ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Many generations have been confused, but it seems to me that the outstanding
characteristic of our generation is an apathy and general attitude of nonchalance.
Books by Tom Dent
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Books by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
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The Art of Tom Dent: Early Evidence
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
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 writers 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, serves as a disadvantage within the scholarly community. It precludes opportunities to make serious inquiries about the origins of the writers later achievement and power. Valid inquiries, of course, can be initiated at points other than the formative years. Nevertheless, our insights about style and the writers 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 Dents 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 readers 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 Dents 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. This evidence, crucial for a full assessment of Dents later work, marks Dent as a writer from the Black South who sought something more substantial than the vapors of fame.
Dents 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. 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.
In Vol. 53, No. 1 (November 2, 1951), the editors corner 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.
Dent was keenly aware that events and decisions are not one-dimensional. Blame, as he discerned, was systemic. The athletes alone should not be blamed for being immoral and corrupt, for they were part of an immorality which has engulfed not one, but all phases of our society. Their fault was getting caught. In Dents view, our whole conception of life needs a serious revamping. The young Dent echoed the idealism of his generation and of the self-contradicting 1950s in the closing paragraphs:
We are beginning to see whats happening, and people everywhere are realizing that something somewhere is mighty wrong.
Men of truth and wisdom see that we have neglected the basic ideals of life for a mechanical panacea which is expected to give all the answers. They realize that
the machine is only a pseudo-solution for lifes problems, and urge a speedy return to simple and basic qualities like decency and truth.
Indeed our teachings and emphasis must reside on these essential qualities if our civilization is to survive (2).
Dents pronouncement is to be interpreted in the context of concerns for freedom, democracy, and civil rights and of unrest among people everywhere caught in the machinations of the Cold War. With time, Dents idealism would be transformed into pragmatism, but he would always hold fast to belief in decency and truth.
In the next issue of MAROON TIGER (Vol. 53, No. 2, November 30, 1951), Dent moved from social moralizing to the humor of language in a philosophy course at Morehouse. Danger! For Students in Philosophy Only (2) deconstructed the ease of answering questions about the metaphysical first principles of Parmenides in Sam Williamss eight oclock course by pointing to the danger of asking certain questions.
Mr. Williams, if God made the world in the beginning he must have been here before the beginning. How can that be? Dent answered the question in a way that illustrated the fundamental instability of language. Well, God didnt make the world in the beginning; he was the beginning, and then made the world. But when he saw what kind of world it turned out to be, he decided that the biggest mistake he made was to make anything at all; so he destroyed everything and made the world over again which was another beginning and thats how God got here before the beginning. All was well in the course until the same student asked Well who made God? Dent emphasized the slipperiness of language and the oddity of humor by sandwiching the editorial between poetic opening and closing lines:
Man, I got Sam at eight oclock in the morn.
How far is it from the top of Graves Hall to the lawn?
You see what I mean by dangerous.
Man, I got Sam at eight oclock in the morn,
Wouldnt it be wonderful to land on that lawn.
We may assume that a small number of Morehouse men valued Dents ability to detect funny moments in the daily grind of higher education. In a letter-to-the-editor published a few months later, William Borders complimented Dent with subtle humor of his own.
Dear Mr. Dent:
I am writing you concerning your article on philosophy as taught by Mr. Williams. You should be commended for your splendid technique, your choice of words, connectives, and most of all, your sense of humor.
The last factor, I believe, stimulated an abundance of interest. The analysis of a typical class period definitely wipes away all doubt in my mind as to the course and most of all, the instructor. Suffice it to say that your article exemplifies the qualities of good English. Keep the good work up!
Borderss tone suggests that we might seek to locate Dents humor in the particular ways he situated good English.
At the beginning of 1952, the last semester of his senior year, Dent had much good work to do. He had to deal with a crisis endemic among college newspaper: lack of genuine support from students. In the January 17, 1952 issue, The Editors Corner was replaced by Harold A. Hamiltons guest editorial Importance of Being Earnest, a gesture designed to establish cooperation between the MAROON TIGER and CLARK PANTHER. [Hamilton was the editor of the Clark College paper.]
For this issue, Dent wrote A Crisis Is Near, lamenting that producing the newspaper has been a one-man affair The MAROON TIGER should not be a one-man production. It takes too much time away from the editor, who has to go to school too. Dent claimed that since he had become editor, never has even half of the material come in on time. It is always necessary to hunt the person down to get his article, and in a great many cases the Editor has to write the article himself if he is to get his material in to the publisher on time(2).
He also wrote a brief reply to a suggestion that more students would read the paper if the articles pertained less to sports and more to the life of the student. Dent indicated he would be happy to receive any definite suggestions as to articles that would be more interesting to the student body as a whole (2). These commonplaces do cast a pinpoint of light on Dents later concerns with all facets of writing as a discipline, especially the importance of listening to audiences.
