At key moments in his adolescence, Barack Obama could not turn to a father he hardly knew. Instead, he looked to a left-leaning black journalist and poet for advice on living in a world of black and white.
Frank Marshall Davis had his opinions. He once argued that the public schools of his youth prepared neither blacks nor whites for “life in a multiracial, democratic nation.” He called hypocrisy “a national trait of American whites.” Advocating civil rights amid segregation, Mr. Davis wrote in 1949: “I refuse to settle for anything less than all the rights which are due me under the Constitution.”
The depth of the influence of Mr. Davis on the presumptive Democratic nominee is a question. While Mr. Davis’ leftist politics could enable the candidate’s critics to group Mr. Davis with Obama friends and acquaintances with purportedly anti-American views, those who knew Mr. Davis and his work say his activism was aimed squarely at social injustice.
Mr. Obama’s father was a black man from Kenya and his mother a white Kansas woman. They separated when Mr. Obama was 2, and he saw his father just once after they divorced two years later. Raised with the help of his white grandparents, Mr. Obama attended school in his native Hawaii with few black peers. He struggled to find mentors in his search for a black identity.
His white grandfather, Stanley Dunham, was friends with Mr. Davis - both had roots reaching back to Kansas and had families of mixed races - and the black writer took an interest in Mr. Obama.
“Our grandfather - thought [Mr. Davis] was a point of connection, a bridge if you will, to the larger African-American experience for my brother,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half sister, said during a recent interview.
Although Mr. Davis does not appear to have been a constant figure in his early life, Mr. Obama in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” presents Mr. Davis - referred to in the book only as Frank - as an important influence who gave him advice about race and college.
A longtime journalist, Mr. Davis (1905-1987) was among a group of prominent black writers pushing for equal rights in the 1930s and ‘40s, before the civil rights movement gained momentum. He published several volumes of poetry and served as executive editor of the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for black newspapers, before leaving the mainland for Hawaii in 1948.
“Frank was part of a group of black vanguard intellectuals,” said Kathryn Takara, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii who wrote her doctoral dissertation about Mr. Davis. “The people that he came into contact with throughout his life, like Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, were very significant.”
As a young man in Kansas in the early part of the 20th century, Mr. Davis encountered segregation and racial epithets. In his memoir, “Livin’ the Blues,” Mr. Davis describes almost being lynched by a group of white schoolmates as a 5-year-old in Arkansas City, Kan.
“You could get a lot of strength from a person like Frank who had suffered all the discrimination … that a black man goes through in America,” said Ah Quon McElrath, a friend of Mr. Davis’ who lives in Honolulu.
In spite of his writings, Davis scholars dismiss the idea that he was anti-American.
John Edgar Tidwell, a University of Kansas professor who wrote the introduction to Mr. Davis’ memoir and edited a collection of his work, declined by e-mail an interview request, saying Mr. Davis has become the victim of a “McCarthy-era strategy of smear tactics and condemnation by association.”
In his introduction to “Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press,” Mr. Tidwell wrote of Mr. Davis and his later work: “He made his vision into a beacon, a light shedding understanding and enlightenment on the problems that denied people, regardless of race, national origin or economic status, their constitutional rights.”
For Mr. Obama, Mr. Davis was an intriguing figure, “with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes.”
Mr. Dunham and his grandson would spend evenings at Mr. Davis’ dilapidated home in Waikiki, Honolulu’s main tourist district. Mr. Davis, who had raised a family with a white wife, would read his poetry and share whiskey with Mr. Dunham, Mr. Obama recalled.
Mr. Obama, who would later leave a job as a financial researcher and writer to work as an organizer on Chicago’s South Side, wrote, “It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self.”