Tom Dent's role in the organizational mentoring of African American Southern writers: a memoir.
"He was the bourbon among us," Ishmael Reed, a former Umbra member, told me as we commiserated over our loss late in the summer of 1998. We talked about Tom's uncanny way of handling people and situations and the New York Umbra group: "We met at Tom Dent's apartment and often the meetings would turn into free-for-alls. We were very sensitive to criticism and one could always feel the ego power sizzling in the room like a downed electrical wire. Dangerous. Among our members were those who would go on to establish international reputations" (20 July 1998). Included were Lorenzo Thomas, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, N. H. Pritchard, Askia Toure, Charles and Raymond Patterson.
Reed's memories place Tom at the center of sane and sound handling of these fiery gatherings. He also elaborated on his bourbon comment: "I didn't know at the time, that Dent was a product of the African-American aristocracy, and he never let on about his origins" (3 Dec. 2001). The Black Collegian Online echoes Reed's observations about Tom's background, "Tom's father was president of Dillard University and Tom was groomed to become a major figure in the Black professional world" (par. 2). His mother, long before the feminist movement or the civil rights movement, was a concert pianist. Tom's family believed in service to the community, to the race. It was clear that they never quite expected their "how to conduct a worthy life" lessons to manifest in the organization of an arts movement widely associated with the radical thinking and behavior of the Black Power movement. About Tom, we in the New Orleans Congo Square crowd would occasionally wonder how anyone could seem so regal and yet be unfalteringly earthbound at the same time. How could anyone do so much while seeming to do so little, without undue external frenzy? Sometimes enigmatic friend and mentor, he was poet, writer, journalist, administrator, PR man, producer, community organizer, raconteur extraordinaire, and to many, just "Tom."
When hundreds of people came for his funeral services, from near and
as far away as Africa via New York, his brother commented, "It's like he was famous or something." We were always convinced that if he were not, he was one of the few people we knew whose work deserved fame. He was only 66 at his death. His mother, over 90 then, was inconsolable. Since Tom's death we have had time to review his life's work, his expressed intentions, and many actual outcomes.
Tom taught by example. For many of us he was the only person we knew actually living the "writing life." He devoted hours to discussion, analysis, and the importance of precision in intention. Reed outlined a system of beliefs that defined Umbra: "Umbra changed all of us and I think that if one person was the spearhead behind the whole thing, it was Tom. One thing all of us in Umbra shared was contempt for the middle class. We were antimaterialistic. When we broke up, we went our separate ways and what we took with us was a spirit of cultural revolt that influenced later movements, Black Power, feminism and multiculturalism" (3 Dec. 2001). With firmly held beliefs about class, culture, and the importance of art to social movement, Tom returned home to New Orleans in 1965, and here made his stand, not always vociferously, for both the writer and the literature of the South. Tom told me once that he never intended to stay in New Orleans; he planned to come down here, start a workshop like Umbra and return to New York. But the culture, the people, the Mississippi River, and finally the endless possibilities of the place, mesmerized him.
He worked with John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses to create and manage the Free Southern Theatre (FST). They believed in the importance of living Black Community Theatre. This effort was a cultural response to the growing interest in identity issues, as artistic backlash to the integration movement that flowed out of the Civil Rights Movement. In the late 60s and early 70s, FST underwent numerous philosophical changes, all of them far left of center. There was a period of Marxism that proved particularly trying for members more concerned with performance than ideology. It was during those years that Tom's level-headedness proved most valuable to the organization according to Kalamu ya Salaam, who thought Tom's role as mediator in organizations "allowed many of the organizations to last longer than they would have without him." He was able to work with people in the midst of divergent agendas. Kalamu thought Tom's ability to reason with people was the glue that held loosely structured organizations together through times that might have effected their undoing.
Tom worked with Kalamu in the early days of FST to shape a writing arm of the theater that complemented its performance arm. When it became clear that the writers needed their own organization, they formed Blkartsouth, which published Nkombo (Swahili for gumbo), a literary journal mimeographed in its early days on half a shoestring budget. Blkartsouth, now a separate entity from FST, continued to share office space with the theatre.
