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Growing Up Frank
FRANK MARSHALL DAVISwas born on December 31, 1905. He grew up in Arkansas City, Kansas, which he described as a “yawn town fifty miles south of Wichita, five miles north of Oklahoma, and east and west of nowhere worth remembering.”1That was a charitable description, given the racism he endured in that little town.
In his memoirs, Frank began by taking readers back to his high-school graduation on a “soft night in late spring, 1923.” He was six feet one and 190 pounds at age seventeen, but “I feel more like one foot six; for I am black, and inferiority has been hammered into me at school and in my daily life from home.” He and three other black boys “conspicuously float in this sea of white kids,” the four of them the most blacks ever in one graduating class. “There are no black girls,” wrote Frank. “Who needs a diploma to wash clothes and cook in white kitchens?”2
Frank was rightly indignant at this “hellhole of inferiority.” He said that he and his fellow “Negroes reared in Dixie” were considered “the scum of the nation,” whose high-school education “has prepared us only to exist at a low level within the degrading status quo.” And even the education they acquired was often belittling. “My white classmates and I learned from our textbooks that my ancestors were naked savages,” said Frank, “exposed for the first time to uplifting civilization when slave traders brought them from the jungles of Africa to America. Had not their kindly white masters granted these primitive heathens the chance to save their souls by becoming Christians?”3
Frank would one day rise above the degrading status quo. For now, he lamented that he himself had fallen victim to this “brainwashing,” and “ran spiritually with the racist white herd, a pitiful black tag-a-long.”4
As Frank surveyed the sea of white classmates that soft spring evening, he was glad to know it would be the last time he would be with them. He could think of only three or four white boys who had treated him as an equal and a friend, and whom he cared to remember.5
One moment that was unforgettably seared into his soul was an incident when he was five years old. An innocent boy, Frank was walking home across a vacant lot when two third-grade thugs jumped him, tossed him to the ground, and slipped a noose over his neck. He kicked and screamed as the two devils prepared, in Frank’s words, “their own junior necktie party.” They were trying to lynch little Frank Marshall Davis.6
As the noose tightened, a white man heroically appeared, chasing away the two savages, freeing Frank, brushing the dirt from his clothes. He walked little Frank nearly a mile home, then simply turned around and went about his business. Frank never learned the man’s identity.7
Imagine if that kindly man could have known that that “Negro” boy he shepherded home would one day help mentor the first black president of the United States. It is a moving thought, one that cannot help but elicit the most heartfelt sympathy for Frank, even in the face of his later political transgressions.
Frank’s parents apparently informed the school of the attempted lynching, but school officials did not bother. “I was still alive and unharmed, wasn’t I?” scoffed Frank. “Besides, I was black.”
Frank rose above the jackboot of this repression, assuring the world that this was one young black man who would not be tied down. He enrolled in college, first attending Friends University in Wichita, before transferring to Kansas State University in Manhattan.8At Kansas State from 1924 to 1926, Frank majored in journalism and practiced writing poetry, impressing students and faculty alike.
These colleagues were almost universally white. To their credit, some of them saw in Frank a writing talent and were eager to help.
Of course, that upturn did not end the racism in Frank’s life. Another ugly incident occurred in a return home during college break.9
A promising young man, Frank was working at a pool hall, trying to save money to put himself through school. It was midnight, and he was walking home alone. A black sedan slowly approached him. Out of the lowered window came a redneck voice: “Where’n hell you goin’ this time of night?”
Frank warily glanced over and saw two white men in the front seat and another in the back. Worried, he asked why it was their business.
“Don’t get smart, boy. We’re police,” snapped one of them, flashing a badge slightly above his holstered pistol. “I’m police chief here. Now, what th’ hell you doing in this neighborhood this time of night?”
A frightened Frank explained that this was his neighborhood. He had lived there for years, was home on college break, and was simply walking home from work.
“Yeah?” barked the chief. “Well, you git your black ass in the car with us. A white lady on th’ next street over phoned there was somebody prowling around her yard.”
Frank asked, “Am I supposed to fit the description?”
The chief found Frank’s question haughty: “Shut up an’ git in the car!”
They delivered Frank to the woman’s doorstep. “Ain’t this him?” said the hopeful chief.
The woman quickly said it was not. Frank looked nothing at all like the man she had spotted.
“Are you sure?” pushed the chief. “Maybe you made a mistake.”
The lady insisted that Frank was not the suspect, to the lawman’s great disappointment.
Frank suspected that the chief was keenly disappointed not to have the opportunity to work him over. “It wasn’t everyday they had a chance to whip a big black nigger,” said Frank, “and a college nigger at that.”
The chief told Frank to get back in the car, where he began interrogating him again, even though Frank was fully exonerated. The chief was not relenting. He was looking for blood.
“Where do you live?” the chief continued. Frank stated his address. The chief turned to his buddies: “I didn’t know any damn niggers lived in this part of town, did you?” One of the officers replied: “There’s a darky family livin’ down here somewhere.”
