Writer Thulani Davis has worked in a wide variety of media, including poetry, fiction, theater, music, screenplays, and documentary film. Historical themes and figures feature prominently in her work. She wrote the libretti for operas about the Amistad slave revolt of 1839 and about African-American civil rights activist Malcolm X. She also wrote text for a multi-media presentation about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Davis has also enjoyed a respected career as a journalist. For several years she was a writer and editor for the Village Voice in New York City. Her work has also appeared in the Nation and the New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley Show.
Began as Spoken Word Performer
The daughter of two Hampton University professors, Davis was born on May 22, 1948, grew up in Virginia, and later attended the Putney School in Vermont. While studying English at Barnard College in New York City, she became intrigued by the power of poetry as a medium for performance. A major inspiration were the poets Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano, who, with David Nelson, formed the Original Last Poets in 1968. This group of poets and musicians performed works that addressed themes of racism and social injustice; Kain, in particular, was noted for especially powerful spoken-word performances. The Last Poets are considered one of the earliest influences on the genre that became rap music.
Davis began writing and performing her own poetry, often working with Barnard classmate Ntozake Shange, whose Obie-award winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf premiered in 1975. Moving to San Francisco, Davis became associated with the Third World Artists Collective in that city; she met and worked with many influential artists, including writers Jessica Hagedorn and Pedro Pietri. This group worked together to produce poetry performances, concerts, and published writings, including the anthology Third World Women.
This early focus on poetry, Davis explained on her Web site, helped her develop the artistic skill to work in a variety of literary forms. "Being a poet," she wrote, "is the only real foundation for being able to move from prose to theater, or story to opera…Being a poet makes it enjoyable to write a film…Being a poet is to understand that words can convey ideas and music, but writing in an American voice allows you to play percussion as well."
Enjoyed Successful Career as Journalist
As a reporter for the San Francisco Sun-Reporter in the early 1970s, Davis covered several stories that had a major effect on the civil rights struggle. Among these was the case of the Soledad Brothers, three black prisoners in California's Soledad Prison. Their leader, George Jackson, was a revolutionary who advocated for social justice and for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. His case became particularly notorious after his teenage brother Jonathan and two accomplices broke into a courtroom in Marin County in 1970, freed three prisoners, and took the judge hostage in an attempt to free the Soledad Brothers. During the attempted escape, Jonathan Jackson and one accomplice were shot by police, and the judge was killed by a blast from a shotgun his captors had taped to his neck. The shotgun was traced to activist Angela Davis. The government's subsequent case against Angela Davis riveted the country; she fled into hiding and became an icon of black resistance to institutionalized injustice. In addition to writing about this controversial and seminal case, Thulani Davis also interviewed other major figures of the Black Power movement, including Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton.
In the late 1970s Davis returned to New York City, where she joined the staff of the Village Voice as a proofreader. She was later promoted to writer and became a senior editor, covering a broad range of issues including race relations and the arts. She also wrote for the Nation and the New York Times Book Review.
In addition to journalism, Davis continued to write and perform poetry and also crafted dramatic works. She often worked with musicians, including Cecil Taylor, Joseph Jarman, and Anthony Davis, and continued to collaborate with other spoken-word artists. In 1977 her play Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, which Davis wrote with Shange and Hagedorn, was performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Among her other plays are Everybody's Ruby: Story of Murder in Florida, and an adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois's seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk, for the National Black Arts Festival in 2003.
By the 1980s Davis was writing not only for the stage but also for television, radio, and film, as well as for musical works. Her documentary about the jazz group Art Ensemble of Chicago, Fanfare for the Warriors, received the National Association of Black Journalists' First Place in Radio award. Among her acclaimed works for music are the libretti for two operas composed by Anthony Davis, Amistad and X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. For composer Miya Masaoka she wrote text for the multi-media piece Dark Passages, which explores the U.S. government's internship of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Davis has also written fiction. Her first novel, 1959, about small-town Virginia residents during the early years of the civil rights movement, was hailed in the New York Times Book Review as a "raw and moving testament to the power that rests within a community." Her second novel, the murder-mystery Maker of Saints, was described in Publishers Weekly as a "riveting" story that explores "some of the darker corners of the artistic soul."
At a Glance …
San Francisco Sun-Reporter, San Francisco, CA, reporter; Village Voice, New York, NY, proofreader, writer, then senior editor, 1970s-2004; New York University, New York, NY, faculty member.
National Association of Black Journalists, First Place in Radio award, for Fanfare for the Warriors; Grammy Award, Best Album Notes, for Aretha Franklin, The Atlantic Recordings, 1993; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers Award, 1996-1999; Peabody Award, for I'll Make Me a World: Black Creative Minds in the 20th Century, 1999; Chicago Center for Arts Policy, Paul Robeson Cultural Democracy Award, 1998; Induction in Black Writers Hall of Fame, 1998; New York Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, First Annual Legacies Award, for unparalleled achievement in the arts, 2003.
Office—c/o author mail, Basic Civitas, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016.
Researched Ancestral Roots
In 2006 Davis published My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots. Davis was inspired to write this book while working on a television program about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings. She had always known that her own family tree contained white ancestors, and decided to learn more about it. Davis discovered that her mother's grandmother was Chloe Tarrant Curry, a former slave who had a 24-year relationship with Mississippi plantation owner Argyle Campbell. Curry met Campbell when she began working for him as a cook; soon afterward, he made her pregnant. Though this type of relationship was not unusual in the nineteenth-century South, Campbell broke with racist convention by acknowledging and caring for his child, Georgia—Davis's grandmother—and for standing by Curry. Although interracial relationships were considered taboo at the time, Curry and Campbell lived together as man and wife, though they never married. Curry learned how to run the plantation and became accepted as mistress of the house. When Campbell died, he left his entire estate to her. As Davis wrote, the facts suggest that the couple developed a deep and genuine affection.
