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Enriching the paper trail: an interview with Tom Dent.

Founded by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers, the Free Southern Theatre started as a cultural wing of the Civil Rights Movement, it would become the single greatest cultural influence on African American dramatic and literary culture in the South. Initially, FST hired Northern actors to adapt theater classics and perform them throughout the South, bringing theater to those who bad no theater, but around 1967, FST lost all funding and suspended the touring ensemble of professional actors. When, in 1970, funding was secured to resume touring an indigenous FST had developed which was radically different in both form and content. Known initially simply as the "workshop" and later formalized as BLKARTSOUTH, it was this group which had a major impact not as entertainment to be observed but as a catalyst which encouraged the production of cultural work.

Blkarsouth produced a literary journal, Nkombo, and a performing ensemble which toured throughout the South performing poetry, rituals, and drama. Much of this activity was a direct result of Tom Dent's vision. Dent is the author of two books of poetry, Blue Lights and River Songs and Magnolia Street, and is the co-editor of The Free Southern Theatre by The Free Southern Theatre.

ya Salaam: In hindsight, under your leadership, we discover-ed what I now view as a jazz paradigm for artistic development - individual development within a collective context. That was the model that was responsible for the greatest outpouring of Black literary activity that has ever happened in New Orleans specifically and the South in general. I'm not saying greatest in terms of the quality of the work, but rather in terms of the democratization of intellectual activity; that is, having it happen across the broadest spectrum of people. We in the South did a lot of this intuitively. We had some successes, we also had some failures and made a lot of mistakes. Nevertheless, the Free Southern Theatre opened up a way for people to participate in intellectual activity on a level of exchange with an audience, and also earn a level of respect from peers and others, without having to go the route of formal education, especially formal higher education.

You played a major role in the history of a lot of that activity. You did the hard work of maintaining the collective base out of which people did what they wanted to do. You were sort of like an Art Blakey or a Miles Davis: You didn't tell anybody what notes to play when they soloed, but you tried your best to keep the band together so that young people would have an opportunity to play and to learn the music. In that context, you were always introducing us to other folk, broadening our horizons without being didactic about it. So we met a lot of people we otherwise would not have met. It seems to me that is a paradigm for producing a qualitatively different kind of literature from that which is produced by those who go through formal programs. I'm not saying that there is no value in going through a formal program in college, but I am saying that we demonstrated there was another way.

You came out of the Umbra experience in New York, moved back south, joined the Free Southern Theatre, and set up a workshop which eventually led to the development of BLKARTSOUTH and the Southern Black Cultural Alliance. That set a paradigm that fit comfortably both within the context of the way our music is made and within the context of Southern culture as a whole. That is my basic thesis.

Dent: Okay, let me talk some about that. Maybe I can say some things that I didn't say before because I didn't think people would understand them. I wish you could have been at the Umbra Reunion in November 1991. In Calvin Hernton's remarks, almost everyone's remarks, we talked about what the Umbra-Lower East Side concentration of artists meant. In addition to writers, there was the visual artist Arturo Cruz; two great musicians who were both on the scene then, Archie Shepp and Randy Weston; LaMama Theatre - it was just one of the most extraordinary confluences of modern artists, for us as Black people. This was what today might be called counterculture in its thematic direction, but anyway, after a few years, we all dispersed. What Hernton pointed out was that, wherever we relocated, we tried to keep alive a sense of what we had been doing in New York.

Now, as you were talking I was reflecting. First of all, I felt a lot of my motivation came from the realization that I grew up here in New Orleans a reading child, and began to do some kind of writing early. In a more developed society - in terms of literature or, say, literacy - I would have been encouraged to write seriously. But at that time there was no nurturing ground.

I was a reading child, but not "bookish" in the sense that I was overly studious, rather, I was attracted to books of my own choosing. I felt at home in the library. But even that was considered an abnormality, for the most part And even at Morehouse College I didn't get any sense of direction. I continued my literary interests - as editor of the student newspaper and winner of a short-story prize - and I finished second in my class academically. However, not once did one of my teachers say, "Hey, you ought to get interested in writing." The whole module of Black success we were programmed toward was doctor, lawyer, preacher, teacher - that was it. There just was no concept of doing anything else. They didn't know anything else.

I had an anger and bitterness toward Morehouse for a long time because I felt that that kind of one-sided education was a deprivation. I realized that even the teachers of English literature and the humanities did not write, and they didn't know anybody who wrote. Gwendolyn Brooks came to read after she'd won the Pulitzer Prize, and that was a very unusual event. It was at Atlanta University, and I was the only student from Morehouse there.

There was this lack of a nurturing community, no matter how small. Even little pieces of suggestions of direction, I cherished. They came from people like Marcus Christian who was working at the library at Dillard when I started working there as a child during the summers. He would point out books to me to read. Around the same time there was Benjamin Quarles, who taught history at Dillard and was then writing his first book on Frederick Douglass. I could see him working in the library, and I expected that his book was going to be a best-seller. Later I learned that working for years on a book didn't mean it would make you famous. But Quarles for me became a model of what the work of writing was like. It was silent work, lonely work. And you never knew what you were going to get out of it.

So in coming back here and becoming involved with y'all, I felt that, no matter what happened to me and my career as a writer, at the very least we could begin to provide a nurturing community. That took the form of a workshop, and some of our other activities. It expanded into social activities, relationships, everything - because you can't write in social and cultural isolation. Writing goes with reading, the exchange of ideas, and the excitement that comes from being part of something that is bigger than you. That was one of the personal motivations: If I was going to be back here, I wanted to see something develop so that when interested younger people came along, they wouldn't face the same isolation and alienation I felt that drove me away.

