The need to speak: Tom Dent and the shaping of a black aesthetic.
... we are as radical as society demands the truth to be.--"Foreword." Umbra 1 (1963)
Greenwich Village has always been an irresistible lure to the talented and ambitious.
"The Village," wrote Anatole Broyard in 1989, remembering his arrival as an aspiring writer from New Orleans, "was as close in 1946 as it would ever come to Paris in the twenties. Rents were cheap, restaurants were cheap, and it seemed to me that happiness itself might be cheaply had. The streets and bars were full of writers and painters and the kind of young men and women who liked to be around them" (Kafka 8).
A decade earlier, writing a stylish column in the New York Times, Broyard characterized his bohemian days somewhat differently. He admitted to a phase of rebellion. Starting out from Brooklyn, where his family settled after leaving New Orleans, he writes: "I ran away to Greenwich Village, where no one had been born of a mother and father, where the people I met had sprung from their own brows, or from the pages of a bad novel. We buried our families in the common grave of the generation gap" ("Growing Up" 66). Broyard and his friends assumed new identifies. "Orphans of the avant-garde," he says, "we outdistanced our history and our humanity" ("Growing Up" 66). In his case, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., showed in a New Yorker profile, Anatole Broyard also outdistanced his connection to his African American background.
In 1980, Tom Dent, another young man from New Orleans, recalled that "coming to New York in 1959 I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't really know what that meant" ("Umbra Days" 105). He, too, would be attracted to the Village scene. Earlier he had worked on the student paper at Morehouse College and as a cub reporter for editor Carter Wesley's militant Houston Informer. In New York he quickly found a journalism job. At Harlem's venerable New York Age, a newspaper founded in 1885 that had once employed James Weldon Johnson, Dent had an opportunity to work with the dynamic Charles Sumner Stone. Later as protege of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Chuck Stone served as a powerful editor of the Age beginning in 1959. Other staff members included Calvin Hicks and visual artist Tom Feelings (Dawkins 23; Dent, "Umbra Days" 105).
It was a good job while it lasted. During 1961, between the end of his job at the Age and landing a position with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Dent experienced a tough period but survived with characteristic aplomb. His boyhood friend Andrew Young--they'd been classmates at New Orleans's Gilbert Academy--put him up for a while. And put up with him. Young recalled: "Tom liked to drink expensive wine although he couldn't seem to afford his own apartment. I used to like to pour jug wine into one of Tom's fancy bottles and laugh while he enjoyed his 'fine wine'" (125). Young, who was working for the National Council of Churches at the time, looked with amusement on Tom's desire to be seen as (to use Young's phrase) a "sophisticated intellectual." But, of course, that's exactly what Tom was; being broke authenticated his intellectualism.
With his new job at the NAACP, working as public relations representative for Legal Defense Fund lawyers Constance Baker Motley and Jack Greenberg, Dent--much to Andy Young's relief--eventually managed to find an affordable flat at 242 East 2nd Street on Manhattan's fabled lower East Side (Dent, "Portrait" 256; Oren 180). The old tenements, soon to be described by real estate agents as the "East Village," offered low rents, no amenities, and more than a few surprises.
As a newcomer to New York City in the late 1950s, Dent was one of those college-educated African Americans who found themselves in a previously unanticipated racially integrated milieu that--in their view--created as many problems for them as benefits. Tall and soft-spoken, dignified in bearing, Tom Dent was a man distinguished by an aura of efficiency and a quiet authority. Perceptive and analytical regarding social and political relationships, he was always careful to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems.
Dent was raised in a segregated society, so he often complained that he had been brought up under an educational system in the South that not only ignored black literature but lacked a concept of blackness period. The purpose of this education, he said, was to turn the members of his college-educated generation into "whites in brown skins by mastering white standards' ("Umbra Days" 105).
On the Lower East Side, however, he found himself in a community marked by a kaleidoscope of ethnic diversity. There was, in fact, a certain self-conscious displacement among the young black residents of the neighborhood. As David Henderson expresses in "Downtown-Boy Uptown" (1964):
I stand in my low east window looking down. Am I in the wrong slum? The sky appears the same; Birds fly, planes fly, clouds puff, days go ... (11. 18-21)
According to Amiri Baraka, who lived on Cooper Square, many of these young people also felt conflicted regarding the Civil Rights Movement. "We did not feel part of the movement," he wrote in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. "Most of us were isolated from the mainstream of the black community and we did not reflect, in an undistorted way, that consciousness. Our consciousness, in the main, was that of young black intellectuals 'integrated' to within a hair's breadth of our life" (248-49).