Frank was utterly helpless, at the mercy of men with badges and guns and “the law” behind them. He boiled inside, but could do nothing. He later wrote: “At that moment I would have given twenty years off my life had I been able to bind all three together, throw them motionless on the ground in front of me, and for a whole hour piss in their faces.”
Frank escaped this incident physically unharmed, released to his home by the police. But he was hardly unscathed. Such injustice understandably fueled a lifelong resentment.
Frank’s upbringing, as told through his memoirs, is gripping. His writing is witty, engaging, sarcastic, at times delightful, leaving it hard not to like Frank, or at least be entertained by him. But the wonderful passages are tempered by Frank’s numerous ethnic slurs, mostly aimed in a self-deprecating manner at himself and his people, but also directed at others, such as “the Spanish Jew” (never named) whose restaurant he frequented in Atlanta, and, worst of all, by the many sexually explicit passages. One can see in Frank’s memoirs the author ofSex Rebel, and one can see a lot of sexism, with Frank making constant graphic references to women’s private parts (with vulgar slang terms) and referring to women as everything from “white chicks” to “a jane” to a “luscious ripened plum,” just for starters.10In his memoirs, Frank devoted an inordinate amount of space to his sexual encounters.Sex Rebelmust have been his chance to more fully indulge his lurid obsessions.
• • •
Of course, Frank also invested his writing talent in noble purposes: advancing civil rights by chronicling the persecutions of a black man. Interestingly, to that end, Frank’s memoirs are remarkably similar to Barack Obama’s memoirs; the running thread being the racial struggles of a young black man in America.
Frank’s memoirs reveal an often bitter man, one who had suffered the spear of racial persecution. His contempt for his culture and society also led to a low view of America. When America is acknowledged in his memoirs, it is not a pretty portrait: “The United States was the only slaveholding nation in the New World that completely dehumanized Africans by considering them as chattel, placing them in the same category as horses, cattle, and furniture.” That attitude, wrote Frank, was still held by too many American whites.11Thus, his hometown of Arkansas City was “no better or worse than a thousand other places under the Stars and Stripes.”12
Again, that bitterness is understandable, a toxic by-product of the evil doings of Frank’s tormentors. Yet what is unfortunate about Frank’s narrative is the lack of concession, smothered (as it was) by resentment, that this same America, no matter the sins of its children, still provided the freedom for Frank to pull himself up and achieve remarkable things, which are manifest as one reads his memoirs.
We also find in those memoirs a resentfulness of religion and God. Frank had been raised by Baptist parents and taught the power of prayer “from infancy.” But he felt he did not see results. When blacks were massacred in riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Frank knelt at his bedside and “prayed for retribution.” When nothing happened to the perpetrators (at least in this world), he was puzzled. The results were the same when a young black mother in the South was burned at the stake while the white mob laughed at her cries. Frank again prayed for divine retribution. “I became deeply depressed,” said Frank, “feeling that God had somehow let me down.”13
Frank was also angry at how every picture he had seen portrayed a white Jesus, “usually blonde,” and a blackened devil. If this was so, pondered the young Frank, what could he expect as a black man? He asked himself: Why would a “white Lord” punish his own white, ethnic brothers?14
For Frank, this childlike misinterpretation was “tiny at first” but snowballed. He suspected that the Christian religion was a “device” to keep blacks subservient to whites. “Very well,” scoffed Frank. “Then I was through with it.”15
To the contrary, Frank’s black contemporaries, and the generation of slaves who recently preceded them, understood the culprit not as God but as men, not a bad Christian religion but bad Christians. Professor Gary Smith, author of an Oxford University Press book on views of heaven, states that black slaves viewed heaven as “the very negation of slavery,” a place where they would finally experience the dignity and worth denied on earth. “Admission to heaven would validate their humanity,” writes Smith. “Although masters and many other whites defined them as uncivilized brutes or mere commodities, in God’s eyes they were valuable, precious human beings for whom His Son died.” Smith adds that “many blacks looked forward to heavenly bliss and compensation and divine retribution for their suffering.”16
There was more to Frank’s rejection of God. His grandfather was agnostic, and those seeds, when mixed with Frank’s unanswered prayers for retribution, “fell in welcoming soil.” (As a parallel to Barack Obama,Newsweekdescribed Obama’s grandfather as a “lapsed Christian” who likewise did not nurture in him a Christian belief system, nor did Obama’s grandmother or mother,17with the grandparents at best attending a Unitarian Church known among locals as “The Little Red Church on the Hill.”18) Frank said that his grandfather “converted me almost immediately.”19He was easy prey.