My Umbra experience came from a search to find other Black writers my age in New York. Most of my reading in college, in the Army, and even afterwards, was European and American writing. On the one band, I realized that it would be impossible for me to make a statement as a writer without relating to my reality as a Black American. On the other hand, I didn't quite know how to put that together, and I certainly wasn't sure where I fit in the racial story. Because there was no system I could dip into automatically, I tried other things. Anything. In the Army, I took a correspondence course from Writers' Digest. You write off for lessons and send them back in the mail fifteen dollars a lesson. In New York, after I was there for about a year, I came across an ad in the New York Post for a writers' class run by Lajos Egri. I went down to see him in his little office on 57th Street and signed up for his weekly course in creative writing. I was just trying to find a way.

Egri was around 60 years old, an immigrant from Hungary who'd come over here in the '30s and done some dramatic writing. He worked with theaters and maybe some movies, but never anything prominent. Then he wrote a book you can still find today called The Art of Dramatic Writing. It became a classic and a kind of textbook. He was giving this course; it was about $20 a week. We would bring our lessons in prose, or drama, but never poetry. The class would criticize with a strict rule I introduced into Umbra, and later used in our workshop. The rule was that, after you read your work, you could not argue or try to explain what you had written. Everyone else had their say first - you had to sit there and take it. Then, and only then, could you comment. That took much more discipline than we first thought, because you always wanted to explain or disclaim - you know, "I'm not finished with this ..." - but Egri would not allow any of that. What was may interesting about his class, which turned out to be rather small only about 12 people or so, was that 5 or 6 of the people were Black. The first Black writers I met in New York who were relative beginners like me, I met in Egri's class.

The Blacks became friends. We would go out after class and talk. I became particularly close to Walter Myers, who was as serious as I thought I was. He was from New Jersey and has now published a tremendous amount of excellent juvenile literature under the name of Walter Dean Myers. It was probably no accident that so many Blacks were in Egris class, because one of the theaters he had been very involved with was the old Lafayette in Harlem. He knew a lot of those people, knew the writers, and, as a Hungarian, his attitude toward Blacks was distinctly not American.

There were a couple of other things that came out of that experience that fascinated me. I had never met a Hungarian before, but with every Hungarian I've met since I've been struck by the fact that they cannot speak English. There's no way that you can grow up in Hungary and speak English without an accent because the languages are so strikingly different. I wondered how in the world Egri wrote such a lucid book as The Art of Dramatic Writing. Finally, we found out the truth: he didn't write it. I mean, he wrote it in Hungarian, and somebody translated it into English, rewrote it for him. This taught me something about the process of writing and being published. Here is a man who comes from Hungary, who can't speak English, and he ends up getting a reputation not only for being an expert, but for also being good at fixing plays, fixing cinema scripts. And even though he's generally considered an expert at what he does, he's really not wealthy. He's just eking out a living.

The other thing which goes back to my childhood, was that I read the Black weeklies, newspapers. In the '40s there were several very good papers: the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, Norfolk Journal and Guide, Oklahoma City Black Dispatch. My father subscribed to all of these papers, along with the Atlanta Daily World, which was the only Black daily in the country. When I would pick up the mail for him at Dillard, I would get four or five papers. At that time while dailies did not cover what could be considered Black news, unless it was some sensational crime. Reading these papers exposed me to what was going on in the Black world, and it was also my first reading of Black writers. I mean, not just Hughes and Wright, but columnists, sports writers, political writers and commentators. So my sense of what writers wrote was not limited to the literary. It was also journalistic, on a high level. I learned that Blacks could perform that role just like Whites. And then the world of Black papers died, it went the way of the Negro Leagues. I think, however, what my reading of the papers imbued in me was a sense that you could be a very fine writer, with fundamental ties to the community, through journalism; through this highly functional and important instrument you could focus on the fundamental questions that affected you, your community, and the larger society.

I guess I was always looking for that. It just so happened that, by the time I came of age and was ready to play a role in Black journalism, which I would have loved to do, that world died. It died because of television and because of the expansion of the White dailies into news that affected race, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, I tried. The first job I had in New York was in Harlem with a Black newspaper, the New York Age, a weekly which was fifty year, old and had been founded by Thomas Fortune.

ya Salaam: What was your position?

Dent: I was a reporter, but the newspaper failed within one year after I started I knew about the paper because when I came out of graduate school at Syracuse University I lived in New York for about six months. I read the Age. When I was at Fort Knox, I wrote a letter to the editor, Al Duckett, to tell him I was coming to New York to visit, and I wanted to talk to him about a job. We had the interview, and he promised me a job. Very soon after I started in January, 1959, Al quit. Chuck Stone became the editor. While working at the Age I met Tom Feelings, who was just beginning his career as an artist; Calvin Hicks, who became very important in our subsequent organizational activities, such as On Guard for Freedom, and to whom I was always very dose, a Jamaican writer, Lancelot Evans, who was familiar with Black Nationalism and Garveyism; a religion editor who had been there at least a hundred years and knew the history of all the churches up there; a society editor who knew Langston Hughes and knew how Harlem was organized, a city editor, Charlie Herndon, who had tougher standards of manuscript propriety than I ever experienced with any English teacher. I found this whole environment invigorating. Chuck, in particular, had a tremendous education at Eastern schools, plus he had a political sense that was advanced. He became one of the foremost Black journalists of his time. I met Malcolm X on 125th Street when his career as an important spokesman was beginning to take off.

At that time Harlem was a vibrant community. Through contacts such as Calvin Hicks, I got into political activities which were Black Nationalist. I was part of a group which produced a journal called On Guard f or Freedom. It was really an early Black Nationalist artists' group: Max Roach Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse, Calvin Hicks, among others, and - well that's a story in itself - several White women. We invited the Africanist, John Henrik Clarke, to speak to us. We met in Harlem, and we met on the Lower East Side.

