Who was Thomas Covington Dent? Renowned poet and writer Kalamu Ya Salaam, once an apprentice of the artist, calls Tom Dent “the single most important New Orleans writer of all time.” He was a master poet, historian, fiction writer, essayist, playwright, and critic.
With a firm commitment to his influential mentor, Salaam scoured the Dent literary estate from the Amistad Research Center located on the campus of the Tulane University in the Crescent City. The result, New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader, is a superb tribute to the writer (1930-1998), greatly supported by a bevy of letters, interviews, notebooks, and photographs.
Dent, the son of the president of Dillard University (1941-1969), grew up in an upper-class environment, surrounded by the perks of privilege and influence. He possessed a restless spirit that separated from his clan. Early on, he was gifted with a critical, analytical eye, His time at Morehouse College only stoked his intellectual curiosity, such as when he was puzzled in his literature studies, only to find Shakespeare, Hemingway and Faulkner as topics. There were no black texts or writers.
“We are children of insecurity, worry and tension, and we would wish nothing better than to get away from it all,” Dent wrote in an editorial back then. “This is the younger generation of America today. It is sadly lacking. Maybe someday we will wake up and lead the world. But now there is hardly a chance of that happening. We are too tired.”
Again, that restlessness led him to two years spent in the U.S. Army and left him on a search for his identity. He wanted to be a writer, so he came to New York City. The first job in Harlem was writing for the now-defunct New York Age and eventually he ventured down to the Lower East Side, where artists, musicians and writers lived due to the low rents
In his element, Dent felt at home there. He mingled with the writers and artists in the coffee shops, eateries, poetry readings, and jam sessions. A regular in the neighborhood, he attended the workshops of Umbra in 1960, where he met writers such as Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Joe Johnson, Askia Muhammed Toure, Lloyd Addison, Lorenzo Thomas, and Archie Shepp. This was Dent’s introduction to the Black Arts Movement.
“Umbra was the incubating experience for me in terms of the workshop and the interaction among creative people,” the writer noted. “It represented a very high amount of creative energy over a two or three year period.”
His New York journey ended when his Lower East Side neighborhood was flooded with heroin and drug sales became rampant. No resident there was safe from crime. Dent wanted to get out of the area and that escape was provided by his father, who invited him to come back home to New Orleans.
Once in New Orleans, Dent discovered the Free Southern Theater troupe, who was rehearsing daily but desperately needed funds. He felt attracted to the theater’s members, such as Roscoe Orman, Gil Moses and Denise Nichols, along with the concept of liberation theater. The FST developed “some good material,” a lot of poetry and a short plays. In 1965, it was invited to some towns in Mississippi and Texas, and later the annual Southern Christian Leadership convention in Charleston.
Later, the FST evolved through some tough financial times and several productive tours into a more effective organization, BLKARTSOUTH, with funding to meet its operational costs in 1969. Still, Dent lamented: “It was like an opportunity to act out that dream with real money, at any cost. It related to what the NY supporters (who had never been to New O) imagined what the work of theater to be….It didn’t build anything, it didn’t leave us with anything and it cost more than we had.”
Throughout the civil rights era of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, Dent always found time to write and promote a Black aesthetic. He was leery of rhetoric, dogma or revolutionary posturing. “We should settle for nothing that Black people didn’t feel was natural to them, that was foreign to our lifestyle, that did not have a use or usefulness to our lives.”
Salaam the editor was very careful in showing all phases of his literary career, selecting the complete range of his excellent work in essays and criticism. He included Dent’s superb one-act play, “Ritual Murder” and a fine collaboration with Salaam, “Song of Survival.” His poetry books, “Magnolia Street” (1976) and “Blue Lights and River Songs” (1982) showed generous amount of intelligence, insight, political and cultural wit, humor, and candor.
Witness Dent’s perceptive analysis into such topics as jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, the mythic New Orleans, the fun and frolic of Mardi Gras, black music in the local night spots, Paul Robeson, and the hip days of New York City’s Lower East Side in the early bohemian 1960s. It was to Salaam’s credit that he added a full bibliography of his drama, poetry, articles, essays, reviews and co-authored work.
How did Tom Dent describe himself? “I am introverted, ambitious, envious, egotistical, cautious, methodical, and dreamy,” the writer noted in his unpublished “Emotional Autobiography.”
Salaam’s New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader captures the spirit and creative process of this exceptional writer and activist. His collection of memories, words and images showcase the significance of Dent to the legacy of the Crescent City and African American culture. This book is a riveting, informed, and entertaining experience that would complement any library.
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