Dents major editorial Younger Generation Sad Representative of American Youth (Vol. 52, No. 4, February 27, 1952) reflected on a conclusion reached in the November 5, 1951 issue of Time. Dent agree with Times editors that the younger generation . . . lacks drive, lacks a belief in something, and just lacks period. The conclusion, Dent wrote, was without a doubt justified(2). Dent echoed the prevailing sociological view of his complacent generation in bold print:
But even the stigma of confusion doesnt characterize our generation properly. Many generations have been confused, but it seems to me that the outstanding characteristic of our generation is an apathy and general attitude of nonchalance. We lack zip, fire, and spirit. We arent for anything and we arent against anything. We just let things rest if theyll let us rest. This, to me, seems to be very bad because it means that we are making no attempt to get out of the confusion. We dont want to fight it, were too tired. Weve had too much fighting and there is no desire to do any more of it.
Dent was writing from the perspective that belonged to the dream world of his youth, which he later described as a nonracial world, where we would find solace from the exclusively black world we were confined to, where the color of our skin, our racial heritage, did not matter (Southern Journey 2).
The power of unstated integrationist assumptions inhabits Dents language, the positioning pronoun we having a decidedly James Baldwin flavor but not the strategic force of Baldwins habitual undermining of American fallacies. Nevertheless, Dent had the foresight to suggest that it was delayed trauma rather than complacency that stymied his generation. Born in a depression, raised during a war and being drafted to fight a new one if we didnt fight the last one, we have experienced nothing but insecurity (2).
In this sense, Dent displaced the conclusion presented by one Time correspondent that youth would not engage in a voracious striking out from security, wealth and stability (The Younger Generation 52). One could not strike out from a security one had never known. Moreover, as Dent noted in the editorial, the prospect of being drafted for military service during the Cold War produced special anxieties for college-aged Negro males.
Dents acceptance of prevailing liberal ideology and the intuition that his generation might someday become world leaders was fraught with conflict. His struggle for balance in a nonracial framework is early evidence which urges us to consider how differently he would present the dilemma of racial exclusion and civil complicity in later essays and poems. It was perhaps comforting to Dent that Carter Wesley, editor of the Houston Informer, suggested in response to his editorial that both adults and youths were confused but that one has to have a code one lives by from day-to-day, based upon the fundamentals of virtue. The only peace in this world for a man lies in his own soul—– (Wesley 2).
Dents April 1952 editorial When Professors Object We Must Always Yield was a humorous tale of Professor N. P. Tillmans being outraged that lines from his 1917 poem Tryst had been quoted in A. Russell Brooks article on the MAROON TIGER as a human document (Brooks 5). Tillman threatened to sue, according to Dent, for violation of copyright. Dent reminded Tillman the poem had been published in a 1917 issue of the MAROON TIGER and that the newspaper did not have a copyright.
Tillman proclaimed he would have the matter brought before the discipline committee. Such a committee, to Dents knowledge, did not exist. Feigning repentance, Dent wrote: Im sorry we hurt your feelings, Mr. Tillman. We will never print another word about you in the Maroon Tiger (2). Dent did not print one word about Tillman. He printed several about the professor who was too chicken (Dents word) to appreciate free publicity. The heart of the editorial narrates the exchange between Tillman and Dent, and Dents final sentence is wonderfully ironic: O Lord! Now I never will find out who Aberdeen was! Dent pretended an inability to distinguish a place from a person.
Dents final editorial, The Summing Up and Moving On, appeared in the May 21, 1952 issue. It was not surprising that he should have called for more positive support among administrators, faculty, and students for extra-curricular activities, especially athletics. Dent was an avid sports fan. Dent did not urge favoritism but a clearer understanding that education is a broad process, and that by refusing to cooperate with other activities that students are interested in beside their assignments they [the faculty] are failing to fully educate the student (2). It is surprising, however, that Dents chief complaint regarded tradition at Morehouse. That particular criticism merits full quotation:
There is another evil which grows out of this traditionalism which I think is slightly evident at Morehouse. It is a sort of provincialism or stagnation. Some of the members of the Morehouse community have been here so long that they have become insensitive to outside happenings. This is a criticism I have of some of the members of the Morehouse faculty. They are well qualified but many of them have been here so long that they have become ignorant of new methods, discoveries, etc. I want to make it clear that this is not true of all Morehouse teachers, but it is true of too many of them. This is bad because it means that students who study under these teachers and go out into the world community or to higher institutions of learning will not be adequately prepared. Antiquated theory will not do in an ever-changing world. We must live with our times if we are to survive (2, 7).
