The art of Tom Dent: notes on early evidence.
During the 2001 MLA Annual Convention (New Orleans) special session "In the Wind of History," which I organized, several writers, scholars, and friends had the opportunity to discuss the life and work of Tom Dent--poet, playwright, cultural nationalist, and co-founder of the 1960"s Umbra poetry workshop in New York's Lower East Side. As an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and a leader of the Free Southern Theater and the BLKARTSOUTH writing workshops in New Orleans, Dent continued to write and publish, including the play Ritual Murder (directed by Chakula cha Jua, 1976), the books of poetry Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982), and his innovative study of Southern culture, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997). With the editorial staff of AAR, I am pleased to present selections from the 2001 MLA panel that honored my friend and colleague.--Violet Harrington Bryan, Xavier University
Unless one is engaged in the task of writing a fairly comprehensive biography, the study of a writer rarely begins with attention to her or his juvenilia. A writer's early attempts to overcome various anxieties of influence, to master the intricacies of language, and to forge a distinctive voice are either dismissed or trivialized. This habit, or perhaps convention, precludes opportunities to inquire into the origins of the writer's ultimate achievement and power. Valid inquiries, of course, can be initiated at points other than the formative years. Nevertheless, our insights into the writer's style and aesthetic might be strengthened by trying to identify the literary origins of creative production. This procedure is especially germane in efforts to account for Tom Dent's importance as an African American writer and intellectual.
The governing presupposition for these notes is a claim about quality in writing. The art or skill that makes good writing is a possession of value and an activity of mind that is never exactly, as Richard Wright accurately proposed in "Blueprint for Negro Writing," on the page. The art is in perspective. The page is a catalyst for the engagement of the reader's mind with that of the writer; they collaborate on a vision of reality, agreeing or disagreeing as the case might be. Thomas Covington Dent (or as he preferred, Tom Dent), a New Orleans writer best known for his work with Free Southern Theater and his extraordinarily popular play Ritual Murder, his electric mentorship of younger writers and artists, and his work in oral history that culminated in Southern Journey (1997), certainly had perspective in the sense that Richard Wright intended; Dent also had subtle political and historically analytic perspectives on African American cultures. These perspectives are richly manifested in Dent's fledgling work as a journalist, specifically from writing produced during his tenure as editor-in-chief of the Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College newspaper, during 1951-52. His editorials in Volume 53, Numbers 1-6, provide early evidence of what we are beginning to understand about his orientation toward reality, his aesthetic preferences, his complex and historically grounded modes of thought and expression. (1) This evidence, crucial for a full assessment of Dent's later work, marks Dent as a writer from the Black South who sought more than the vapors of fame.
Dent's college editorials range from his measured pronouncements as a serious undergraduate political science major and history minor in the role of journalist to the playful wittiness that became a telling feature in his later writings. (2) In these notes, brief summaries of the editorials must substitute for the pleasure of reading them in the context of other articles that bespeak a collegial mindset in the 1950s.
The editor's corner of November 2, 1951, is entitled "Who Is To Blame? For Fixes and Scandals." Drawing attention to the expulsion of 90 West Point cadets "for cribbing on examination," Dent found the incident to be an illustration of "what fruits a system of overemphasis on college athletics has brought and will bring."
Dent was keenly aware that events and decisions are not one-dimensional. Blame, as he discerned, was systemic. The athletes alone should not be blamed for being immoral and corrupt, for they were "part of an immorality which has engulfed not one, but all phases of our society" (2). Their fault was getting caught. In Dent's view, the "whole conception of life needs a serious revamping." The young Dent echoed the idealism of his generation and of the self-contradicting 1950s in the closing paragraphs:
We are beginning to see what's happening, and people everywhere are realizing that something somewhere is mighty wrong. Men of truth and wisdom see that we have neglected the basic ideals of life for a mechanical panacea which is expected to give all the answers. They realize that the machine is only a pseudo-solution for life's problems, and urge a speedy return to simple and basic qualities like decency and truth. Indeed our teachings and emphasis must reside on these essential qualities if our civilization is to survive (2).
Dent's pronouncement is to be interpreted in the context of concerns for freedom, democracy, and civil rights and of unrest among "people everywhere" caught in the machinations of the Cold War. With time, Dent's idealism would be transformed into pragmatism, but he would always believe in decency and truth.