Tom maintained relationships with people and organizations even when he was not an active member. In the early 70s, Tom sat on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation's board of directors, where according to Kalamu, he diffused an ugly situation between, on the one hand, youth activists who were protesting the Festival's business practices, and on the other hand, Jazz and Heritage Festival staff, led by Festival director George Wein. Tom, several years away from his Board of Director's obligation, enhanced his relationship to the Jazz and Heritage Foundation in the early 90s when he accepted its Executive Director position. He continued to use his extraordinary diplomatic skills to run efficiently that organization, even though it was frequently beset by dissent. Tom could usually mediate between all of the players involved in a dispute when there was no other hope of resolution. He spent immeasurable time trying to reconcile conflict and to provide opportunities for others.
When Tom died, I overheard people speculating about why he did not publish more, or perhaps they said write more. Tom wrote a great deal more than he would ever allow anyone to publish, and I found myself taking issue with the idea that he had not produced a representative body of work. After all, I thought, as I quietly countered their observations, Ralph Ellison only published one novel. Like Ellison, Tom was a perfectionist. In his introduction to Ellison's short story collection, Flying Home, John F. Callahan recounts a story from Ellison about the importance of perfection. Callahan says that Hazel Harrison, a concert pianist of some renown, soothed Ellison the musician after a highly criticized performance by reminding him of the key to the relationship between the artist and his audience: "You must always play your best, even if it's only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there'll always be a little man hidden behind the stove" and "he'll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform" (xv-xvi). Callahan notes that Ellison embraced "a very stem discipline, he resolved to perform or write always as if the little man at Chehaw Station were looking over his shoulder" (xvi). Tom approached writing as though he too knew about the little man behind the stove.
Another reason Tom did not publish nearly as much as his prolific efforts would indicate is that he spent a great deal of time mentoring local writers, archiving records of events and people, and being available to a host of friends and associates who regularly called on him for advice and assistance. Time he might have spent preparing his work for publication, promoting himself, his work, or in other ways pursuing personal goals was often spent with someone who had questions about craft or life. Tom not only spent significant amounts of time with individual would-be writers but also invested untold hours creating new organizations and nurturing existing ones.
Our small workshop developed into a core group that continued to meet through several different identities. We were Dent, Chakula cha Jua, Felipe Smith, Kalamu ya Salaam, Lloyd Medley, Adam Weber, Raymond Breaux, Sharon Adams, Lolis Elie, James Borders, Tommy Watson, and Quo Vadis Gex, and we spanned the years, formative and final. Not everyone participated the entire time, but a few of us went on to become the Congo Square Writers Union. Initially, we met at one another's houses on a rotating basis. Later Chakula's house served as the regular meeting place. We would workshop into the late night and often go out for coffee when the workshop was over--still embroiled in some discussion of craft or a particular writer's work. The workshop was educational without being academic. It was grassroots art with a sense of community reflected in members" work. That sensibility was in large part informed by Tom's approach to writing and the writing life. As an additional mentoring function Tom made a point of examining our writing closely and insisting that we did so, too.
One particular effort of Tom's merits expanded discussion. He decided that the workshop should publish a critical journal. This journal became an obsession for Tom. He envisioned it as a critical collection covering major areas of interest in the South, particularly New Orleans, using sometimes scathing commentary as actual criticism or call to action. A few of the articles were so critical that they made lifetime enemies for Tom. Although I was living and working in Atlanta at the time, I remember meeting whenever I was in town, writing assignments, and feeling mounds of disappointment as it became clear that there were no funds to publish The Black River Journal. After long months that grew to years, Tom, using some of his own money, helped to publish the one-run journal. (1) It was singular and forward-thinking. Beyond these biased observations lies the reality of what an effective training ground putting the journal together became. It brought home the importance of editing for publication in ways that no lecture, simple or sophisticated, could have. By the time The Black River Journal met its public, each of the writers and editors had been taken through a grueling preparation process. Raymond Breaux, my husband, talked about how Tom edited his article so many times, he began to think he should scrap the piece entirely. (2) There was little hope of publishing a second issue of Black River Journal or of its becoming the literary fixture that Tom had envisioned. It remains an instructive memory of possibility, perseverance, and singular accomplishment.
Tom mentored us, in part, by introducing us to a world of writers who might otherwise have been inaccessible. His efforts to bring national and international figures to New Orleans to read, lecture, and meet with the Congo Square Writers' Union made Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Niyi Osundare, and Al Young household names for us. They were his friends, and whenever he could raise the money, he brought them to town or asked them to speak with us while they were here for readings at universities or other agencies. Tom fiercely believed in paying writers their asking fees. This firmly held commitment often led to pooling dollars in much the same way strapped winos put together enough nickels for a needed bottle.