Those who were resourceful could, of course, take the A train.
"We'd go up to Harlem," says poet David Henderson, "and we would see the orator Porkchop Davis on his ladder, near Lewis Michaux's bookstore. They'd be talking that stuff, man. That Black Nationalism, 'Buy Black'--they'd go through the whole thing. So you could just go up to Harlem, get washed in blackness, then come back downtown" (Interview; see also De Jongh 162-66).
Back downtown, the young black writers sought out each other. Dent and the disparate group of artists and intellectuals he began to associate with discovered that they had some important things in common.
"The thing we were all angry about," recalled Henderson, "part of what we all wanted to get away from was being that 50s [sic] Negro, that conforming Negro."
They also shared a tantalizingly ambitious sense of possibility.
"We had come to New York," Dent said, "to try to escape our parochial beginnings, our home towns and neighborhoods, to try to find ourselves and to find each other" ("Umbra Days" 106).
Finding kindred spirits, however--in New York City as anywhere else--involved the dangerous business of recognizing the difference between substance and shadow, facade, and pretense, discovering how to penetrate defenses, perhaps learning to manage one's own masks and vulnerabilities.
One of Dent's poems from the period, "Come Visit My Garden" (1964), is an attempt to expose the relationship of overt artifice to hidden menace, to maintain order against the chaos of the "hot, hot day."
Come dream with me, sings the poet, while I surgically remove thorns from my sweet roses Enjoy with me the insulation of my methodically erected clean brick walls (ll. 16-23)
This urban pastoral is interestingly reminiscent of William Carlos Williams as much in its hint of repression as in its precise lineation; and, of course, it also suggests a purposeful parody of a trope popular in English-language poetry since the days of Edmund Spenser. Mrs. Bowen at Gilbert Academy and the professors at Morehouse College had done their work well.
Early in 1962 Dent met with poets Calvin Hernton and David Henderson and discussed the idea of a series of poetry workshops. Soon there were numbers of young black poets gathered at Tom's apartment--a group that included writers who became "some of the most productive in Afro-American literature" and authors of more than 40 books in the next 20 years (Oren 220; see also Hernton, "Umbra" 580 and Dent, "Umbra Days" 106). This group may also be credited with forming the nexus of what became known as the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1960s and 1970s.
It became popular during the 1990s to characterize the Black Arts Movement as an era of rampant misogyny and homophobia marked by virulent anti-white rhetoric. Some scholars have suggested that the roots of these flaws can be found in the earliest articulations of the movement. Critic Jerry Gafio Watts, for example, somewhat reductively notes that the political groups launched by the black Lower East Siders in 1960 and 1961--the Organization of Young Men (OYM) and Calvin Hicks's On Guard for Freedom--were, like Dent's later call for a poetry group, responses to the participants' feeling of social isolation. "Many of those who felt ethnically illegitimate," writes Watts, "because of their distance from the political struggle of black America [e.g., the Civil Rights Movement in the South] as well as their romantic involvement with white partners soon became exceedingly ethnically identified. Extremism is the religion of recent converts" (86).
Of course, there are problems with Watts's grandiloquent attempt to ascribe what might be an insightful diagnosis of a personal response to a psychological crisis as the motivation of a large group of people.
For my purposes, suffice it to say that the greatest impact of groups such as OYM, On Guard for Freedom, and the association of the members of these groups with the rival ad hoc committees to aid Robert F. Williams, a militant who was then head of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, was that they introduced many of these talented individuals to each other (see Dent, "Umbra Days" 105; Baraka, Autobiography 248-50). And the most important product of these associations, arguably, was the establishment of a literary group called, rather grandly, the Society of Umbra.
The official mythology has it that Dent, feeling isolated, gathered around him a few kindred spirits. In fact, the group that became Umbra developed in just a few weeks from being Dent's acquaintances to an organization. Clearly there was something more to Umbra than a few serendipitous friendships and a somewhat chaotic string of events.