In the November 30, 1951, issue of Maroon Tiger, Dent moved from social moralizing to the humor of language in a philosophy course at Morehouse. "Danger! For Students in Philosophy Only" (2) deconstructed the ease of answering questions about the metaphysical first principles of Parmenides in Sam Williams's eight o'clock course by pointing to the danger of asking certain questions. "Mr. Williams, if God made the world in the beginning he must have been here before the beginning. How can that be?" (2). Dent writes that he answered the question in a way that illustrated the fundamental instability of language: "Well God didn't make the world in the beginning; he was the beginning, and then made the world. But when he saw what kind of world it turned out to be, he decided that the biggest mistake he made was to make anything at all; so he destroyed everything and made the world over again which was another beginning and that's how God got here before the beginning." All was well in the course until the same student asked "Well who made God?" (2). Dent emphasized the slipperiness of language and the oddity of humor by sandwiching the editorial between "poetic" opening and closing lines:
Man, I got Sam at eight o'clock in the morn. How far is it from the top of Graves Hall to the lawn? ... You see what I mean by "dangerous." Man, I got Sam at eight o'clock in the morn, Wouldn't it be wonderful to land on that lawn.
We may assume that a small number of Morehouse men valued Dent's ability to detect funny moments in the daily grind of higher education. In a letter-to-the-editor published a few months later, William Borders complimented Dent with subtle humor of his own.
Dear Mr. Dent: I am writing you concerning your article on philosophy as taught by Mr. Williams. You should be commended for your splendid technique, your choice of words, connectives, and most of all, your sense of humor. The last factor, I believe, stimulated an abundance of interest. The analysis of a typical class period definitely wipes away all doubt in my mind as to the course and most of all, the instructor. Suffice it to say that your article exemplifies the qualities of good English. Keep the good work up! (3)
Borders's tone suggests that we might seek to locate Dent's humor in the particular ways he situated Standard American English.
At the beginning of 1952, the last semester of his senior year, Dent had much good work to do. He had to deal with a crisis endemic among college newspapers: lack of genuine support from students. The January 17, 1952, Editor's Corner was replaced by Harold A. Hamilton's guest editorial "Importance of Being Earnest," a gesture designed "to establish cooperation between the Maroon Tiger and Clark Panther." Hamilton was the editor of the Clark College paper. For this issue, Dent wrote "A Crisis Is Near," lamenting that producing the newspaper "has been a one-man affair.... The Maroon Tiger should not be a one-man production. It takes too much time away from the editor, who has to go to school too" (2). Dent claimed that since he had become editor, "never has even half of the material come in on time. It is always necessary to hunt the person down to get his article, and in a great many cases the Editor has to write the article himself if he is to get his material in to the publisher on time" (2).
He also wrote a brief reply to a suggestion that more students would read the paper if the articles pertained less to sports and more to the "life of the student." Dent indicated he would be happy to receive "any definite suggestions as to articles that would be "more interesting' to the student body as a whole" (2). These commonplaces do cast a pinpoint of light on Dent's later concerns with all facets of writing as a discipline, especially the importance of listening to audiences.
Dent's major editorial, "Younger Generation Sad Representative of American Youth" (Vol. 52, No. 4, 27 Feb. 1952), reflects on a conclusion reached in the November 5, 1951 issue of Time. Dent agrees with Time editors that "the younger generation ... lacks drive, lacks a belief in something, and just lacks--period" (2). The conclusion, Dent wrote, was "without a doubt justified" (2). He echoed the prevailing sociological view of his "complacent" generation in bold print and italics:
But even the stigma of confusion doesn't characterize our generation properly. Many generations have been confused, but it seems to me that the outstanding characteristic of our generation is an apathy and general attitude of nonchalance. We lack zip, fire, and spirit. We aren't for anything and we aren't against anything. We just let things rest if they'll let us rest. This, to me, seems to be very bad because it means that we are making no attempt to get out of the confusion. We don't want to fight it, we're too tired. We've had too much fighting and there is no desire to do any more of it. (2)
Dent was writing from the perspective that belonged to the dream world of his youth, which he later described in Southern Journey as "a nonracial world, where we would find solace from the exclusively black world we were confined to, where the color of our skin, our racial heritage, did not matter" (2).