All of these branching-out activities were a means of discovery for me, leading to the writing workshop that became Umbra. So in terms of what we were trying to do here in New Orleans - and you give me too much credit, because we all contributed - I brought the philosophical belief that we could not develop a substantive literature without new ideas, and an openness to the wider world. You knew, because you had been away in the service, and I knew, that New Orleans could be stultifyingly provincial. The more we could attack that provinciality through readings, through our own writings, through political ideas and contacts, the more we would have a chance to achieve something meaningful. I believe nothing much happens in a place anyway unless it is a crossroads of goods and ideas. We had to open New Orleans up. We knew New Orleans had been open in that way for music. But in terms of literature there had been no opening.

ya Salaam: So what made you come back to New Orleans?

Dent: Nothing. I had no desire whatsoever to ever come back to New Orleans. However, in 1965 there was a point when I was not working and was having a hard time - I was working part-time at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where I formerly had been working full-time. I didn't know what I was going to do. At that point I was robbed. Everybody was robbed. The Lower East Side was becoming the center of drug street sales in New York City, maybe in America. People were coming from all over to buy heroin, particularly on Saturdays. People sat nodding and laid out on the street. Avenue C looked like a horror movie - "The Neighborhood of the Living Dead."

There were about forty apartments in my building. I think everybody's apartment was broken into at one time or another. I lived on the first floor, and somebody just came in one day and took what I had. It wasn't much - a typewriter and a couple of other things - but I was hysterical.

I tried to do something which I don't advise anybody to ever do: I went out on the street and told people what had happened in the hope of buying back my typewriter. This led me to two Black guys who pulled a knife on me, marched me back to my apartment, and took whatever else they could find. Really, I thought they might kill me. I finally talked them out of the apartment, promising I would get them more money. They had already taken whatever little money I had.

Well we had just had an Umbra reading. On 2nd Avenue there was a big poster with all our names on it, including mine. One of the robbers looked at the poster and said, "Is that you?" I said, "Yeah that's me. I'm a writer." That might have saved my life, because they realized I was known, and if they did something to me, somebody might come after them. So we went through a surreal song and dance, walking through the Lower East Side with them threatening me. Finally, on 2nd Avenue I just darted through some traffic and got on the other side, and then they ran. I was able to get away, but I was terrified. It seemed the entire area was disintegrating. In fact, the Lower East Side became worse as a drug area, and still hasn't recovered. I didn't know what to do, but I knew I wanted to get out of there.

At that time my father was in New York for a meeting. I went down to his hotel and told him what had happened. He said, "Maybe you better come home to New Orleans for awhile." I spent a few days giving away everything I couldn't carry. I had a Puerto Rican friend who had a pistol, and he hung around as my "security." We were going to shoot these two guys if we found them - it's sounds bizarre, I know.

Anyway, that's how I came back to New Orleans. I decided I would get a job here and just make a go of it, but it wasn't so easy to get a job. I wanted to work as a stringer for let or for Ebony, but that didn't work out. At the same time, during those first few weeks of April in 1965, I discovered many things in this city I felt I might like. The racial climate was changing a little, though not a lot. But it certainly wasn't the city I had grown up in and left ten or twelve years earlier, only returning to visit my parents.

My most meaningful discovery was the Free Southern Theatre troupe, which was rehearsing daily in the horribly misnamed Pentagon Building on London Avenue and Galvez Street. I had met John O'Neal in New York in February, 1965, when he'd come up for a fundraiser. One of the FST founders was Doris Derby, whom I had gone out with in New York. Doris was an artist who in the early '60s became fascinated with the South spending half her time in New York and the other half in Mississippi. In the course of her Southern sojourn she met Andrew Young, who introduced me to Doris. He actually set up a blind date - he's never done anything before or since like that, I don't believe - he took us out to an Italian restaurant. At that time we were may poor, so this dinner was a three-or or four-dollar-per-plate meal at a place with candles in Chianti bottles. It turned out that Doris lived virtually in Connecticut, so taking her home usually meant I arrived back on the Lower East Side at day-break. Although our relationship never went anywhere, the fact was I knew Doris and had met O'Neal and thus was somewhat familiar with the concept of the FST.

I fell in love with the FST people - immediately. I was living in my parents' house on Dillard's campus where my father was the President. After all I had been through in New York, I was feeling useless, and would have returned to New York if I could have gotten a job there. Meanwhile, I had to do something, so I went over to the Pentagon Building every day. John and I became quick friends. I met Gilbert Moses, Denise Nichols, Roscoe Oman, and Bob Costley After about three weeks I said, wait a minute, they're doing the kind of thing that's desperately needed, and it can mesh into the experience I just left.

I didn't know a thing about theater, though I had several friends in New York who were actors. In New Orleans I realized right away that the concept of a liberation theater transcended ideas of "drama" or "theater" as we know them - or at least it had that potential. Of course, the Free Southern Theatre had virtually no money, so there was no question of my working there - members were making fifteen dollars a week, if that. But, at that point, I began seriously looking for a job in New Orleans. My entire circle of friends - other than those few people who were still around from when I was growing up - were FST members, or New Orleans Civil Rights activists, who constituted a small social set in themselves. When I left New Orleans to go to college 15 years earlier, no group like this had existed.

I thin I saw very clearly that the presence of the FST could be a source of new cultural possibilities in New Orleans, and I had a sense of how to use theater as an instrument, despite the fact I knew little about theater technique per se.

ya Salaam: Your work outside of New Orleans gave you a perspective so that, when you returned here, you could see what needed to be done and what would work.

