Black journalist found success in old Hawaii
HISTORY is full of remarkable people unjustly forgotten. Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987) is among them. A respected poet of the later Harlem Renaissance, he was also a campaigning black journalist with strong left-wing views in the '40s and '50s, when "Red Blacks" were particularly demonized.
This might be the reason he moved permanently to tolerant, ethnically rich Honolulu in 1948 and became a well-known island journalist and political activist.
"Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press"
Edited by John Edgar Tidwell
(University Press of Mississippi)
221 pages, $40
Davis quickly identified with native Hawaiians and recorded with pleasure that they returned the compliment: "You black, me black, you my friend," an elderly Hawaiian tells him. "We black people got to stick together, huh?" Another one says, "You're kanaka, you. If any haole jump on you, you call me, I fight him. Mo' better I fight for my kanaka, huh?"
As this suggests, Davis' columns in the Honolulu Record, Chicago Evening Bulletin, Whip, Gary American and Atlanta Daily World were outspokenly committed to the plight of the underprivileged. He was often ahead of his time, condemning the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, predicting the hand-over of Hong Kong and the rise of industrialized China, and forecasting the modern civil rights movement.
He wrote in 1943: "There's no reason under the sun, why 13,000,000 people, the Negroes of America, can't agree on a workable program and walk together strongly to gain the things we want.
"We need this solidarity. Who'll take the lead in achieving it?" At the time, Martin Luther King Jr. was just 14 years old.
Davis' accomplishments as a poet and journalist are increasingly recognized today, thanks largely to the tireless work of his biographer, champion and editor, John Edgar Tidwell, professor of English at the University of Kansas.
"Writings of Frank Marshall Davis" is a neatly edited anthology of Davis' journalism over more than 40 years. The entries are grouped thematically rather than chronologically: music (Davis was an avid jazz fan), African-American literature, political commentary and, perhaps most interesting for Star-Bulletin readers, island life as he experienced it.
Davis loved Hawaii, "this rainbow land of beautiful color mixtures." He published a series of articles under the heading "Democracy, Hawaiian-style," containing observations that are acute and frequently amusing. Sometimes the rainbow gives way to "a land of ethnic hash" in which one might find "sizable prejudice against both Japanese and mainland whites."
He writes in 1949 that Hawaiians often manifest prejudices "more complex than those on the mainland, where feeling is directed primarily against Negroes and Jews."
More often, Davis' observations are simply thought-provoking. Local people are so good-looking, he says, that "a Caucasian girl has to be sensationally beautiful to get a play even from white boys." Richard Wright's "Native Son" (1940) is "the greatest novel yet by an American Negro."
Jazz is "tied up not only with the Negro's struggle for equality, but with the democratic aspirations of all other people."
Many of Davis' asides will elicit wry smiles from modern readers. Honolulu has high prices and a housing shortage. The Willard Hotel "is a tourist trap and costs you 10 bucks a day" (!). And finally, "If there is any animal which considers itself the lord of all creation, it is the white American tourist in a different land."
The more things change, the more they are the same.
is a published author, scholar in residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and adjunct professor of English at TransPacific Hawaii College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org