Lost voice from Golden Age of Bronzeville

Written By By HArry Mark Petrakis Posted: 01/25/2014, 02:10am
Array Langston Hughes, Horace Carton and Arna Bontemps in 1947 at the Parkway Community House.

Jay Mulberry, program director of the Hyde Park Historical Society, has called the 1940s on Chicago’s South Side the Golden Age of Bronzeville and the Chicago Black Renaissance.

Whatever the appellation, and though I was only a fringe player, I was witness to that flowering of creativity. Writers, artists and musicians gathered on the city’s South Side, meeting in basements and store-front enclaves to play jazz, paint, write, and debate topics from the poverty of urban neighborhoods to a fabled homeland in Africa.

The center of this cauldron of creative activity was the Parkway Community House run by a handsome, charismatic director named Horace Cayton. The center began in 1936 as an outreach program of the Good Shepherd Congregational Church. In 1941 it relocated into a magnificent but sorely-in-need-of-repair mansion at 51st and South Parkway (today Martin Luther King Drive). Parkway held classes and workshops in dance, drama, art and writing.

An aspiring writer-friend took me to Parkway for the first time and into the writing workshop of a teacher named Marjorie Peters. Marjorie had been a journalist living in Europe, writing for French newspapers. At the outbreak of war, she had returned to the U.S. and settled in Hyde Park.

Marjorie was a slender and gracious lady wearing a neck-high blouse and an ankle length skirt. I don’t recall what aspect of writing she taught that night, but I recall being impressed by her obvious empathy for struggling writers.

The Parkway House seethed with activity. In the various rooms and halls, dancers rocked, artists painted, and poets and novelists read their work.

In the following weeks as I returned for the writing workshop, Katherine Dunham came to the center and danced, and her husband, Jordis McCoo read. So did Chester Himes, Millen Brand and Willard Motley. I heard those esteemed writers, while I missed the readings by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

At Parkway I had the memorable experience of first hearing Gwendolyn Brooks read her poetry from her book “A Street in Bronzeville” and a few years later from Annie Allen.

I also began attending the writing workshop Marjorie held in her house in Hyde Park, a three-story gabled monolith on Blackstone Avenue south of 57th. Seeing what she called promise in my work, Marjorie worked over my manuscripts in private sessions. She did the same with other novices, providing her skills to us without charge.

The writers I met in Marjorie’s workshop longed to publish as much as I did. We shared rejection slips, lamenting the inability of magazine editors and book publishers to recognize talent.

In Marjorie’s workshop I first met Walter Davis. A few years earlier he had come to the U.S. from Trinidad. Wally was a handsome man who towered several inches over six feet with a lean, rugged body. What endeared him to us was his smile, a flash of white teeth and a simultaneous burst of laughter.

In Trinidad, Wally had written a long novel. After he’d moved to the U.S. and to Chicago, he brought his book to the workshop. Under Marjorie’s tutelage, he carefully revised it and she submitted the book for publication.

When Wally read sections of the novel before the workshop, all of us were blown away by the book’s lyricism and power. Wally was a poet and his language resonated with poignant portraits of his island and its people. I will never forget his lilting island accent and the seamless beauty of his prose. Every reading confirmed what we all believed to be true, that Wally was the most gifted among us and the one most likely to be published first.

A few weeks after Marjorie submitted Wally’s manuscript, a letter arrived from a senior editor at the publishing house of Coward McCann lavishly praising the novel. He used words like “brilliant” and phrases such as “destined for greatness.” The editor was fairly certain they would publish the book, but he asked for what he termed “some minor revisions.”

We were all elated for Wally and, I confess, I was also a little envious at a letter so effusive in its praise. Wally set to work and, for the next few months, worked diligently to accommodate the editor’s revisions. The day Marjorie mailed his manuscript back we all celebrated and toasted Wally’s contract we were sure would follow shortly.

A month later a letter came from the editor, still generous with praise, but also with the disheartening news that the committee of editors felt the book fell short of the commercial appeal they felt it required for them to publish.

Wally tried to smile away the rejection, but it was obvious to all of us that he was sorely disappointed. He had spent years writing the novel and months revising it. He had imbued the work with his talent and poured his spirit and energy into the revision.

Marjorie sent the manuscript to another publisher and months passed. When a reply finally came almost six months later, it was with a note that simply said, “Sorry.”

For a while, Wally still attended the workshops, but only to listen to the work being read by others. He had ceased to write himself.

After a while, Wally’s life and mine took different paths. We exchanged a few letters and cards and then lost touch. Some years later a mutual friend told me Wally was managing a small South Side realty firm. We spoke by phone and he told me he was married and his wife and he had two daughters. Later I heard Wally had switched from real estate to the selling of securities. I asked him if he were writing and, after a moment’s pause, he told me quietly, “No … no … not anymore.”

Some years later I heard Wally’s wife had died and I dropped him a note of sympathy. Not long after that I heard that Wally had died.

I believe Wally Davis lived a fulfilling and purposeful life. He married a woman he loved, had children and perhaps grandchildren. He was successful in the occupations he pursued.

Yet, if Wally had managed to publish, I think his work would have ranked him among such masterful African-American writers as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. When I also consider the pleasure and insight he would have provided those who read his books, I cannot help lamenting the loss of his vision and his voice.

Harry Mark Petrakis is the author of 23 books. More information on all his work can be found at harrymarkpetrakis.com

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