Dent: No question about it. Also, I came to realize that for me New York had played itself out. It was time for me, at 30, to come to terms with myself as a Black Southerner and New Orleanian, whatever that might mean, and to try to understand it. There was a great poet, I forget whom, who said, "You can really do no important work until you master your own terrain." Having left New Orleans at 15, I hardly knew it, yet there was a tremendous culture here, there was a complexity here, there was this rich history of music. I didn't know it, but I knew I had to learn it - and that was something to strive for in terms of mastery of both writing and knowledge of my origins.

ya Salaam: In one sense, then, you had the two elements necessary for anyone to do something significant here: You had the awareness that comes from being outside of New Orleans, as well as all the contacts and experiences that go along with that, and you also had a very deep and developing appreciation for what was here.

Dent: The key word is developing. When I left, and even when I returned in 1965, I had a contempt for this place - a contempt voiced by many people who have lived here all their lives. You know: We're backwards, we're slow, etc.

My whole view of the city, its potential and its complexities, changed. That goes for the South as a whole, not just New Orleans. My views changed primarily because of the opportunities afforded me by Free Southern Theatre experiences. I don't find that you learn or produce abstractly or unrelatedly. There must be some sense of moving forward, even if you don't accomplish everything you want to. It's like a boat speeding through a lake creating waves; something has to create waves. That's an image I associate with the '60s, and with our projects.

ya Salaam: I'm thinking back to when I first joined and thinking of some of the things and some of the people you introduced to me - for example, Ralph Featherstone on that tractor up in West Point, Mississippi, digging a hole in the ground which became a pond for the catfish farming coop. I remember going to Danny Barker's house and being introduced to Danny. So while you were developing this new appreciation for the city which led you to reevaluate your thoughts and feelings, you also transmitted that appreciation to many of us who otherwise would not have gotten it at that early age, and would not have seen the value of digging into the city and digging into the South ...

Dent:... for material to write about.

ya Salaam: Right And at the same time you also turned our eyes outside of New Orleans so that we didn't become insular in our self-development.

Dent: That was based on my experiences with the Umbra Workshop. We didn't know it at the time, because we were all just beginning, but it was a very unusual collaboration of writers: Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Oliver Pitcher - writers of vastly different styles. I got used to the idea that you could have a very wide range of disagreement, discussion, and even argumentation; that such fermentation or agitation is in harmony with creativity. Many people were afraid of that, but if you were afraid, you just had to leave.

ya Salaam: nut broad stylistic range was one of the things that was different about BLKARTSOUTH.

Dent: Not only in terms of ideas but also in terms of lifestyles. You just cannot tell people what kind of lifestyle they ought to have, or go around trying to be a model My belief on that stemmed from being exposed to the Lower East Side of New York It was an area of Eastern European immigrants, strong ethnic constituencies, and later a heavy influx of Puerto Ricans, and some Blacks. Everybody was there. You could walk down the street listening to the voices around you and never know you were in America. This gave me a heightened appreciation for the value of diversity. I knew that to come back here and try to work in an atmosphere of conformity would kill us. Also, in terms of breaking out of the provinciality of New Orleans, it was of immense value for us to relate to struggles of those involved in movements for liberation of oppressed peoples, wherever they were.

For example, I saw Mississippi as being very different from New Orleans, and I didn't really know Mississippi until our Free Southern Theatre tours - and later, when I taught in West Point. The New Orleans Black community was widely divergent: from "passing" Creoles at one extreme to people from West Africa, direct, at the other. In Mississippi most of the Blacks were forged into a unity through a common culture, background, and history of deprivation. We could learn a lot from their unity and sacrifice, I thought.

ya Salaam: That's the point I'm trying to make: You knew, on the one hand, that we had to learn more about New Orleans than just growing up and passing through here would allow us to. But on the other hand, we also had to know about other places, other peoples, especially other Black people - how we were similar and how we were different.

Dent: Let's go into "knowing more about New Orleans." I felt that was really kind of a battle within the workshop, and for a while I was battling you.

The Umbra experience preceded the canonization of Black Nationalism. I mean the formalization of theories of the meaning of Blackness which characterized the Black Arts Movement. I never liked the rigidity that came from Black World, and from Hoyt Fuller's friend Addison Gayle and the Black Aesthetic movement. For example, knowing personally and being familiar with the work of the writer LeRoi Jones, who became Baraka - I felt he was a beautiful writer of his experience, but his experience wasn't mine. For one thing, he wasn't from the South, whatever that means, but it is a different feeling from what you get in Newark, or New York. By the late '60s, I had become convinced that, if we became mere adjuncts of a national canonization of writing in Baraka's style or Don L. Lee's style, we could go but so far, because really we would only be imitating. There was something right here, and it was Black. We had to use that. It was ours.

That awareness freed me. A lot of it was because I couldn't write in the style invented by some of our most popular militant poets - it wasn't that I didn't try. So I felt it was necessary for me to discover a style I felt comfortable with. In the workshops I remember our sitting around talking about the river, the dance, what they meant to us. The lake. At the same time we were trying to relate that to what was happening not only in the national Black literary world but, as we got a sense of Africa, how Africa and the Caribbean related to and influenced us. I remember you got interested in Africa very early in the game, and went to conferences on the continent.

All of that helped us, especially with the music. It led us to an understanding of the worth of our music, how we could use it in our work, where all of that was coming from. But I didn't know any of that when I left New York. I came to a sense of the cultural and historical strength here only after my return.

ya Salaam: I think the music was so strong that there was no way around it, and if we did nothing else, we used music to a much higher degree in our work than other people did. We just didn't know it at the time.

Dent: We were ahead of our time because the national perception was that the music had left New Orleans. But we could go out on the weekends, every weekend, and hear brilliant music. I said to myself, "Wait a minute. There's a contradiction! If all the music is in New York, what are we listening to?" Not only that, our suspicions that there was a tremendous musical survivalist strength here was strengthened when friends visited us from New York or wherever and we took them out. They would say, "This is amazing!" So when the new generation of musicians appeared, and went out and made it in New York, it was a proof of what we bad already seen. There was a power in the music as it relates to community and ritual functions that doesn't exist in New York. But nobody here was talking about it. At that time, White New Orleans critics were not especially interested in our music, and they gave it no play.

ya Salaam: On another front, as I remember it, there was that fateful union of the drama workshop and the writing workshop which significantly sped up our development.