Writing the book taught Davis a great appreciation of both sides of her family. But while she acknowledged the achievements of her white ancestors, it was the efforts of her black ancestors that most inspired her. "The first women and men to walk away from bondage reinvented the race, redefined the terms of American citizenship, and spread that blend of African and Euro-American culture created in bondage in the antebellum South," she wrote in the book's first chapter. "Never has one group of people acted on such a large scale in so many regions of the country to push this society to honor its foundational principles. They taught the rest of us how to do it and yet there is no cultural memory of those millions. They are freedom's ‘Greatest Generation.’" In an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, Davis expressed the sense of gratitude and respect that she feels for these ancestors. Because of their epic struggles to achieve their human rights and freedoms, she said, she felt better able to follow her own life's path instead of feeling forced to conform to rigid expectations of society. Making her own life according to her own beliefs, she said, is a way of honoring those who went before her.
My Confederate Kinfolk earned glowing reviews. In the Washington Post, Denise Nicholas observed that this complex family story "ascends to the epic" and that Davis presents a "detailed and lively rendering of [the] Reconstruction [era]." Boston Globe writer Renee Graham described Davis's narrative as a "gripping historical tale that is uniquely, tragically American."
Became Buddhist Priest
A practicing Buddhist for several years, Davis was ordained as a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Church at the Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan, in 1990. With Joseph Jarman, Davis opened the Brooklyn Buddhist Association and started a Sangha, a community of people who together follow the Buddhist path. As Davis explained on her Web site, her African ancestors who worked as field slaves "must have had various ways to release the spirit in daily life, not just on Sunday. Buddhist practice allows me to learn from [that] 200 year old experience and from practices developed 1500 years ago in the other half of the world."
In 1999 Davis formed another Buddhist meditation group. She credited this spiritual work with helping her to cope with the emotional trauma following the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Buddhist practice, she noted on her Web site, helps provide her with the necessary skills to build a sane life and world. In 2002 the Brooklyn Buddhist Association started the New Dharma initiative, which aims to bring more people of color to Buddhist practice. In addition to her Buddhist practice, Davis continued to write and to teach playwriting at New York University.
The Renegade Ghosts Rise (poems), Anemone, 1978.
Playing the Changes (poems), Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
(Author of libretto) X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (opera), Nani Press, 1986.
1959 (novel), Grove, Eidenfeld, 1992.
(With Howard Chapnick) Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1993.
Maker of Saints (novel), Scribner, 1996.
My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, Basic Books Civitas, 2006.
(With Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagedorn) Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1977.
Sweet Talk and Stray Desires (one-woman show), Chelsea Westside Theater Center, New York, NY, 1979.
Paint (staged reading), Basement Workshop, New York, NY, 1982.
(Adaptor) The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertold Brecht, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1990.
Everybody's Ruby: Story of Murder in Florida, first produced at Public Theater, New York, NY, 1998.
(Adaptation) The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, National Black Arts Festival, 2003.
Paid in Full, Miramax, 2002.
Maker of Saints, DCI Productions, 2006.
Text for Musical Works
See Tee's New Blues (spoken word and piano), Anthony Davis, composer, The Kitchen, 1982.
Steppin' Other Shores (music, spoken word, and dance), Joseph Jarman, composer, New Music America; The Kitchen, 1983.
X-cerpts (work for chamber orchestra and singers), San Francisco Arts Festival, 1987.
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (opera), An- thony Davis, composer, commissioned by The Kitchen; world premiere, New York City Opera, 1986.
The E. & O. Line (electronic opera), Anne LeBaron, composer, University of the District of Columbia; Carter Barron Amphitheater, D.C., 1989.
Baobab Four (spoken word), Bernadette Speech, composer, P.S. 122, 1994.
A Woman Unadorned (piano and spoken word), Bernadette Speech, composer, Lincoln Center, 1994.
Amistad, an opera, Anthony Davis, composer, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1997.
Dark Passages (multimedia documentary oratoria), Miya Masaoka, composer, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA, 1998.
Fanfare for the Warriors (radio documentary), National Public Radio, 1985.
Thulani (video), Real Art Ways Video Festival, 1985.
(And narrator) Thulani Davis Asks, "Why Howard Beach?" Paper Tiger TV, 1987.
Without Borders (spoken word performance), Bernadette Speech, composer, Mode Records, 1989.
Songposts, vol. 1 (lyrics), Anne LeBaron, composer, Word of Mouth Music, 1991.
(And narrator) W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices, Toronto Film Festival; PBS, 1996.
The Musical Railism of Anne LeBaron (lyrics), Mode Records, 1998.
(Concept originator and editor) I'll Make Me a World: Black Creative Minds in the 20th Century, Blackside, PBS series, 1999.
Reflections (spoken word performance), Bernadette Speech, composer, Mode Records, 2002.
Davis, Thulani, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, Basic Books Civitas, 2006.
American Theatre, September 1998, p. 57.
Boston Globe, January 2, 2006.
Essence, February 2006, p. 88.
Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1996; November 21, 2005, p. 42.
Washington Post Book World, February 26, 2006, p. 12.
"Tavis Smiley Show: Thulani Davis on Martha Stewart and Minorities," National Public Radio,www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3047108 (March 6, 2007).
"Thulani Davis: A Voice of the Written Word," African American Registry,www.aaregistry.com/ (March 6, 2007).
Thulani Davis Home Page,www.thulanidavis.com/ (March 6, 2007).
"Fresh Air: Unearthing a Family Tree's Diverse Roots," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5160385 (March 7, 2007).
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