Frank began haunting the recesses of the Wichita Public Library, where he imbibed the anti-God writings of agnostics and atheists. This was a pivotal period. By then, Frank was not an immature five-year-old with childlike questions but an eighteen-year-old becoming a man. His break from Jesus Christ was intellectually reinforced.20
Overall, Frank said he did not forever physically desert churches, always seeing them as valuable social centers for black Americans who needed them and for addressing problems of everyday living.21Did he become a lifelong committed agnostic or atheist? He does not clarify in his memoirs, though he clearly rejected the Christian faith at one point. And as we shall see in his writings in the 1940s and 1950s, he would take pointed jabs at Christians for their supposedsinsof anticommunism and anti-Sovietism.
Indeed, significantly, among the rancid fruits of this separation from Christianity may have been communism. Herein might be seeds of Frank’s eventual turn to Marxism-Leninism, a totalitarian ideology and god that failed, that shackled human freedom to an unparalleled degree. It was President Harry Truman, Frank’s eventual nemesis, who remarked that “the seeds of totalitarian regimes” are nurtured by “misery and want.” Those seeds “grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife”—of which there was plenty in Frank’s life—and “reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died.”22
This was Truman’s rationale for the benevolent Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, which Frank vilified in his columns. So abiding was Frank’s opposition to the Marshall Plan that one of the few foreign-policy assessments in his memoirs is his open acknowledgment that he adamantly rejected the Marshall Plan, which he characterized (outlandishly) as a weapon that Truman “aimed directly at the Soviets.”23Yes, even three or four decades after all the hell that Stalin unleashed after World War II, Frank, in his memoirs, was still convinced that Truman, not Stalin, had spoiled the opportunity for a postwar peace.24
But that would come much later. For now, in the 1920s, Frank Marshall Davis was still trying to find himself in this challenging, often cruel world.
CHICAGO—THE FIRST TIME
For about two and a half years in college, Frank worked toward a journalism degree. In those days, however, a college degree was secondary to the training, and Frank would never get a diploma. Young folks did not go to college to party. Frank, like many of his generation, scrapped and scraped to cobble together enough dollars to stay in school long enough to learn a trade, to better himself. He was already writing and impressing his professors, who happily recommended him to newspapers and magazines.
Frank’s personal life also underwent turmoil. His mother died in the summer of 1926 from a ruptured appendix not treated quickly. She had divorced in 1906, shortly after Frank’s birth, remarrying in 1909. Frank, the twenty-year-old blooming poet, was very philosophical about her death. He described it poetically as a “parting, a period to the sentence, an ending of the chapter, and a final closing of the book.” He might be sickened, incensed, horrified at how death comes, but not death itself. There is no way to escape death, he ruminated, so “why weep” at this “eventual rendezvous with this finality?”25
So, in 1927, after unsuccessfully looking for writing jobs in Kansas, and as his family bonds severed, Frank sought meaning in Chicago, where—like Obama later—his fledgling career took root.
Frank loved Chicago, finding an acceptance as a black man denied to him in Arkansas City. In his memoirs, he detailed the city vividly, excitedly, particularly his first walk down State Street, with the sweet sounds of jazz emanating from building after building. These scenes are among the most joyous and captivating in Frank’s memoir, as he recounts his arrival beautifully and at greater length than any other part of his book. Frank was entranced by Chicago, and entrances others in his characterization. The poet so adored Chicago that he put his love to verse, writing his first long poem on the Windy City.26
• • •
Frank did not have much experience in journalism, though he had more than most black journalists. He counted himself among the most “professionally trained” (by college education) aspiring black journalists in America. He sought out black newspapers in particular, which, as Frank noted, at that time were almost all Republican.27In those days, black Americans overwhelming identified with the GOP, the “party of Lincoln.” As Frank noted, not until FDR did this party identification begin to change. Frank himself supported Republican presidential candidates in the 1930s.
Here in Chicago, from 1927 to 1929, Frank launched his career as a professional writer, composing poems and submitting short stories in outlets ranging fromNational Magazineto the Associated Negro Press. He relished the work, calling it “journalitis.” In 1927, he secured a full-time post with the ChicagoEvening Bulletin, a publication he and several other enterprising black journalists launched together, and at a “very good salary” of thirty-five dollars per week. Unfortunately, theEvening Bulletinwas a struggle, and it “expired” after only several months, folding up in October 1927.28
Here we see an entrepreneurial Frank, another admirable trait that never left him. Frank always worked very hard, busted his rear end, picked himself up again and again. He was the quintessential hardworking American who made his own opportunities, even when the deck was stacked against him. His personal ethic and undeterred individualism were the embodiment of everything communism was not.
Even as theEvening Bulletinsuccumbed, it was an invaluable experience, and Frank continued to look for steady work. Over the next two years, he wrote for (among others) theChicago Whipand theGary Americanin nearby Gary, Indiana. In August 1929, he left theGary Americanto return to Kansas State University on a scholarship. Torn between returning to college and returning to theGary American, and alternately doing both, Frank eventually heeded a call, ironically, back in the Jim Crow South—in Atlanta.29
It would be in Atlanta that the political Frank began taking form. He would not be there long, eventually returning to Chicago, but long enough to change the course of his political life and philosophy forever.