Margaret Danner, the Black Arts Movement, and the Bahá'í Faithelixir-journal.org, vol. 3
Eclipsed by the fame of Robert Hayden, Margaret Danner, a black Bahá’í poet of some renown in the 1960s and 1970s, has been largely forgotten within the Bahá’í community. Although, as a Bahá’í—she embraced the Bahá’í Faith in 1962—her stance on race and poetry was similar to that of Hayden, she was more influential than Hayden in the development of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, to whose development she made a significant contribution. Within this context, she is less well-known than poets such as Nikki Giovanni, whose work of the day took on a more militant Black nationalist tone reflective of the times. However, Danner, along with a few other poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, has subsequently received attention and credit for developing a Black aesthetic in the years between the decline of the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.
Danner was born in Chicago about 1910, the daughter of working-class parents who lived in Bronzville, a black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Her father died in 1916, after which she, her mother, and her sister moved in to live with her maternal grandmother in Indianapolis. Although her mother remained in Indianapolis until at least 1926 or later, Margaret returned to Chicago by 1923, to attend school, possibly living with a paternal aunt who resided there. She graduated from high school there in the late 1920s.
By 1929 she had married Cordell Strickland and given birth to a daughter, Naomi. Child rearing and family life seems to have occupied most of her time over the next few years, however, the marriage ended in divorce by 1942. Around this time Margaret began to attend courses in Chicago area colleges, such as the YMCA College (now Roosevelt University), studying dance, African anthropology, music, English and art. She continued to study into the early 1950s, acquiring considerable knowledge of African tribal cultures and growing in her determination to become a poet.
Danner seems to have received a good deal of encouragement from her English professors, particularly those at the newly-opened Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University), which may have resulted in her participation in the Midwest Writer’s Conference in 1945, where she won a prize for her poetry. Over the next several years Danner participated in local poetry events, won the Harriet Tubman prize for her work, and was awarded an Afro-American Interests grant.
In 1952, she published a series of four poems in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, the leading poetry journal of the time. Entitled “Far from Africa,” these poems effectively launched her career as a poet. In 1953, Karl Shapiro, then editor of Poetry, hired her as an editorial assistant, making her the first African-American to be hired for such a position on the staff of the magazine.1 She remained on the staff there until 1957.
During her tenure at Poetry, Danner continued to write and publish poems, developing the kind of poetry for which she became known: detailed descriptive poems rooted in place and personal experience, with references to African and Afro-Caribbean cultural artifacts and symbols. By celebrating African culture in this way, she presaged the revival of interest in African heritage shown by those associated with the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. In her poems, Danner did not engage in simple “cultural appropriation.” The artifacts she describes are part of her own environment—ones she had seen in museums and homes—and the references to African culture are integrated into poems grounded in her personal experiences of and observations about the Black Belt neighborhoods of Chicago, and similar places she had lived.
In “Dance of the Abaakweta,” one of the original four poems Danner published in Poetry, she writes about Mrs. Haessler of Vassar and queries whether she could design costumes for and choreograph a Xhosa tribal initiation dance, associated with male circumcision (Abaakweta). This was almost certainly about a real person, Mrs. Mildred B. Haessler, who studied at Vassar and opened a ballet studio on Chicago’s Southside that ran from 1937 to 1957.2 In this satiric poem, Danner imagines that if Haessler had the opportunity to do so, she would undertake to direct the dance and make it a ballet “since neither Iceland nor Africa is too remote for her vision.” She imagines how Haesser would replicate the clothes worn in in these ceremonies—bamboo straw tutus, leggings and coats of animal hide, as carefully designed ballet costumes “cut in her reverenced ‘tradition’.”
In this poem, Danner questions the universality of Western culture and suggests that there is a loss of meaning when a cultural expression is appropriated into a modality that is part of a completely different tradition. She may have selected Abaakweta instead of another dance to underline the absurdity of the imagined scene in which a traditionally feminine dance form—ballet—is employed to re-enact a male initiation rite. Finally, Danner seems to be saying that African dance would be more culturally appropriate in her Chicago neighborhood than in the world of ballet as it was then. In addition, Danner seems to question whether ballet is an appropriate dance form for Mrs. Haessler, who was an African-American, to pursue.
In 1959, Margaret Danner received John Hay Whitney Fellowship for “Far from Africa” which she intended to use to travel to Africa.3 But she did not manage to take the trip until 1966. In 1962, Danner accepted a position as the Poet-in-Residence at Wayne State University. She remained there for two years and began what was to be perhaps the most productive period of her writing career. In Detroit, her first book of poetry appeared: Impressions of African art forms in the poetry of Margaret Danner (Broadside Press, 1960). At around the same time, Danner founded Boone House, a center where writers and artists met and held cultural events, which contributed to a black literary renaissance in the city.