Dent: Yes, born of necessity - and one of the best accidents that ever happened. Nineteen sixty-seven was a low point in the theater's history. Bob Costley was one of those people who came here to join the 1965 company and decided to stay. He was a native of Buffalo. Bob, or "Big Daddy," as we called him, was working as news director at radio station WYLD in 1967. I was commuting to teach in Mississippi. What little season we had in the summer of 1967 was over, and in the fall we decided to try to get some workshops going. Actually, that was our second set of community workshops. We began the first ones in the summer of 1966, before you came out of the Army. In 1967, as I remember it, there was nobody attending the workshops except you and maybe one or two others, You would come to Big Daddy's drama workshop and come to my writing workshop, and finally we decided that since you were coming to both workshops, along with just a few others, we should combine the two. You were beginning to write little sketches. They weren't really plays yet, one-act sketches.

What Big Daddy did was to have all of us present actually walk through your scripts, instead of just reading them as a piece of literature. This ability to see what was happening started me writing plays, and also did the same for several others. From that point, the workshop grew. A lot of the recruits were younger people you knew, and other people from Lord knows where found their way to us.

ya Salaam: Part of that was because we began to need actors to do the scripts. We needed more people than we had in the workshop. But it also had to do with the fact that we had begun to dramatize the poetry in a very free and innovative way, and as people heard what we were doing, they were attracted to us. Dent: Well, first of all, we began to get a lot of poetry. Hardly anyone was writing stories. So we tried to figure out how to use the poems.

ya Salaam: Part of that had to do with the fact that most of these writers were not coming out of college, and didn't have a writing background. They just had emotions and ideas which they wanted to express.

Dent: One of the big problems was that even the colleges weren't offering courses in creative writing or Black literature. Before people can write effectively they have to have some context for what they're doing. That's why we were always using Wright, Ellison, the new poetry, and the new movements in jazz as reference points. You know, it's ignorance if you have an idea for a poem and you think you're the only person or the first person to ever think of that.

ya Salaam: The other thing was that whatever it was that we had, and to whatever degree it worked, its biggest success was in inspiring people throughout the deep South to do their thing where they were. I remember going to Houston, and that whole development there.

Dent: As the workshops developed, we came up with some pretty good material - a lot of poetry and a few short plays. Gilbert Moses, Denise Nicholas, Roscoe Orman the original core group - all had returned to New York to pursue their careers. John O'Neal was doing alternative military service in New York. The theater had run out of funding. This was the fall of 1967. The workshops were the only thing we had going. So we began to stage readings in the city, presenting our best poems, and very soon after that I believe Big Daddy directed one of your new plays. This is how some of the more serious people in the workshops began performing. Since it was the only performing unit we had, we called it the Free Southern Theatre, though it was comprised entirely of local people who were very different from the original FST members, almost all of whom were not from the South.

By 1969 we began receiving out-of-town invitations. We were invited to quite a few towns in Mississippi. In fact, we did a tour of Mississippi which was unforgettable, and we went to two or three towns in Texas. In Houston we were hosted by a post-Movement community organization called HOPE. We also performed at a small Black theater in San Antonio. There was also the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. I don't believe they'll forget us there.

ya Salaam: Eutaw, Alabama; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual convention in Charleston ...

Dent: ... thanks to Andy Young. That was a great experience. We performed for their "cultural night" at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium. But we stood out like a sore thumb, because our work was more militant and realistic than that audience was accustomed to. Andy might have gotten a little flak over inviting us. As I remember it, generally when we performed in those situations, the older, settled, respectable Blacks who thought they were coming to a pleasant "cultural evening" were shocked and turned off - but the young people were turned on, and wanted to hang with us afterwards.

ya Salaam: Some of the things we were doing at the time were just "out," but it was also original in the sense that each of us felt free enough to do something in our own way without having to hew to any one particular stylistic or ideological line. I remember when we would do the "hair pieces." We had three or four different hair poems. The theme was the hair, but we did it all in different ways. Growing up here in New Orleans and seeing the folk culture, like the Mardi Gras Indians, which is one distinctive phenomenon ... within the subculture everyone had his or her own distinctive suit, and you even had two very different styles of making suits. This culture taught us to value individuality, and at the same time there was a collective spirit about it. You bad the collectively without the rigid uniformity.

I'm sure that this inspired people, because they could see variety, which implicitly meant that they too could fit in. Some of those places began doing things after we left.

Dent: In Houston that was the case. I guess they said, "If they can do it, why can't we?" They started a group like ours: Sudan Arts Southwest. Then there was a more structured group, the Urban Theatre, directed by Barbara Marshall. That was a time of high aspirations for Black independent cultural efforts, right around 1970. I don't know if we'll ever see that again.

ya Salaam: What do you mean by that?

Dent: Well almost everything up to then had been done in cooperation with or with the strong support of Whites, particularly in terms of money. I'm saying "White," but I mean the gamut of formal structures - community arts centers, educational institutions - often Whites were crucial participants behind the scenes in these organizations. Then we tried to organize from a Black community base, solely. Though a lot of people rejected our independent efforts and still do, we felt this was needed, not only in term of dramatic presentation, but as an example of what Blacks in theater could do.

The point was brought home to me by Reverend Milton Upton, who was a key board member of the Free Southern Theatre. One day I apparently said something critical about Big Daddy. Milton replied, "You don't understand. Big Daddy is more than an actor in a play. Many people in our community have never seen a Black male on the stage who represents strength in his presence and voice. He opens up a whole new world for them."