In an elegant and thorough study, critic Michel Oren analyzed the dynamics of this group in terms of the sociology of subcultures and the history of avant-garde artistic movements. Unlike Richard Miller, who contended that all 19th- and 20th-century African American cultural expressions have been alternative or tangential to the "mainstream" values of the United States (201-02), Oren pointed out that Umbra was a self-consciously innovative gesture made by alienated young men exploring a bohemian lifestyle. They were not accidental rebels.
The innovative poetics of the Umbra group drew upon their extensive knowledge of the Anglo-American canon they had been taught in school--something that Dent, among others, felt resentful about--as well as their independent exploration of earlier black writers and their understanding of the African American culture in which, regardless of social class affiliation, they had all been raised. As Aldon Nielsen perceptively remarks, these writers "were working with materials they had gathered from inside the tradition, but they were working them in new ways" (115). Most of the Umbra writers shared Hernton's perception that immediate change--both personal and societal--was necessary to address the nation's racial dilemma, the legacy of slavery that has produced "crippling distortions that persist in contemporary America" (Woo B11).
In his poem "Ten Years After Umbra" (1975), Dent recalled the workshop as a collective quest. But it was also a group of proud, intelligent young men, aged 18 to 35, and Dent recognized that part of their interaction meant
we had seen our fingertips recoil our minds reel from the impact of our tongued knives (Dent, "Ten Years" 11. 8-12)
The poetry evenings at Dent's East 2nd Street apartment were intense. As Hernton recalled:
The workshops and discussions were exacting, exhausting, and challenging. On any particular Friday night, if you were the twenty-first person in the room to read your work, it meant that you had to sit through freewheeling comments of twenty very perceptive and candid critics. Nobody was spared. If your skin were thin, you were sure to bleed at some point or other: You would get angry, defensive, and you might depart just short of physical combat. ("Umbra" 581)
In fact, there was more than one occasion when a poet's response to a critic was, "Yeah, you're right. Now we can just take this s--t outside."
The extreme intensity of the workshop had a positive effect on those who could take it. As Ishmael Reed told interviewer John O'Brien in 1973, he had come to New York to pursue a career as a writer "thinking that I was going to be a W. B. Yeats." Instead, he began to discover his own voice, he said, and--in the Umbra Workshop-"I developed my style further from contact with such people as Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Joe Johnson, Steve Cannon, and Tom Dent. They embarrassed me into writing all my own way" (O'Brien 170; italics added).
There were, of course, other dimensions of this dynamic gathering. "There would always be a gallon of communal wine," remembered Rashidah Ismaili-Abu-Bakr, "ashtrays filled with cigarettes, and loud voices contending to be heard over others. After a few hours of discussion of the latest poems and the contents of so-and-so's novel the girlfriends would start to arrive." She says that it only dawned upon her later that "all of the women were White" (586).
In addition to providing a practical poetry workshop and a focus for socializing, the Society of Umbra also became known for dynamic poetry readings. The group took full advantage of the open poetry readings at various coffee houses. "Umbra poets," notes literary historian Daniel Kane, "consciously adapted the highly visible and orally-centered poetry scene of the Lower East Side to their own ideas on poetic form and race consciousness, particularly those ideas that led black poets to associate contemporary poetry readings with African oral traditions. Umbra poets pointed post-modern poetics back to their own experience, and recontextualized a mostly homogeneous white reading scene" (4). Among the more experimental of the Umbra group in this regard were Norman H. Pritchard, Joe Johnson, and Askia Muhammad Toure (then known as Rolland Snellings). According to Dent, when the Umbra poets appeared as a group, "the readings were sensations." At the time, "just the idea of black poets reading, and using the language black people speak, was unique--no other group had done that" ("Umbra Days" 107).
Among the more ambitious Umbra productions was a Freedom North Arts Festival--"saluting the Freedom Movement and showcasing the works of Negro painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, and musicians"--held in July 1963 at St. Mark's Church (Young, Dixonia 61).
Another fascinating event featured several Umbra poets at a "cocktail sip" held on a Sunday afternoon in a plush Brooklyn supper club. The poets came on at three in the afternoon, to be followed by a special personal appearance by Ruby and the Romantics. The audience was strictly black bourgeoisie, impeccably mannered, resplendent In Vogue and GQ fashions. Hernton was the undisputed hit of the afternoon, with members of the audience afterwards queuing up to shake his hand and, while "Our Day Will Come" spun softly in the background, to ask him for tips on what number to play on Monday morning.