It was during Danner’s time in Detroit that she learned about the Bahá’í Faith.4 She later wrote that she became a Bahá’í because “I could not adjust to a world ruled by political maneuvering and by prejudice where exploitation and destruction of one’s fellow man seems so very prevalent.”5 She soon became friends with Robert Hayden, a fellow-Bahá’í poet, who published her next book, to flower: poems, as part of a poetry series he edited in 1963. She also befriended Rosey Pool, a scholar and editor of Black Poetry, who also became a Bahá’í during this period and passed through Detroit when Danner was there.6
In 1964, she became a “touring poet” for the Bahá’í National Teaching Committee, taking extended teaching trips to various parts of the country, especially in the South, doing readings in a variety of settings as she went. She did this until 1966, when she undertook a trip to Dakkar to attend the First World Festival of Negro Arts.7 Notes of her plans for this trip suggest that she viewed the trip both as a literary opportunity and extension of her Bahá’í travel teaching work. She had plans to read poems that mentioned the Bahá’í Faith in Senegal, hold firesides with international visitors, work with local Bahá’ís, and, since she was accepting an invitation from Josephine Baker to visit her in France on the way home, Danner planned to share her faith artistic circles in France, as well.8
During the course of Danner’s several years of intermittent travel, her networks of black writers in Chicago and Detroit become divided by issues raised by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. There were disagreements about the role that art and artists should play in relationship to the Black community and to the various movements within it. A more militant, explicitly activist, and often angry tone had been adopted by some younger poets and the work of older poets was criticized by these younger poets for lacking these qualities. Margaret Danner found herself excluded from events in Chicago and felt an increasing social isolation as result of the divisions, though she herself maintained personal relationships with poets of diverse view-points. Robert Hayden, with whom she kept up a correspondence, was even more isolated.
At a 1966 writers conference at Fiske University, at which both Margaret Danner and Robert Hayden were present, the ideological struggles came to a head. The younger black poets and students who attended argued for a poetry by and for the Black community. Hayden had made no secret of his feeling that he did not want to be considered a “Negro poet” or “black poet” and thought race was irrelevant to literary accomplishment. When he was asked “Are you a black first or a writer first?”9 He responded as expected and was attacked by many of the attendees for his views.
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote that both she and Margaret Danner were “coldly respected” by conference attendees and that they were both shocked by the contention there. Margaret Danner’s position was more nuanced than Hayden’s, but she was also criticized by many in the Black literary community for not writing more militant verse. Commenting with irony on the way the younger generation viewed her work, she wrote, “I have talked about Negroes respecting their background since the forties.”10 She reminded some of her cohorts, that she had been asserting the notion that ‘Black is Beautiful,’ “when all of those who are now parading so militantly were laughing at me for seeing beauty in myself and my own.”11
In a 1968 interview, Danner reiterated her position:
I believe (and have tried for many years to do something positive about this conviction) that the Black should be awakened to his beauty. He will then be so enthusiastic that he will automatically write of the experience.12
In her remarks, however, we can sense a subtle critique of explicitly Black political poetry as inauthentic. Clearly, while Danner believed that poetry could be used for the social upliftment of the Black community, and some of her poems were written primarily for that community, she believed that the audience for poetry was as potentially universal as any other.
Although it did not change her view of African or Black Heritage and experience, her acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith was reflected in her poems in at least two ways. First, in much the same ways her early poetry described her experiences in the Southside of Chicago, in the poetry she wrote after becoming a Baha’í, she made explicit reference to Bahá’í sites and events and to individual Bahá’ís she met. Second, her poetry took on a more universal tone, in a sense reframing American Black and African cultures as a part of a global mosaic. She often used the metaphor of “lace”—in one poem she writes “I bow to the power of lace”13—to describe the nature of the connections between people and cultures.
In the poem, “Through Varied Patterned Lace,”14 for example, Danner writes:
As I look in to each different face,
In an interview conducted near the end of her life, Danner explained that by bringing various aspects of African culture into her poems, she hoped to “cause men, especially Blacks, to realize that Black roots are deeply planted and authentic as those of other people with whom we must deal in creating this New World.”15 Here “New World” seems to refer to the Bahá’í concept of a New World brought into being by the Bahá’í teachings. Her remarks, therefore, illustrate how she envisioned the role of Black heritage and identity within the context of Bahá’í community.
Between 1968 and 1976, Danner served as poet-in-residence first at Virginia Union University and then at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. During this period of comparative stability, she continued writing and publishing poetry with publishers associated with the Black Arts movement, such as the Broadside Press. She also mentored young writers. By the end of this period, her stature as an established African-American poet and her role in preparing the way for and facilitating the growth of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago and Detroit was widely acknowledged. Danner died in Chicago in 1984. Her work continues to be studied for her contribution to the development of Black Literature.
A Select Bibliography of the Writings of Margaret Danner
The down of a thistle: selected poems, prose poems, and songs (Waukesha, WI: Country Beautiful, 1976).
To flower: poems (n.p. Hemphill Press, 1963).
Impressions of African Art Forms (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1960).
Iron Lace (Millbrook, NY: Kriya Press, 1968).
Not Light or Bright or Feathery (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968).
Poem Counterpoem [with Dudley Randall] (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1966)