Dent did not aim his parting shots at the philosophical traditions which defined the role of his alma mater in the history of African American culture. His target was the kind of pedagogy which served to miseducate and underprepare Negro students. Having been trained to think critically at Morehouse by the brilliant political scientist Robert Brisbane, Dent could discriminate nicely between the value of honoring tradition and the negation that resulted from blind worship of traditions. The work Dent would produce during the next four decades is marked by his penchant for reason, for surgical analysis of affairs, for being informed about the cutting edge of historys progress.
In Dents post-Morehouse life (1953-1998) and writing, one finds that he abandoned antiquated theory in order to participate fully in certain political and cultural transformations of the latter twentieth century. He abandoned tradition and the doctoral program in political science at Syracuse University to immerse himself (from the perspective of the black middle class into which he was born) in alarming activities.
His participation in founding the legendary Umbra Workshop (1962-1965), his civil rights activity as associate director of the Free Southern Theater, his teaching younger writers through the Free Southern Theater workshops and the Congo Square Writers Union, his promotion of cultural and historical awareness through the projects of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, his continuing research on music, folklife, and history as executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, his final contribution to civil rights historiography in Southern Journey all these experiences involved writing.
The early evidence from the editorial pages of the MAROON TIGER suggests that Dent was consistent in holding on to primal values, to a code, even as he adopted new modes of expression to free himself from some ideas the bourgeois imagination sought to imprint upon his generation. Behind Dents writing was the firm belief that one must discover critical values in a sense of history, one must discover perspectives that are effective in an ever-changing world.
What endures most in the work of Tom Dent is perspective, the vantage points at which a writer places words, so that readers see the purpose of collecting experiences and data and assessing them while recognizing enough is never known and, then, laughing to prevent self-destruction in confusion and despair. In summing up his education at Morehouse and his experiences as an undergraduate journalist, Dent confessed:
In my four years I have learned two things. One is that I dont know anything and the second is to laugh. Since you dont know anything, about the best you can do is laugh it off and try again. (The Summing Up 7)
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I wrote a few articles for the newspaper [The East Village Other], one of which was a blast at the owner of The Metro, whod hired some plainclothes thugs to monitor blacks who attended poetry readings there. Hed previously threatened musician Archie Shepp and his Goldwater for President sign in the window was meant to be a red flag for blacks. One night, one of them attacked Tom Dent, the leader of our magazine Umbra (one of the most important literary magazines to be published, though it gets ignored because the media, when covering the Lower East Side of the 1960s, bond with those who resembled their journalists and their tokens.) It was at Umbra workshops where the revolution in Black Arts began.
I went to Tom Dents aid and was punched. Penny and I left the Le Metro Café and halfway home I turned and went back. Poet Walter Lowenfels was reading. I told Walter that if he continued reading I would never speak to him again. The café emptied out and that was the end of the readings there. William Burroughs, who was scheduled to read the following week, cancelled. After a weekend of searching for other places, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, where readings might be held, Paul Blackburn and I asked the then rector, Michael J. C. Allen, whether we could hold readings at St. Marks Church.
That was the beginning of the St. Marks Poetry Project. Joel Oppenheimer ran the poetry workshop; I ran the fiction workshop. If you check out the St. Marks Poetry website, none of this is mentioned, another example of how the black participation in the counterculture gets expunged from the record.
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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor. The Katrina Papers provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar’s life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global. It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward’s narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer
The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It’s not like any encyclopedia I’ve seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes
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By Daniel Rasmussen
In January 1811, a group of around 500 enslaved men, dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes, rose up from the slave plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city. They decided that they would die before they would work another day of backbreaking labor in the hot Louisiana sun. Ethnically diverse, politically astute, and highly organized, this slave army challenged not only the economic system of plantation agriculture but also American expansion. Their march represented the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United Statesand one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and the nation.
American Uprising is the riveting and longneglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel armys dramatic march on the city and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave revoltnot Gabriel Prosser, not Denmark Vesey, not Nat Turnerhas rivaled the scale of this rebellion either in terms of the number of the slaves involved or in terms of the number who were killed. Over 100 slaves were slaughtered by federal troops and French planters, who then sought to write the event out of history and prevent the spread of the slaves revolutionary philosophy. With the Haitian Revolution a recent memory and the War of 1812 looming on the horizon, the revolt had epic consequences for America. Through groundbreaking original research, Daniel Rasmussen offers a window into the young expansionist country, illuminating the early history of New Orleans and providing new insight into the path to the Civil War, and the slave revolutionaries who fought and died while standing up against injustice. This book represents a significant contribution to African American history and the struggle for civil rights in this country.
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Tom Dent
A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement’s legacy. At times, Dent’s meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city’s historic sit-ins, remind Dent “of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s.”
In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into “criminal justice” lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it’s a constructive response to Dent’s conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but “once inside, well, there was hardly anything there.”Publishers Weekly
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.Penguin
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 21 February 2012