The power of unstated integrationist assumptions inhabits Dent's language, his pronoun "we" having a decidedly James Baldwin flavor but not the strategic force of Baldwin's habitual undermining of American fallacies. Nevertheless, Dent had the foresight to suggest that it was delayed trauma rather than complacency that stymied his generation: "Born in a depression, raised during a war and being drafted to fight a new one if we didn't fight the last one, we have experienced nothing but insecurity" ("Younger Generation Sad" 2). Dent thus displaces the conclusion presented by one Time correspondent that youth would not engage in "a voracious striking out from security, wealth and stability" ("The Younger Generation" 52). One could not strike out from a security one had never known, he suggests. Moreover, as Dent notes in the editorial, the prospect of being drafted for military service during the Cold War produced special anxieties for college-aged black males. Dent's acceptance of prevailing liberal ideology and the intuition that his generation might someday become world leaders was fraught with conflict. The early evidence of his struggle for balance in a nonracial framework urges us to consider how differently he would present the dilemma of racial exclusion and civil complicity in later essays and poems. It was perhaps comforting to Dent that Carter Wesley, editor of the Houston Informer, suggested in response to his editorial that both adults and youths were confused but that "one has to have a code one live by from day-to-day, based upon the fundamentals of virtue. The only peace in this world for a man lies in his own soul ..." (Wesley 2). (4)
Dent's April 1952 editorial "When Professors Object We Must Always Yield" humorously narrates the outrage of Professor N. P. Tillman that lines from his 1917 poem "Tryst" had been quoted without citation in A. Russell Brooks's article on the MAROON TIGER as a human document (Brooks 5). (5) According to Dent, Tillman threatened to sue for violation of copyright. Dent reminded Tillman that the poem had been published in a 1917 issue of the Maroon Tiger and that the newspaper did not have a copyright. Tillman proclaimed he would have the matter brought before the discipline committee. Such a committee, to Dent's knowledge, did not exist. Feigning repentance, Dent wrote: "I'm sorry we hurt your feelings, Mr. Tillman. We will never print another word about you in the Maroon Tiger" (2). Dent did not print one word about Tillman. He printed several about the professor who was too "chicken" (Dent's word) to appreciate free publicity. The heart of the editorial narrates the exchange between Tillman and Dent, and Dent's final sentence is wonderfully ironic: "O Lord! Now I never will find out who Aberdeen was!" Dent pretended an inability to distinguish a place from a person.
Dent's final editorial, "The Summing Up and Moving On," appeared in the May 21, 1952, issue. Unsurprisingly, Dent, an avid sports fan, called for more positive support among administrators, faculty, and students for extracurricular activities, especially athletics. He did not urge favoritism but a clearer understanding that "education is a broad process, and that by refusing to cooperate with other activities that students are interested in beside their assignments they [the faculty] are failing to fully educate the student "(2). It is surprising, however, that Dent's chief complaint regarded tradition at Morehouse. That particular criticism merits full quotation:
There is another evil which grows out of this traditionalism which I think is slightly evident at Morehouse. It is a sort of provincialism or stagnation. Some of the members of the Morehouse community have been here so long that they have become insensitive to outside happenings. This is a criticism I have of some of the members of the Morehouse faculty. They are well qualified but many of them have been here so long that they have become ignorant of new methods, discoveries, etc. I want to make it clear that this is not true of all Morehouse teachers, but it is true of too many of them. This is bad because it means that students who study under these teachers and go out into the world community or to higher institutions of learning will not be adequately prepared. Antiquated theory will not do in an ever-changing world. We must live with our times if we are to survive" (2, 7).
Dent did not aim his parting shots at the philosophical traditions that defined the role of his alma mater in the history of African American cultures. His target was the kind of pedagogy that miseducated and underprepared black students. Having been trained to think critically at Morehouse by the brilliant political scientist Robert Brisbane, Dent could discriminate effectively between the value of honoring tradition and the negation that resulted from blind "worship" of traditions. The work Dent would produce during the next four decades is marked by his penchant for reason, for surgical analysis of affairs, for being on the cutting edge of history's progress.