One of my fondest memories was of eating crawfish with James Baldwin at Tom's old New Orleans shotgun house on Port Street in the Faubourg Marigny. Anyone who has ever tried knows what a messy endeavor eating crawfish is. Baldwin had a unique way of attacking the little critters that involved eating more parts than I was accustomed to seeing anyone ingest. Here was a living literary legend, crunching crawfish heads and smelling of seafood boil. I could not have chosen a better humanizing experience from a literary cafeteria of possibilities. We discussed the current issues of the day and perhaps even a little literature. But after all these long years what I remember most was the human part of sharing a messy meal. Making something like that happen was classic Tom.
Tom's efforts were seminal in launching the writing lives of several local and regional writers. Anthony "Tony" Bolden credits Tom with being one of the first people to help him believe "that I could do it--that I could live a life and make a contribution to the planet--to black people, a contribution through literary art ... he talked about writing in a way that made it seem less foreign." In our conversation, Bolden further elaborated on Tom's approach to art and community, saying, "He was concerned about 'building a literature.' For him that meant spending time with people like me, whom he didn't even know--spending time with folks who may or may not have remained committed and having faith that the effort would net a long-term desired effect. He defied and critiqued the whole idea of the artist as estranged from the community and locking himself up." Another Congo Square workshopper put Tom's sense of community into global perspective; James Borders recalls a trip he took with Tom to an African Literature conference in Boone, North Carolina, at Appalachian State University where he witnessed "Tom's real genuine commitment to networking with these African writers--to have a sense of kinship--late night readings--not pushy, but insistent on networking." That's when Borders says he realized "that Tom was not just committed to his own work but to the art of writing and to its community."
Congo Square continued the commitment to craft and dialogue as its members met regularly throughout the 1970s. It began to falter in the early 80s when the core members were striving toward and achieving career goals, and raising families. There were occasional "Congo Square" events, readings, lectures, and an annual summer picnic that always included a speaker of special import to the struggle facing African American writers, artists in the United States, and throughout the Diaspora.
In the 90s, his final years, Tom worried about who would carry on the work of building writing communities, making spaces for young voices to workshop and perfect craft. He reveled in our individual successes and took on new disciples at every opportunity. When the hip-hop generation came into vogue, their speech slurred and abusive, their pants hanging off their hips, their underwear exposed for all to see, unwitting advertisement for happy manufacturers, who could not have bought the business it brought them, Tom worried that we had fallen asleep and lost a generation. I introduced him to a new young voice, a part of the generation in rhythm and tone yet apart from it in depth of thought and desire to learn, and Saddi Khali became one of his last proteges. Saddi's words are an appropriate close to this tribute:
Tom helped me to love people. Tom was on a certain level--very selfless. He did things for people who were unable to do things for him. My paying attention to that broadened my ability to love. I think Tom saw in me the potential to make an impact--to be great--whatever great means. He treated me as I imagine people treat those that they are acting as a guru to--i.e., growing them into the people they should be; because of that I've never wanted to fulfill anyone's dream for me as much as I do Tom's.
Black River Journal. Ed. Tom Dent. Summer 1977.
Bolden, Anthony. Personal interview. 19 Dec. 2001.
Borders, James B. Personal interview. 11 Dec. 2001.
Callahan, John F., ed. Introduction. Flying Home. By Ralph Ellison. 1944. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Dent, Tom. Preface. 1976. Magnolia Street. New Orleans: Self-Published, 1987.
Khali, Saddi. Personal interview 10 Dec. 2001.
Reed, Ishmael. Personal interview. 20 July 1998.
--. E-mail interview. 3 Dec. 2001.
ya Salaam, Kalamu. Personal interview. 7 Dec. 2001.
(1.) The one issue of Black River Journal (24 pages) was published in the summer of 1977.
(2.) Raymond Breaux was a workshop member and editor of the journal Bamboula, published in 1977.
Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, a New Orleans poet, has published in local, national, and international journals and anthologies, including Furious Flower, Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry, African American Review, Quimera, and Life Notes. Gex Breaux edited two commemorative books for the National Black Arts Festival, The Ark of the Spirit (1996) and Art Beyond Borders (1998). An MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans, she served as Visiting Writer in Residence at Tulane University in 2000.
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|Author:||Gex Breaux, Quo Vadis|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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