Academic journal article African American Review

The Art of Tom Dent: Notes on Early Evidence

Academic journal article African American Review

The Art of Tom Dent: Notes on Early Evidence

Article excerpt


During the 2001 MLA Annual Convention (New Orleans) special session "In the Wind of History," which I organized, several writers, scholars, and friends had the opportunity to discuss the life and work of Tom Dent--poet, playwright, cultural nationalist, and co-founder of the 1960"s Umbra poetry workshop in New York's Lower East Side. As an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and a leader of the Free Southern Theater and the BLKARTSOUTH writing workshops in New Orleans, Dent continued to write and publish, including the play Ritual Murder (directed by Chakula cha Jua, 1976), the books of poetry Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982), and his innovative study of Southern culture, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997). With the editorial staff of AAR, I am pleased to present selections from the 2001 MLA panel that honored my friend and colleague.--Violet Harrington Bryan, Xavier University

Unless one is engaged in the task of writing a fairly comprehensive biography, the study of a writer rarely begins with attention to her or his juvenilia. A writer's early attempts to overcome various anxieties of influence, to master the intricacies of language, and to forge a distinctive voice are either dismissed or trivialized. This habit, or perhaps convention, precludes opportunities to inquire into the origins of the writer's ultimate achievement and power. Valid inquiries, of course, can be initiated at points other than the formative years. Nevertheless, our insights into the writer's style and aesthetic might be strengthened by trying to identify the literary origins of creative production. This procedure is especially germane in efforts to account for Tom Dent's importance as an African American writer and intellectual.

The governing presupposition for these notes is a claim about quality in writing. The art or skill that makes good writing is a possession of value and an activity of mind that is never exactly, as Richard Wright accurately proposed in "Blueprint for Negro Writing," on the page. The art is in perspective. The page is a catalyst for the engagement of the reader's mind with that of the writer; they collaborate on a vision of reality, agreeing or disagreeing as the case might be. Thomas Covington Dent (or as he preferred, Tom Dent), a New Orleans writer best known for his work with Free Southern Theater and his extraordinarily popular play Ritual Murder, his electric mentorship of younger writers and artists, and his work in oral history that culminated in Southern Journey (1997), certainly had perspective in the sense that Richard Wright intended; Dent also had subtle political and historically analytic perspectives on African American cultures. These perspectives are richly manifested in Dent's fledgling work as a journalist, specifically from writing produced during his tenure as editor-in-chief of the Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College newspaper, during 1951-52. His editorials in Volume 53, Numbers 1-6, provide early evidence of what we are beginning to understand about his orientation toward reality, his aesthetic preferences, his complex and historically grounded modes of thought and expression. (1) This evidence, crucial for a full assessment of Dent's later work, marks Dent as a writer from the Black South who sought more than the vapors of fame.

Dent's college editorials range from his measured pronouncements as a serious undergraduate political science major and history minor in the role of journalist to the playful wittiness that became a telling feature in his later writings. (2) In these notes, brief summaries of the editorials must substitute for the pleasure of reading them in the context of other articles that bespeak a collegial mindset in the 1950s.

The editor's corner of November 2, 1951, is entitled "Who Is To Blame? For Fixes and Scandals." Drawing attention to the expulsion of 90 West Point cadets "for cribbing on examination," Dent found the incident to be an illustration of "what fruits a system of overemphasis on college athletics has brought and will bring. …

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