *   *   *

A History of the Black Press By Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II

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*   *   *   *   *

Writings of Frank Marshall Davis

A Voice of the Black Press

Edited by John Edgar Tidwell

Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987) was a central figure in the black press, working as reporter and editor for the Atlanta World, the Associated Negro Press, the Chicago Star, and the Honolulu Record. Writings of Frank Marshall Davis presents a selection of Davis’s nonfiction, providing an unprecedented insight into one journalist’s ability to reset the terms of public conversation and frame the news to open up debate among African Americans and all Americans.  During the middle of the twentieth century, Davis set forth a radical vision that challenged the status quo. His commentary on race relations, music, literature, and American culture was precise, impassioned, and engaged. At the height of World War II, Davis boldly questioned the nature of America’s potential postwar relations and what they meant for African Americans and the nation. His work challenged the usefulness of race as a social construct, and he eventually disavowed the idea of race altogether. Throughout his career, he championed the struggles of African Americans for equal rights and laboring people seeking fair wages and other benefits.

In his reviews on music, he argued that blues and jazz were responses to social conditions and served as weapons of racial integration. His book reviews complemented his radical vision by commenting on how literature reshapes one’s understanding of the world. Even his travel writings on Hawaii called for cultural pluralism and tolerance for racial and economic difference. Writings of Frank Marshall Davis reveals a writer in touch with the most salient issues defining his era and his desire to insert them into the public sphere. John Edgar Tidwell provides an introduction and contextual notes on each major subject area Davis explored.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


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update 8 June 2012




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