We became very aware of that sort of thing. We wanted our cultural activities to be in the Black community. Those were conscious decisions, not accidents. For instance, we decided to put our theater in the Desire Project area, which was considered a very bad area, and interact with people and organizations out there. Today that wouldn't be considered "smart," but we wanted to interact positively with the Black community. Our critics said we were too militant, too political anti-White. We said we were only trying to accentuate Black cultural strengths, and there was no such thing as non-political literature and theater, at least not for us. Those Blacks who wanted to have "careers" ducked, and started looking for White folks to line up behind.

Then the funding agencies began to pull out the money, not just from us but from every independent Black cultural group in the country that didn't have Whites intricately involved with it, if it was the least bit political. Thus, all those efforts we remember as trying to bring new life in the late '60s and early '70s - small community theaters, small Black bookstores, poetry readings, music, nonacademic lectures - fell into decline, and now they are about dead. In their place we have endless talk and criticisms of technique.

ya Salaam: Talk a bit about the Southern Black Cultural Alliance because this was an attempt to go one step beyond what we could do on our own in New Orleans. It was a natural next step, but the climate in the country was going the other way.

Dent: Yes. For me personally, SBCA came out of a great dissatisfaction with the situation in the early '70s, because I knew that what they were doing in New York was about on the same level with us, but we just didn't have any money. I knew that some of the productions of the Free Southern Theatre were better than what was being done in New York But the Black cultural media establishment, to the extent that it existed, particularly Negro Digest/Black World, which was very influential, was as New York, Northern-city-based in its appraisals as were the White critical journals. This came as a shock to me at first.

No matter how many good short stories or poems we might publish in our literary magazine Nkombo, or might be published in other small community literary magazines, that didn't mean as much as one book published by Macmillan, which the Black journals reviewed, and then these writers became known. As far as theater was concerned, anything New Lafayette or the Negro Ensemble Company did received an attention which dwarfed anything we did. That was just a reality, without taking anything away from Douglas Turner Ward or Bob MacBeth or the value of their work.

I felt we in the South, no matter how faithful we were to our community mission or how important the work we were doing was, would never get any recognition unless we did something to present ourselves more aggressively. Not that we wanted to be famous, but we had to have some recognition if we were going to survive in terms of funding, or whatever rewards you need to keep going. Otherwise we would very soon be back to the situation where young actors and writers in New Orleans felt they had not arrived until they left here.

The idea of trying to have a regional association of the Southern community groups which had sprung up between '69 and '72 was based, first of all, on a need for a substantive exchange of ideas which could give us a better definition and assessment of what we were doing, but it was also based on the hope that we could expose our work more broadly to the media. I hoped that, through sponsoring a major festival, we could lure down Hoyt Fuller, or somebody, who would say, "This work is in the game and worthy of attention." But we never reached that point.

ya Salaam: We did get some recognition. Remember that Hoyt began to include us and the South in his annual theater roundup issue.

Dent: Yes, but we were writing the plays, organizing the tours, and then writing the criticism. The idea was to get him down here, or somebody other than us, to assess what we were doing.

ya Salaam: When I look back over some of the Nkombos, I end up going back to my jazz paradigm. We did a number of regional issues. We did a theater issue that had plays from all over the South. The poetry came from Florida, Birmingham, Jackson, Houston - wherever we could find folk. It was almost as if we knew that we couldn't survive in isolation, but at the same time we didn't want to be not Southern.

Dent: I may have made a mistake, though. We had a policy that we would reserve the magazine pretty much for our writers and other writers from the South. At one point Ishmael Reed asked if he could submit a piece, and I told him the magazine was not for him. The other way to have done it would have been to use some national writers, but when you do that, there's always the chance you will choke off beginning writers. The tendency is to publish more national writers while publishing less work of developing local writers.

This very conflict came up a few years later when Charles Rowell Jerry Ward, and I talked about the concept of Callaloo. My vision of it was that it would be an extension of Nkombo, and that we would develop writers. I think Jerry to some extent agreed with me. But Charles wanted to develop a national, high-quality journal with a heavy emphasis on scholarly works, which is what he did.

But you know, having done Umbra, which we did ourselves - all of it dedicated to publishing new, unpublished writers - and knowing that out of that Umbra experience we developed writers who produced over forty books in the following twenty-year period, I always believed that it could be done again. I believed that if you were going to build writers you had to provide a publishing vehicle. The objective was not to build the magazine to a profile which would become nationally known, but to build writers. Of course, as the writers developed, if you had the means to keep the magazine going, then the magazine might take on more importance. We also encouraged everybody to publish in other journals, but Nkombo was reserved for our Southern focus.

Many of the people who started off in Nkombo stopped writing. Others like yourself kept writing.

ya Salaam: One of the things that is an important aspect of the whole Southern thing is that we were more concerned about the people than about any abstract ideal of literature. I can remember our having a discussion as editors and saying that everybody who participated in the workshop would have at least one piece in the book. Although we wanted to have quality pieces, we also wanted to make sure that everybody participated.

Dent: That was an important value for us which we felt encouraged people to write. If they knew they were going to get published, they would write. To this day there's not much writing being done by young people in the South, because they have no vehicles - not even the Black newspapers. They're not going to get published. Who wants to submit a poem fifty times to the academic literary journals before you are able to publish one piece? You cannot develop literature like that.

We may have been romantic about what could happen. I think in my mind I felt we were on a mission to see theater, and to some extent literature and journalism, develop in New Orleans, never equal to, but like, our music. I say "never equal to" because the music here is so advanced, hyper-developed, that it produces geniuses. It's like comparing gardens. You have this one garden with a lot of weeds and just a few flowers, which is literature. And you have this extensive, varied, and rich garden of music. I felt we were trying to find a way to make theater work so that it would be considered useful to the Black community, similar to the way we regard our music.

