Tom Dent's Role in the Organizational Mentoring of African American Southern Writers: A Memoir
Gex Breaux, Quo Vadis, African American Review
Thomas Covington Dent left a legacy larger than his published works. He left a legacy of caring, nurturing, passionate involvement in the grooming of writers and the organizations that support them. His work with the Umbra Workshop in the New York of the early 1960s, his efforts to sustain the Free Southern Theatre (FST) writing workshop that became Blkartsouth in the late sixties and seventies, and his Herculean efforts to keep a group of Black writers workshopping in New Orleans through the Congo Square Writers' Union in the 1980s all speak to a passion he expressed best in the closing lines of the preface to his first book of poetry, Magnolia Street. Invoking both his mentor and friend, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, and his own passion for writing, Tom wrote, "Maybe someday I can pass on to someone else struggling to gain confidence in this passionate work something of what Kgositsile has bequeathed to me" (Preface). As peers, proteges, and friends readily attest, Tom succeeded in sharing his passion and bolstered many a floundering confidence.
"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. …