Keeping the Communal Tradition of the Umbra Poets: Creating Space for Writing

Article excerpt

In a small room where the pen had the power to make every voice sing, young Black men and women gathered to share their writing, engage in provocative discussions of the world, and collaborate to pen their souls. Uniquely situated in time between the naturalistic protest poetry and the Black Arts Movement, the Umbra Poets were a community of readers and writers who gathered around to share their writing and offer and receive critical affirmation and valuable criticism. Their ultimate goal was to cultivate life-long writers who wrote with purpose and passion. Established in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1961, The Umbra Poets' Workshop was a collection of young Black writers who served as predecessors to the Black Arts Movement. Umbra Poets wrote with a heightened sense of urgency. Some of poets became influential writers for Black artistic nationalism. These writers strived to inspire change through a landscape of politics and aesthetics. A few writers among these many notable artists were Thomas Dent, Calvin Hernton, and Lorenzo Thomas.

Thomas Dent, one of the leading founders of the Umbra Workshop, came to New York after serving a two-year stint in the United States Army. He was working as a public information director for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when he helped form the Umbra Poets. Dent's early educational background is worth mentioning because it quite possibly mirrors the experiences of many young African American male adolescents in today's schools. He was taught in a public education system in which the voices of Black writers were invisible. The literary cannon he was exposed to in high school through college exuded writers such as Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Falkner while excluding even a trace of the Black literary tradition that included the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, or James Weldon Johnson. With no recollection of ever hearing a consciously Black line of thought, comment, or reality in any of his courses, Dent expressed the belief that Black students like himself were being "prepared to 'belong' ... to become whites in brown skins by mastering white standards." (1) Instead of adhering to the standards of others, Dent felt that platforms needed to be established for Black writers to speak their truths and tell their stories. With this realization, Dent and other former members of a 1960s Black nationalist literary organization, On Guard for Freedom, established a writing collaborative that would be named the Umbra Poets. The group was named Umbra, meaning "shade" in Latin, after the term, "penumbra" which was written in a poem titled, The Poet Talks to a Face and the Face Talks Back, penned by Umbra member, Lloyd Addison.

The Umbra Poets' Workshop became a space created in the lives of Black writers to gather weekly and share and critique their poetry. These workshops would convene on Friday evenings at eight o'clock and last many times until one or two o'clock in the morning. Tom Dent hosted the first writing workshop in his apartment. Looking back on this experience, he wrote:

   We felt it imperative that we have a device that
   could deal with race, that could serve to bring us
   together, that could be a vehicle for the expression
   of the bitterness and the beauties of being AfroAmerican
   (as we called ourselves at the time) in this
   plastic land ... We called an organizing meeting and
   sent out a call to all the black writers in the area we
   knew. Our first workshops, on Friday nights at my
   apartment, were a way of becoming familiar with
   each other's work, of airing obsessions, fears, and
   plodding, jerking toward some concept of what we
   were by measuring our concepts against the beliefs/
   experiences of brother writers. (2)

The Umbra Poets recognized the white hegemony that persisted in publishing and therefore set out with a determination of publishing themselves. Dent further explained, "The surfacing of one black writer at a time in the white literary world, like a long chain of single black voices, was not an acceptable situation. …