Those ideas were behind the concept I tried to use in Ritual Murder. Your plays were also designed to impact the audience in a way that would create questions and suggest a sense of direction. They certainly were not designed for commercial audiences.

ya Salaam: That to me suggests an analysis. It's not simply a matter of our having failed or our lacking vision - we were actually swimming against the tide. At the time, we felt that this was the way it all should be going, yet not realizing that many of the people don a national level we thought of as role models were actually playing the game of the individual artist, and were aiming to go through the steps of making names for themselves. It's much clearer now that the two major avenues were academic, scholarly pursuits and the commercial route.

You're right about much of what we were doing: We didn't care whether it was commercial or not; we did care whether it reached the intended audience of Black people in our community. When you are not writing to impress critics but rather to reach a specific audience that you know, the work comes out differently.

Looking back, an these things are clear, but at the time we were just doing what we thought was right, and figured that other people were doing the same.

Dent: Eventually I became very depressed though. I felt we were swimming so much against the tide that we couldn't get the message to those whom we thought it was intended for, which is why I gave up the workshop. I felt that, if what we were doing was not commercial in the sense that it was not in the bookstores, not on TV, and not in the New York Times, younger people would look at it and say, "If it's so great, why isn't it getting a lot of play?" By 1980, the definition of success was back to where it was before the '60s. We were considered antiquated - or I was.

ya Salaam: The '80s were a rough time for all of us.

Dent: Yes. I felt that I couldn't get anybody to listen to me anymore, or take seriously what I was saying about literature or creativity. The models became Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Alex Haley. I didn't have any problem with that. It was just very difficult to tell young people that you have to go through certain hard steps to get to where those writers are, if that's where you want to go. For one thing you can begin by mastering stories of your people, and their struggles. And that doesn't come easy.

I think now that I was too romantic. I have come to believe that no matter what you are doing, and what it means, there is contempt for it unless people can see it in the shape of what is defined by others as success.

ya Salaam: One of my views is that there is an element of New Orleans that provides an alternative vision for that. I always use the example of these brass bands. There are people who don't own even one record by a brass band, but if a brass band passes outside they will go out and dance. They will go to the clubs at night and support it.

Dent: Oh, I agree. I didn't have any doubt about that. I never question the value of my own work, because there were people who knew what it was. I've been richly rewarded on that level. I'm talking about something else. Look at the example of the music. We knew fifteen years ago that what Ellis Marsalis was doing was valid; we knew that when Danny Barker got the kids interested in traditional brass bands that was valid, we knew that what Kidd Jordan was doing with his musical experiments was valid - but the payoff in terms of a popular image of success did not come until Wynton made it. And now because of the New York success of his sons and others, there is some attention being given to Ellis.

I've come to accept this reality, but it's not that it doesn't depress me. Ellis could still be here doing what he's doing - it would be just as valid, and just as important - but until Wynton happened - which had to do with Wynton's talent, but also with the times and the need for a new figure in jazz - until then, Ellis was ignored.

ya Salaam: Part of what we're dealing with is to find validation for an identity which chooses to exist or to find its main root outside of the main-stream. Part of what you're relating is the depressing fact that, partially in order for there to be mass acceptance, what we do has to be validated...

Dent: ... through the New York machine, which doesn't really validate anything - it just puts a stamp of "success" on it. That's just one vision of success. I have a problem with it, but I recognize it as a reality.

There's another thing that I feel is there. As writers, to the extent that we give expression to the valid aspirations and experiences of our people, there will eventually be a readership, but it may not be in New York, it may not be in America, and it may not be until long after we are dead. As African and Caribbean literature and scholarship become more active forces in the next century, there will probably be a reassessment of what African American writers have done, and are doing.

I recall Toni Morrison saying something about the publishing industry which I've never forgotten: Eighty percent of the books sold in the United States are sold within a three-hundred-mile radius of New York City. Black readership means nothing to the New York publishers; there are not enough Blacks buying books to mean anything to any major publisher in New York City The only time it may ever have happened was during the peak of the Black Studies programs, when schools ordered so many copies of Invisible Man or The Souls of Black Folk, so those books were republished.

This means almost any book by a Black writer is evaluated, in terms of how many copies it will sell to Whites. And this necessarily impacts, one way or another, the structure and substance of what we write as Black writers.

ya Salaam: The same thing is happening with rap. The majority of the people who buy rap recordings are White.

Dent: Okay, so it's changing but my point is that eventually economic and critical evaluations of Afro-American literature will be impacted by the emergence from neocolonialism of the new nations of Africa and the so-called Third World. They'll develop a greater control over their own cultures and self-image. What we're witnessing now, as I see it, is a slow shift, or maybe drift is a better term, away from the dominance of the "first world," which overwhelmingly controls how they and other peoples of the world are depicted through absolute control of the media, including what is sold in bookstores.

As African and diasporan, particularly Caribbean, literature becomes more assertive, and hopefully as literacy develops, new standards of image and criticism will emerge, with a healthier and more balanced respect for the diversity and cultural resources of our peoples. In fact, this is beginning to happen now in the poetry and criticism of, for example, Kamau Brathwaite, who stands perfectly positioned at the center of the African diaspora experience. In fact, we can anticipate that, a hundred years from now, the most important creative and critical diasporan ideas will be coming from the Caribbean. This can already be detected, I think, in music. Caribbean music is influencing African music, which in turn is beginning to impact Afro-American music. In terms of musical shifts, the basic innovations revolve around the influence and use of percussion.

ya Salaam: Yes, the rhythm emphasis is the primal focus or foundation of our music; every innovation is always accompanied by an appropriate rhythmic innovation. In fact, in many, many cases, one can simply listen to the rhythm section or the bask rhythms and tell not only what style of music it is but also tell what era the music is from or is based on.