In a meeting that followed parliamentary procedure, Umbra also decided to take on the daunting project of publishing a literary magazine. In some ways the group aspired to be a guild, and the writers, musicians, and painters who attended meetings understood the value of promoting themselves and each other. But while Umbra was a sometimes fractious collective and quite loudly democratic, some sensed that Dent was quietly directing the group.
"Tom was such a consummate administrator," recalls Henderson, "that it was seamless. He was so good that it never seemed like he was imposing on you. He never seemed to be doing things on his own. He always had a consensus; but he was an administrator and that's a skill I think he learned from watching his father" (Interview).
Somehow the Umbra Workshop, in its particular chemistry, was more than just another self-centered gathering of young writers. In a way, it can be said that Umbra was a precursor of the Black Arts Movement. An editorial statement in Umbra I declared that "UMBRA is not another haphazard 'little literary' publication. UMBRA has a definite orientation: 1) the experience of being Negro, especially in America; and 2) that quality of human awareness often termed 'social consciousness."' This first issue of Umbra, wrote Stephen E. Henderson,
lets us see in microcosm the concerns and strategies of the poetry which was to be so characteristic of the sixties. In sum, we see the racial consciousness, the political and social aspects of the idea of liberation, and a deep sympathy with and understanding of the lives of ordinary Black people. We especially note the interest in Black music and the exploration of contemporary Black speech as a medium of poetic expression. (145, 149)
The journal produced by the Umbra workshop appeared in March 1963 and was the first articulation of what Stewart Rodnon called the Black Arts Movement's shift "from cultural integration to separatism. The newer and smaller magazines called for revolutionary change and included a total rejection of Western values" (129-30; see also Dent, "Umbra Days" 108n2). A review in Liberator greeted the new journal warmly: "In this issue of UMBRA, there is tingling lyricism in the lines of the poets, dignity in their voices, and music in their expression of rebellion." Umbra was clearly identified as both literary and militantly political, a combination that Liberator sanctified as "a marriage of beauty and bitterness" ("Reviews" 23). Within the year, Umbra poets Askia Muhammad Toure and Ishmael Reed would be appearing in Liberator's pages, their work sometimes illustrated by Umbra contributor Tom Feelings.
Umbra members were also soon welcomed into the pages of the quarterly Freedomways, a journal that boasted contributors such as Loften Mitchell, J. A. Rogers, Walter Lowenfels, Elizabeth Catlett Mora, John Henrik Clarke, Aaron Kramer, Richard B. Moore, Howard Zinn, Henri Percicow, and Bruce McM. Wright--a poet who later also became a judge. Described on its masthead as "A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Described on its Movement," Freedomways also included book reviews and bibliographies by Ernest Kaiser, reference librarian of the Schomburg branch of the New York Public Library, and enjoyed a circulation of almost 10,000.
Some literary historians have suggested that Umbra's major contribution was that it provided "early exposure for writers who would emerge with influential essays and poems in the newer and much more radical black journals" that appeared in the late 1960s and 1970s (Johnson and Johnson 164). Interestingly, however, much of the work appearing in Umbra was quite accomplished, not apprentice work. And while many critics continue to blame the subsequent demise of the Black Arts Movement on its lack of "a firm and secure ideological base," Umbra would not have helped much in this area since the journal's highest value was literary quality. "We will not print trash," proclaimed the Foreword in the first issue, "no matter how relevantly it deals with race, social issues, or anything else" (Johnson and Johnson 198, 163).
The most recent serious study of the Umbra group, a fine chapter in Aldon Lynn Nielsen's Black Chant (1997), examines the work of these writers as the products of an explicitly avant-garde literary movement that not only had a direct foundational role in the development of the Black Arts Movement but also, says Nielsen, "paved the way for the next generation of innovative black poets" (167). As Nielsen shows, the Umbra poets' interest in a wide range of experimental poetic techniques directs attention to one of the distortions of American literary history. Pointing out the absence of black writers in the general anthologies, Nielsen notes that "the public face of poetic innovation in New York was white, masking once more the significant contributions of black writers to the gathering forces of the new" (79-80).
