ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Marcus Christian . . . 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. . . . Benjamin Quarles. . . was then writing his first book on Frederick Douglass



Books by Tom Dent


Southern Journey / Blue Lights and River Songs The Free Southern Theater


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Tom Dent Speaks

On Writing, New Orleans, Umbra, FST & Other Topics

From an Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam


Umbra Reunion

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.

Need for a Nurturing Community

First of all, I felt a lot of my motivation came from the realization that I grew up here in New Orleans as 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 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 [New Orleans] 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.

Developing as a Writer

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 hand, 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 Lagos 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 really interesting about this 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 Egri’s 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 was 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 Black weeklies, newspapers. In the 40s there were several 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 White 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, 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 ply a role in Black journalism, which I would have loved to do, that world died. It died because of 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 years old and had been founded by Thomas Fortune.

New York Age & Black Nationalism

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 close; 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 Hemdon, 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 for Freedom. It was really an early Black Nationalist artists’ group: Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones, old 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.

Life on Lower East Side

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 meeting. 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 me as my “security.” We were going to shoot these two guys if we found them—it 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 Jet 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.

Free Southern Theatre

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 really poor, so this dinner was a three-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 daybreak. 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 York 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 think 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.

Mastering New Orleans

I came to realize 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.

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When I left, and even when I returned in 1964, 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 lean 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.

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[T]he Lower East Side of New York . . . 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—and later when I taught in West point [Mississippi]. 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.

Knowing New Orleans

Let’s go into “knowing more about New Orleans.” I felt that was really kind of a battle within the workshop . . . .

The Umbra experience preceded the canonization of Black Nationalism, I mean, the formalization of theories of the meanings 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 [Kalamu] 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 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.

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 had 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.

FST Workshops

[The union of the drama workshop and the writing workshop was] 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 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 [Kalamu was] coming to both workshops, along with just a few others, we should combine the two. [Kalamu was] 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 [Kalamu] knew, and other people from Lord knows where found their way to us.

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.

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 [Kalamu’s] 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 composed entirely of local people who were very different from the original FST, 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 unforgiveable, 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.

[Also, Eutaw Alabama, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual convention in Charleston] . . .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.

In Houston . . . 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.

Well, almost everything up to then had been done in cooperation 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  terms 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. These 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 tiring 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.

Southern Black Cultural Alliance (SBCA)

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 NegroDigest/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 offer 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 we did. That was just a really, 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 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. . . . we were writing the plays, organizing the tours, and then writing the criticism. . [Plays came from all over the South; poetry from Florida, Birmingham, Jackson, Houston—wherever folk could be found.] The idea was to get him [Hoyt Fuller] down here, or somebody other than us, to assess what we were doing.

Nkombo & Developing Writers

I made have made a mistake, though. We had a policy that we would reserve the magazine pretty much for our writers and others 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 magazine 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 in Nkombo stopped writing. Others like [Kalamu] kept writing.

[That everybody who participated in the workshop would have at least one piece in the book] 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.

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 antiquates—or I was.

Source: Kalamu ya Salaam. “Enriching the Paper Trail: An Interview with Tom Dent.” African American Review, Summer 93 (Vol. 27, Issue 2), p. 327, 18 p.

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I wrote a few articles for the newspaper [The East Village Other], one of which was a blast at the owner of The Metro, who’d hired some plainclothes thugs to monitor blacks who attended poetry readings there. He’d previously threatened musician Archie Shepp and his “Goldwater for President” sign in the window was meant to be a red flag for blacks. One night, one of them attacked Tom Dent, the leader of our magazine Umbra (one of the most important literary magazines to be published, though it gets ignored because the media, when covering the Lower East Side of the 1960s, bond with those who resembled their journalists and their tokens.) It was at Umbra workshops where the revolution in Black Arts began.

I went to Tom Dent’s aid and was punched. Penny and I left the Le Metro Café and halfway home I turned and went back. Poet Walter Lowenfels was reading. I told Walter that if he continued reading I would never speak to him again. The café emptied out and that was the end of the readings there. William Burroughs, who was scheduled to read the following week, cancelled. After a weekend of searching for other places, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, where readings might be held, Paul Blackburn and I asked the then rector, Michael J. C. Allen, whether we could hold readings at St. Mark’s Church.

That was the beginning of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Joel Oppenheimer ran the poetry workshop; I ran the fiction workshop. If you check out the St. Mark’s Poetry website, none of this is mentioned, another example of how the black participation in the counterculture gets expunged from the record.Ishmael Reed, EastVillage


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Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

American Uprising

The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

By Daniel Rasmussen

American Uprising is the riveting and long—neglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel army’s dramatic march on the city and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave revolt—not Gabriel Prosser, not Denmark Vesey, not Nat Turner—has rivaled the scale of this rebellion either in terms of the number of the slaves involved or in terms of the number who were killed. Over 100 slaves were slaughtered by federal troops and French planters, who then sought to write the event out of history and prevent the spread of the slaves’ revolutionary philosophy. With the Haitian Revolution a recent memory and the War of 1812 looming on the horizon, the revolt had epic consequences for America. Through groundbreaking original research, Daniel Rasmussen offers a window into the young expansionist country, illuminating the early history of New Orleans and providing new insight into the path to the Civil War, and the slave revolutionaries who fought and died while standing up against injustice. This book represents a significant contribution to African American history and the struggle for civil rights in this country.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Southern Journey

A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

By Tom Dent

A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement's legacy. At times, Dent's meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city's historic sit-ins, remind Dent "of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s."

In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into "criminal justice" lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it's a constructive response to Dent's conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but "once inside, well, there was hardly anything there."—Publishers Weekly

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.


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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 18 February 2012




Home  Kalamu ya Salaam Table  Literary New Orleans  Jerry W. Ward Jr. Table and Bio

Related files:    Tom Dent Bio   Tom Dent Speaks      Southern Journey  Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian  The Art of Tom Dent  My Father Is Dead   Jessie Covington Dent