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Frank Marshall Davis. Black Moods: Collected Poems.

Urbana: U of Illinois P. 2002. 275 pp. $29.95.

Thanks to the meticulous research and dedicated efforts of John Edgar Tidwell, the works of reporter, columnist, editor, critic, political activist, and poet Frank Marshall Davis have now entered their third life. The first life spanned the years 1927 through 1948, as Davis's work as a journalist propelled him from Chicago to Gary, Indiana, to Atlanta and back to Chicago--publishing between 1935 and 1948 four volumes of poetry that secured his reputation as a radical poet with a distinctive voice and an uncompromising vision. The second followed a twenty-five-year hiatus during which Davis left the American mainland and moved to Hawaii in 1948, living in relative obscurity until he was "rediscovered" by some of the older figures associated with the Black Arts Movement--notably Margaret Burroughs, Dudley Randall, and Stephen Henderson--and celebrated as one of the pioneering figures of modern black poetry through a series of readings across the country in 1973. Davis's third life, signaled by the 1992 publication of his memoir, Livin' the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet, also edited by Tidwell, now culminates with Black Moods, a collection of all of his extant published poems as well as previously unpublished work.

Tidwell's detailed chronology and introduction firmly bracket Davis between the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s and the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. More specifically, however, Tidwell locates Davis's social and political outlook squarely within the left--like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and so many other African American writers, artists, and intellectuals who embraced leftist causes during this era. In Davis's case, his political commitments led him to join the American Communist Party during the middle of World War II--even though he never publicly admitted his Party membership.

Like other contemporary scholars and critics who are engaged in the ongoing project of recovering the literary, cultural, and political legacy of the 1930s and the Popular Front, Tidwell is faced with the challenge of retrieving Davis's literary reputation from the accusations routinely made about socially and politically committed poetry--specifically the charge that Davis's poetry is "bitter," "propagandistic," and "undifferentiated." Tidwell argues for a more nuanced reading of his poems and a greater respect for the poetry's complexity and range; and this is an easy argument to make, since many of the poems collected here have proven to be remarkably durable--and reveal a much wider variety than the handful of poems that have been routinely anthologized as examples of Davis's work.

Beginning with the publication of Black Man's Verse in 1935, Davis quickly distinguished himself as a sharp--some critics would say "strident"--critic of the American racial status quo and an astute observer of African American urban life, particularly in his adopted city of Chicago, who interwove contemporary commentary with invocations of the epic sweep of black history. Writing in a strong, assertive, declamatory voice, uncompromising in his racial pride, Davis often leavened his poems with flashes of lyricism as well as with wit and mordant satire--as in the sequence of poems entitled "Ebony Under Satire" that appeared in both Black Man's Verse and his second collection, I Am the American Negro. Tidwell's introduction provides a useful and insightful guide to both the continuities and shifts in political outlook that occurred between these two collections and the last collection Davis published before his "exile" in 1948, 47th Street: Poems. These collections, as well as a wide range of uncollected and collected poems--which Tidwell conveniently groups under the rubrics of "social verse," "jazz poems," "Hawaii," and "Lyrics of Love"--offer contemporary readers the full scope of a writer whose works clearly call out for closer attention.

With the publication of Black Moods, Tidwell calls not only for greater consideration for the inclusion of Frank Marshall Davis in the still-emerging canon of African American literature, but also for more searching analysis of the ongoing debates about art and politics that continue to shape our understanding of African American literary history. In this regard the publication of Black Moods is a cause for celebration; it adds another important building block to the ongoing project of retrieving a central legacy in twentieth-century African American writing.

James A. Miller

The George Washington University
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Author:Miller, James A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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