By 1965 the regular Friday night meetings of the Umbra workshop were over and, by 1967, the members had begun to disperse to different parts of the United States--pursuing careers in and outside of academia--yet continuing to develop as published writers and continuing to maintain contact with each other (see Oren 182). Oren has suggested that, "In retrospect, the Umbra split has all the inevitability of a wave about to break: some will let the wave carry them, and others will try to hold on to shore" (208).
What Umbra truly was, to use a term that became current in corporate circles in the 1990s, was an incubator ... of individual talents as well as an important literary movement.
The aesthetic that emerged from the heated discussions of the Umbra workshop underscored the functional immediacy of poetry as an avenue of social commentary and an agent of social change. Hernton enunciated this aesthetic clearly in his poem "The Distant Drum," in which he warns readers steeped in the methods of the New Critics not to bother trying to identify the persona in his work--
It is I who weep, laugh, feel pain or joy, Speak this because I exist. This is my voice. These words are my words ... (ll. 5-8)
Hernton and his colleagues were proclaiming, in no uncertain terms, the end of Ellisonian invisibility. As David Henderson has said, they wanted to declare that they had reached a new stage, a new consciousness that marked the end of being the conformist, silent 50's Negro.
The poets" experiences on the Lower East Side in this season of ferment, taught them, said Dent, "an appreciation for the diversity of voices within our 'we-ness' as a way of absorbing and interpreting the times, which were deeply imbued with the struggle for diasporan and anti-colonial political liberation, and the emerging sense of black cultural identity" ("Lower East Side Coda" 597).
It is not Dent's fault that this appreciation of diverse voices was not always honored in subsequent decades. It is important, though, to take a close look at his contribution to the development of the new black aesthetic and to see how that contribution was shaped by his personal experiences.
"Much of what we have to do as Black writers," Dent once said, "has to do not with going forward but going backward, going back to make reconnections" ("Autobiography, History and Black Literature" 42).
In many ways, David Henderson's suggestion that Dent learned his style of doing things from his father is a key to understanding his effectiveness as a cultural activist as well as to understanding the aesthetic evident in his writings. As the eldest of three brothers, and the only one residing in New Orleans, he assumed a leading position in family affairs after the death of Albert Dent in 1984. In later years, Dent was not uncomfortable in the role of dutiful son.
That, however, was not always the case. As Kim Lacy Rogers notes in Righteous Lives: Narratives of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement (1993), Albert and Jessie Dent were hardly pleased when Tom abandoned graduate school at Syracuse University and, after a stint in the Army, decided to join the ranks of aspiring artists in New York (122, 138-39). Rogers suggests that Tom was expected to follow in the footsteps of his successful father and pursue a public service career. She hints that Tom's close relationship to his paternal grandmother, a woman of humble origin, may have offered a countervailing influence.
Rogers does not mention Tom's maternal grandparents, but they, too, had a great influence on him. Dr. Benjamin Covington and his wife Belle were prominent members of Houston's African American community. He was one of the founders of Riverside Hospital, that city's first such facility for blacks, and she was an active leader of the Blue Triangle YWCA and a member of the state Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Their daughter, the musically talented Jessie, later to attend Oberlin Conservatory and become the first African American student awarded a fellowship to Juilliard School of Music, was in the first class at Spelman College. Dr. Covington had worked his way through college and Meharry Medical School as a janitor, and when Jessie first brought home Albert Dent, then a rising star at the black-owned Atlanta Life Insurance Company, her parents would undoubtedly have been impressed with the young man's ambition and polished self-presentation.
Having earned an accounting degree at Morehouse College, Albert returned there in 1931--the year he wed Ernestine Jessie Covington-as director of an endowment campaign (Richardson 309-10). The new Mrs. Dent moved to Atlanta, but very soon Dent was hired as administrator of the brand new facility for Flint-Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans. Affiliated with Dillard University, Flint-Goodridge was a teaching hospital and the only one in New Orleans that allowed African American physicians to practice (Richardson 310-12). During the 1930s, Albert Dent expanded physician training, instituted an aggressive program of prenatal care and a course in midwifery, and earned Flint-Goodridge a glowingly positive article in the Saturday Evening Post (Richardson 313-15).
