The following article—by yours truly—first appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Des Moines Register on Wednesday, April 30, 2008. For a while, it was available online as well, but since those links have now expired, I'm making it available here.
Obama's Bitter Muse: Frank M. Davis
I was a weaver of jagged words
A warbler of garbled tunes
A singer of savage songs
I was bitter
Bitter and sorely sad
For when I wrote
I dipped my pen
In the crazy heart
Of mad America
—Frank Marshall Davis
Of the potential father figures in Barack Obama’s autobiography "Dreams from My Father," one of the first—and most mysterious—is a poet whom we only ever know as “Frank.”
"Dreams from My Father" credits Frank with being the sole older black man in Hawaii to take seriously the teenage Obama’s search for identity, and the poet thus becomes a major touchstone in Obama’s life. Nearly every time Obama reflects on his role models, the memory of Frank comes up.
When Obama first meets him, Frank is nearly 80 years old and living “in a dilapidated house in a run-down section of Waikiki.” The man with “a big, dewlapped face and an ill-kempt gray Afro that made him look like an old, shaggy-maned lion” read poetry to Obama, shared whiskey, and sometimes asked for help writing dirty limericks. And in that house “with its wobbly porch and low-pitched roof,” the two men separated by 60 years in age talked about the reality of racism in America. Those discussions—filled with Frank’s anger, warnings, and bitter realism—stay with Obama through the book.
“That’s the way it is,” Obama remembers Frank saying, “You might as well get used to it.”
It’s a strange withholding, in a book as candid as "Dreams from My Father," that Obama doesn’t reveal Frank’s full name, much less anything from his past. For Frank was in fact a real, published poet, and knowing more about him might help illuminate who Obama is now and his relationship to the past. It might also help explain Obama’s nigh-poetic capacity for “negative capability”—the term John Keats coined in 1817 to describe someone’s ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
“Frank” is Frank Marshall Davis, a poet, journalist, and activist.
Davis was born in Kansas in 1905 and died in Hawaii in 1987. He published four books of poems that are now collected and published by the University of Illinois Press as "Black Moods" (2002). Davis began writing poetry just after the Harlem Renaissance, but unlike Langston Hughes (also a Midwesterner), Davis didn’t move East. He worked as a journalist in Chicago’s Harlem, known as Bronzeville—the same south-side neighborhood Obama would represent as an Illinois state senator. Apparently, Davis felt equally at home writing poems as he did articles about bootlegging and Bronzeville politics.
Davis, who went on to edit the first successful daily black newspaper in U.S. history, also wrote an autobiography, "Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet" (1992). That autobiography begins with a harrowing story of how Davis was lynched by a group of white boys when he was 5. The bitterness stemming from that event hangs over the book, just as Frank’s bitterness echoes through Obama’s.
For Davis, there is no evading the impediment of Jim Crow violence and prejudice, and, because of this, "Livin’ the Blues" becomes something of an anti-Horatio Alger tale. At the same time, though, in the amount of spirit, music, humor, resilience, and creativity that Davis records in the face of racist impediments, Livin’ the Blues in some ways out-Algers Alger.
‘A Solitary Rebel’
Interestingly, anti-Obama crusaders know more about Davis (whom they call “Obama’s communist mentor”) than Obama’s own political party does. Like many individuals interested in combating American racism in the 1930s and 40s, Davis worked with people affiliated with the Communist Party. He was never a card-carrying member himself; in fact, in "Livin’ the Blues" he calls himself “a solitary rebel” who avoided joining any organization at all.
Nevertheless, the FBI assigned agents to track and harass Davis and his white wife when the two moved to Hawaii in 1949.
More interesting than Davis’ association with supposed communists is the fact that his life doesn’t, in fact, fit into the categories by which either the right or the left tend to operate. Davis, for example, was a Republican who voted against Roosevelt throughout the 1930s. He spoke as a heterosexual black man on behalf of gay rights. He openly linked Jewish and black experiences of oppression and raged against America’s hypocrisy as it fought Nazi Germany while maintaining a race-based caste system at home.
A Republican with Communist friends?
A journalist who wrote poetry?
Bitterness tempered by hope?
On the surface, it’s easy to see what Davis and Obama have in common; both were born in Kansas, both have families with mixed race marriages, both lived in Hawaii. That Obama would later represent the part of Chicago that Davis wrote about years before is suggestive as well.
Davis certainly was one role model for the young Obama. But Davis—even, or especially, in the specific bitterness he comes to represent in "Dreams from My Father"—may be Obama’s muse as well.