The other part of your statement, however, is the most radical statement thus far and fits into the concept of continuing the tradition - or "carrying on," as the old folks would say it. You have articulated a very important concept which is deeply embedded in all Afrocentric cultures: Everything we do is done in homage to the ancestors and as a gift to our children, rather than solely as a means of personal expression for whatever reason, whether to meet the most romantic or noble political goals or simply to garner attention or aggrandizement. I do not mean that we should get nothing in the here-and-now, but rather than in the long run it means nothing if what we do has no meaning in the continuum, if it does not contain elements of the past and seeds for the future. We are the history of our future.

Another part of what you're saying is that, in essence, there is no win for us right now, because the audience that we are writing for has not yet coalesced.

Dent: Yes, not yet coalesced and come into control of the media.

ya Salaam: I can remember that one issue of Nkombo where we talked about not being about explaining our literature to White folks!

Dent: But so much of our literature does exactly that. You could read almost all of Black literature, from slave narratives right up to contemporary works, as ways of explaining who we are to White readers. Also, to the extent Whites can hook into it, that guarantees a large readership and book buyership.

The other thing to think about is that, because of the low level of literacy, even in the Western world, and the advances of technology, two or three hundred years from now, there might not be many readers at all. Most stories or drama may eventually become fodder for television, recordings, cinema, or some new form of technical dissemination. Some books are recorded now. But that doesn't mean that it's not important to write. Somebody has to write the material for these projects, although the writing may become the conception rather than the product itself.

ya Salaam: The implicit speaking to White audiences explains to a large degree what I consider to be the failure in much of the current wave of Black cinema, which is not rooted in a vision of Blackness that progresses beyond voyeurism.

Dent: And sensationalism. Yes, I agree. On the National Geographic brass band film you and I worked on directed by St. Clair Bourne, we decided that the commentators on the music, as well as the profiled musicians themselves, would be Black. It's very subtle, but it provides a different feel to have a Danny Barker or a Michael White comment on the music. They come from the culture which we are portraying and they know it. But opportunities like the brass band film have been rare. For a while there, I felt quite a bit of despair over the fact that there was little understanding of what we were trying to do.

ya Salaam: While we are not seeking Whites as a validating audience, we are seeking to be the validators of our art. African American culture specifically, and Afrocentric cultures in general, are probably the only cultures in the world in which the foremost experts on that culture are generally people who are not of that culture. Especially, although not exclusively, this is true of our music and our literature. We've improved somewhat with literature, but with music it's horrible. It's the ultimate colonialism for someone outside of my culture not only to interpret but indeed to explicate and define what we meant when we made our artistic statements. These alien critics are not simply saying how they interpret our work or what our work means to them, both of which are perfectly acceptable; they're saying something deeper, something which is actually impermissible. They are telling us what we actually meant when we created our work. That's cultural imperialism.!

Anyway, both of us have been doing quite a bit of taping, oral history, whatever you want to call it. However, we do not come from an academic background in our approach. Can you speak a little about this?

Dent: Yes. The emphasis in most academic criticism is on authentication and record keeping, not on creativity. For example, most of the people who do academic work on Black New Orleans history end up focusing on the Creoles, because they left written records. But when you consider someone like Buddy Bolden, or the phenomenon of Congo Square, or any aspect of our culture which has come down through oral narration to us, then academics have a hard time understanding that history, since it is not documented in writing. Usually, they just ignore those aspects of us which they can't corroborate through sources they would accept.

For instance, Don Marquis's book In Search of Buddy Bolden is interesting, but so much of what he had was from police records, census records, and newspapers that you get this skewed, exterior picture based on how the majority community viewed the Black community. But in terms of the soul and the sound of what Buddy Bolden was playing, or some integral feeling for the genius that Buddy Bolden must have had that made him such a dominant figure - well there's this big hole. As we move more and more into the academies where, when you publish, you have to footnote and you have to document, you are driven away from anything that is adventure-some or creative or ...

ya Salaam: ... doesn't leave a paper trail.

Dent: Right. But we know with jazz that the innovations were done outside of what academe deals with. Some of it is recorded but, well it's just a moving away from the creative. What you end up with is fifty more critical papers on Black Boy or Invisible Man, or even a more obscure novel like The Street, rather than even four or five real explorations of what was happening with innovative Black arts groups.

ya Salaam: Right, and this is precisely why it is so important that we document what we are doing. We have a responsibility to make it possible for our children to have a way of knowing who we were and what we were doing. The main reason that the musk hasn't been entirely co-opted is because so much of it was documented through recordings. Critics might write all clay that Michael Brecker is the greatest tenor saxophonist of his time period, but we have, for example, Joe Henderson's records to compare to Michael Brecker's records - and our own ears become the ultimate critic. But when it comes to literature, so much of our work is not easy to find in print.

And on another level, I run into the power of our documentation a lot. Even though we often had a run no larger than one or two thousand on the material that we published in those early years, it had an impact far and wide. As I travel around today, it's amazing; I continue to run into people who relate to me from the FST/BLKARTSOUTH era. I was in Los Angeles doing a poetry performance, and a young lady came up and had a copy of one of my first books. Just recently I was in Houston and my friend's brother, who teaches drama in the Houston school system, said to me, "I remember you as Val Ferdinand from the Free Southern Theatre. I went to school at Woodson and y'all came over and performed." And so forth and so on. I think that the impact of what we had and have is valid for the audience that we reach. It may never be popular in this time period, as you say, but the strength of it is undeniable.

Dent: When that happens, it makes me feel good too. But you can't rest on that. In this work, you just keep struggling along searching for new connections and discoveries. Unfortunately, there's no time to rest and be satisfied with what you did yesterday. We've got to keep on pushing.
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Title Annotation:Black South Fiction, Art, Culture
Author:Salaam, Kalamu ya
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:11046
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