In 1941, though he was not yet 40 and held no advanced degrees, Dent was elected president of Dillard University and, writes historian Joe M. Richardson, "soon proved to be as efficient at the university as he had been at the hospital" (319). Throughout his career, Dent was active--usually, by virtue of his position as an administrator supported by large foundations, as a behind the scenes diplomat--in the black community's struggle to dismantle segregation and achieve civil rights (Richardson 323; Rogers 23-24, 150).
While Albert Dent apparently concluded that the best way to achieve progress in race relations was by working directly with the white power elite, he did not limit his activities to that approach. Still, when he attempted to register to vote, the man who had written successful grant applications to the US Public Health Service and the Rockefeller Foundation, was told each time that he had filled out the registration form incorrectly (Richardson 317).
The Covingtons were leaders in Houston, but their connections extended far beyond. Their personal friends included Booker T. Washington and a series of patrons of the arts during an era of stringent racial segregation, and they opened their showplace home on Houston's Dowling Street to visiting concert artists and other African American celebrities who would have been turned away at downtown hotels (Pitre 14-15). Tom Dent fondly recalled summers visiting with the Covingtons, and he attributed as much formative influence to grandmother Lady Belle during his adolescence as he received from Gran Dent during his early childhood.
I have gone into this detail to suggest that there may be something of an oversimplification in Rogers's assertion that Tom Dent "developed between two sets of influences--the musical talents of his mother and the public prominence of his father, and the black folk influence of his grandmother" (120). I am suggesting that it would be quite misleading to infer from that statement that Dent shared the mistrust of the black bourgeoisie and romanticized idealization of the working-class that drives so much of Baraka's work, for example. Or that he is motivated by the sort of nostalgic unfamiliarity with the folk that seems to inform Jean Toomer. More important than the matter of class for Dent was the question of an historical cultural heritage. "Listening to my grandmother talk," he told musicologist Jason Berry in 1995, "she never mentioned Africa. But Indian blood was always mentioned. My great-grandfather came from Oklahoma, where he married an Indian woman and moved to Texas. My mother, in her application to Oberlin College, in piano, mentioned that she was part Creek. There was a psychological blotting out of African heritage in the early twentieth century" (Berry 65-66).
This Africa avoidance syndrome, ascribed by Dent to "the legacy of racism," becomes one of the areas of the African American worldview that he attempts to restructure creatively as both writer and political activist. And it is clear from the personal relationships of his parents with race folk such as Paul Robeson that this worldview was not an area that created any generational disagreement in the Dent family.
The African heritage of New Orleans was a topic diligently researched by poet Marcus B. Christian as a member of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project. Partly due to the efforts of Albert Dent, when he served as president of the school, both Christian and his papers found a home at Dillard University in the late 1940s-where the 11-year old Tom met him. Christian later received an appointment as Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Orleans (Clayton 334-35; J. Johnson 113-14).
The most pressing problem that black poets needed to solve in 1960 was eloquently stated by Bruce McM. Wright. "Poems of protest," he wrote in Freedomways, "have long been the staple of revolution and, to some extent, we may find in their text the language of today's activist revolt." That perspective certainly would apply, of course, to the poems of Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and others who set a model for the aspiring postwar poet. Alternatively, says Wright, "American Negro poets often have been alienated from their past by the very education which weened [sic] them and neglected the data of their past and the past of their fathers" (561).
It is precisely this type of alienation that Dent and his Umbra colleagues were attempting to resolve in their development of a new aesthetic. This approach was also, of course, the raison d'etre of the Black Arts Movement.
I have long held that Larry Neal, in his essays, offered the most insightful exposition of the new black aesthetic in the 1960s; yet a careful examination of Tom Dent's uncollected writings suggest that he came much closer than many others to explaining how the puzzle noted by Bruce McM. Wright might be solved. Like most young writers in the United States, Dent's poetry begins as an introspective attempt at self-expression. Over the span of his career, however, he refined the idea that writers have an almost scribal function--to provide a voice for their society's otherwise inarticulate members. The mission of African American creative writers (and scholars, too) is to satisfy the community's need to speak. In his poem "We Speak" (1996), Dent constructs contemporary black poets as modern griots, speaking "from the depth / of our and your unexpressed breasts, offering a / spectrum of flowerings of our people" (no ll.).