In his post-Morehouse life and writing (1953-1998), Dent abandoned antiquated theory to participate fully in the political and cultural transformations of the latter twentieth century. He abandoned tradition and the doctoral program in political science at Syracuse University to immerse himself in activities that no doubt alarmed the black middle class into which he was born. His participation in founding the legendary Umbra Workshop (1962-1965), his civil rights activity as associate director of the Free Southern Theater, his teaching younger writers through the Free Southern Theater workshops and the Congo Square Writers Union, his promotion of cultural and historical awareness through the projects of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, his continuing research on music, folklife, and history as executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, his final contribution to civil rights historiography in Southern Journey--all of these experiences deployed his powerful writing skills.
The early evidence of the editorials of the Maroon Tiger suggests that Dent was consistent in holding onto primal values, to a code, even as he adopted new modes of expression to free himself from ideas that the bourgeois imagination sought to imprint upon his generation. Behind Dent's writing is the firm belief that one must discover critical values in a sense of history, that one must discover perspectives that are effective in an ever-changing world.
What endures most in the work of Tom Dent is perspective, the vantage points at which a writer places words, so that readers see the purpose of collecting experiences and data and assessing them while recognizing one never knows enough and, then, laughing to prevent self-destruction in confusion and despair. In summing up his education at Morehouse and his experiences as an undergraduate journalist, Dent confessed:
In my four years I have learned two things. One is that I don't know anything and the second is to laugh. Since you don't know anything, about the best you can do is laugh it off and try again ("The Summing Up ..." 7).
Borders, William. Letter. Maroon Tiger 27 Feb. 1952: 2.
Brooks, A. Russell. "TIGER Lists Many Notables; Has Rich and Colorful History." Maroon Tiger 27 Feb. 1952: 5.
Dent, Thomas. "A Crisis Is Near." Maroon Tiger 17 Jan. 1952: 2.
--. "Danger! For Students in Philosophy Only." Maroon Tiger 30 Nov. 1951: 2.
--."The Summing Up and Moving On." Maroon Tiger 21 May 1952: 2, 7.
--. "When Professors Object We Must Always Yield." Maroon Tiger 15 Apr. 1952: 2.
--. "Who Is To Blame? For Fixes and Scandals." Maroon Tiger 21 Nov. 1951: 2.
--. "Younger Generation Sad Representative of American Youth. Maroon Tiger 27 Feb. 1952: 2.
Dent, Tom. Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
"The Younger Generation." Time 5 Nov. 1951: 46-52.
Ward, Jerry W., Jr. Unpublished interview with Tom Dent. Tougaloo, MS, 1-2 Aug. 1986.
Wesley, Carter. Letter. Maroon Tiger, 15 Apr. 1952: 2.
(1.) My efforts to find a complete archive of the Maroon Tiger at Clark-Atlanta University and Morehouse College led to a dead-end. In these notes, I use the bound issues of Volume 53 that Dent gave me a few years before his death. These will be deposited in the future at either Dillard University or the Amistad Research Center. The dating of the six issues is irregular:
#1 Vol. 53, No. 1 (November 2, 1951)
#2 Vol. 53, No. 2 (November 30, 1951)
#3 Vol. 52, No. 3 (January 17, 1952)
#4 Vol. 52, No. 4 (February 27, 1952)
#5 Vol. 52, No. 4 (April 15, 1952)--on pages 1-2, the date is April 15, 1952--on page 3, the date is given as April 14, 1952--on pages 4-6, the date is April 15, 1952
#6 Vol. 53, No. 6 (May 21, 1952)
I believe the identification of Nos. 3-5 as belonging to Vol. 52 is a printer's error.
(2.) In 1986, Dent remarked that Lerone Bennett, who edited Maroon Tiger during 1948-49, had produced a great paper. As a 16-year-old freshman, Dent admired Bennett and other Wold War II veterans who "were very active in protesting against some of the more rigid paternalism that goes on in black colleges" (Ward).
(3.) William Borders Letter to the Editor. Maroon Tiger, 27 Feb. 1952, 2.
(4.) Wesley, Dent's father's friend and a man of express political views, had a very positive influence on Dent's education as Dent worked with Wesley during summers in Houston. Dent was attracted to Wesley because he sensed that the man was ahead of his time (Ward).
(5.) The line that Brooks quotes is "O Love, O Love, to Aberdeen 'Tis many a long, long mile." Brooks did not violate the principle of fair use.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is Professor of English and African World Studies at Dillard University.
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|Author:||Ward, Jerry W., Jr.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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