Academic journal article African American Review

The Need to Speak: Tom Dent and the Shaping of a Black Aesthetic

Academic journal article African American Review

The Need to Speak: Tom Dent and the Shaping of a Black Aesthetic

Article excerpt

we speak to disturb you who think poetry, music should only be beautiful. --Tom Dent

... 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. …

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