In a 1984 article about New Orleans poet and historian Marcus B. Christian (1900-1976), Dent expressed an idea--partly derived from Richard Wright--that was integral to his own work as well as the work of other artists associated with Umbra and with the Black Arts Movement. Anxious to understand and explore what Wright, in reference to the lore of the black proletariat, had called "the Forms of Things Unknown," Dent and his colleagues were aware that the literature of the American experience was missing a chapter or two. "As for the blacks who were slaves and descendants of slaves, little if anything was written by them of themselves," Dent complained. "Lacking education, the means or even the reason to produce literature in the style of European literature, these more African and slavery-impacted people produced and sustained culture in art forms which were essentially non-European--music, dance, oral storytelling and myth, cooking, building and trade inventiveness, self-protective and racially self-sustaining societies, and strong, Afro-infused churches" ("Marcus B. Christian" 24). Dent wrote this paragraph in 1984, but other writings convincingly demonstrate that he had grasped this notion 20 years earlier. His eloquent and precise terms also suggest that Dent had some ideas that might have helped others to negotiate class issues with more efficiency and less rancor than is usually the case.
During trips to Mississippi for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1962 and 1963, Dent met activists James Meredith, Robert Smith, and Medgar Evers, and he became deeply impressed with the urgency of the Civil Rights struggle (Dent, "Three Heroes" 250-53). He communicated this sense of urgency to his New York colleagues and, in fact, brought Civil Rights workers such as Robert Brookins Gore to Umbra meetings. In Mississippi, Dent also met a man he described as "a soldier captured at the front." Clyde Kennard had attempted to enroll at Mississippi Southern University in 1959 and, unprotected by the on-going media attention that surrounded Meredith, ended up serving two years at the hellish Parchman prison farm on trumped-up charges (Dent, "Three Heroes" 256-58).
Not only did these experiences affect his poetry--and, through it, other Umbra writers'--they also set Dent's course for many years to come. When he returned briefly to his hometown of New Orleans in 1965, Dent quickly became involved in cultural activities associated with the Civil Rights Movement. The New Orleans that Dent had known while growing up had centered on Dillard University, a "bastion of colored respectability" (to use Tom's phrase) where his father was president. After attending a performance by the Free Southern Theater (FST) on the campus, Dent became closely involved with the group, eventually becoming its administrative director (Free Southern Theater 230). Under his tutelage, the poetry workshop connected to the Free Southern Theater began to explore directions of composition and performance that anticipate the "spoken word" movement that achieved national popularity in the 1990s (Free Southern Theater 15758).
Between the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 and 1969, the Free Southern Theater--a cultural project loosely allied with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-evolved from what director Richard Schechner termed "a somewhat standard liberal program" into one of the more cohesive of the Black Arts Movement's drama collectives (Free Southern Theater 219, 230-33). FST was transformed from an experiment in integration to a black theater when its members realized, according to Dent, that "Blacks already have the richest, most viable, most complex and rewarding culture in this potpourri of America. The battle is not one of bringing culture to black people, but of us learning to value, and affirm, the culture we already have" (232). This ameliorative, positive language indicates Dent's desire to redeem the cultural gifts of the "most African, most slavery-impacted" African Americans without falling into the trap of intraracial class conflict.
Working with the Free Southern Theater caused Dent to focus on the issue of writing specifically for black audiences. "Up until recently," he later remarked, "most of our fiction, if not all of it, and most of our autobiography, if not all of it, has been addressed to white audiences and European audiences. We don't want to disparage that completely because the idea was to tell our story to somebody else." Dent added, however, that "telling our story to ourselves" required writers to rethink many of the literary devices that had come to be understood as successful in what had been called protest poetry or "the literature of petition." Similarly, this new focus on a black audience called attention to what Dent referred to as "the richness of African remnants" in contemporary African American life ("Autobiography" 41, 42). Dent strongly believed, as he stated at Howard University's National Conference of Afro-American Writers (1983) that "the chain that links us to Africa culturally is broken," and he made several journeys to West Africa in subsequent years to find connections in music, folkways, and literary expression. He also began to recognize common threads in the work of African, Caribbean, and black American writers.
What separates original African cultural expression and the contemporary diasporic community is, of course, the adoption of European or, at least, non-African perspectives and values. With this fact in mind, Dent emphasized the need for an independent artistic vision, noting that "the truth that we as writers using our history, and our folk experience, should tell is not one that should satisfy any government" ("Autobiography" 42).
Andrew Young has said that he and his peers--and almost certainly he means to include Tom Dent here--saw the Civil Rights Movement as "an opportunity for my generation to change America in a way that was good news for all Americans. We would try to change America morally: we would redeem the soul of America" (8). This fascinating desire would prove to be held by many more than just the best and the brightest of the children of W. E. B. Du Bois's Talented Tenth. It became increasingly apparent in the late 1950s and early 1960s--even to the most somnambulistic white citizens--that radical social change was a charge taken to heart by nearly every black American under the age of 40. It also became obvious in the mid-60s that not all of these black folks were devoted students of Gandhi's satyagraha.
What still needs to be investigated, perhaps, is how carefully this militancy had been nurtured in the youth by their elders. Dent's Southern Journey (1996), recently issued in paperback by University of Georgia Press, offers a very useful exploration of that very question--Dent being uniquely positioned to find out, despite appearances, exactly how much the presidents of the South's black colleges might have supported the young people who did the marching and sitting-in.
In looking back on his Umbra days, Dent made some very suggestive comments. Besides his own and his peers' vaunted alienation from "mainstream" America and their perceived estrangement from the values of their elders, Dent identified another level of alienation among his peers. "We also developed," he wrote in 1980, "a growing sense of alienation from the white literary world. This was not a negative development born of rejection by the white literary establishment, but a healthy development in the sense that the only way we could say certain things as black artists--the things that needed saying--was to recognize that we constituted a separate world and that this world, propelling itself on the cultural integrity of black people in America, was as distinct with its own value system from the main body of American literature as black culture is distinct from whatever mishmash of advertisement majority American culture represents" ("Umbra Days" 107; italics added).
What Dent realized, in other words, was that the missing chapter in US history had been left out for a reason, that if it were to be included, then US history would not tell the same story. One had to step out of the mainstream to write that chapter. What Dent identified as a writer's necessity was phrased in terms of philosophical activism in Larry Neal's repeated calls for the development and adoption of "a Black value system," but it was also expressed by many others with a crude, sometimes obscene, antagonism.
It would take some time, indeed, for the poets of the developing Black Arts Movement to perceive that the black value system they were calling for might, in fact, contain elements of a worldview that they regarded suspiciously when articulated by their parents. Perhaps Alvin Aubert was the first poet to recognize a relationship that most of us were too young, gifted, and angry to see. As a poem titled "My Name Is Arrow" (1975), Aubert wrote:
My old man bent down So long, so low He turned into a bow (63)
Dent possessed the ability to change the space around him, to affect anyone who shared it. Those of us who paid attention to him learned to share his belief that the nation's culture and civility is our business and responsibility. Dent's last book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement, gives an account of what has happened since the walls of Jim Crow came tumbling down. Writing the book also allowed Dent to assess the real differences between the young people who were the activists of the 1960s and their parents. "Since my childhood," Dent wrote, "the American South has, against all odds, entered a new epoch. Our elder generation was wrong. Changes we hardly believed were possible have occurred, along with all [of] the harsh trauma associated with a brief period of intense, highly publicized conflict. Doors that we thought would be slammed shut forever, barring a miracle, were kicked open" (Southern Journey 2). The elders had erred in their notion that they would not see such changes in their lifetimes. Almost miraculously, the generation that they so carefully trained insisted that the new day was a-comin'--and actually brought that day to light.
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Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005), a widely published poet and scholar of poetry and member of the Umbra workshop of the 1960s, was the author of several books of poetry, among them Fit Music: California Songs (1972), Dracula (1973), Framing the Sunrise (1975), The Bathers: Selected Poems (1978), Chances Are Few (1979), Sound Science (1992), Es Gibt Zeugen/ There Are Witnesses (1996), and Dancing on Main Street (2004). As a professor of English for many years at the University of Houston-Downtown, Thomas also wrote the critical study Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th-Century American Poetry (2000), edited the volume Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Poetry (1998), and contributed critical essays to many journals and literary reference books.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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