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


Southern Journey / Blue Lights and River Songs / The Free Southern Theater


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Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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The Art of Tom Dent: Early Evidence

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Dillard 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, serves as a disadvantage within the scholarly community. It precludes opportunities to make serious inquiries about the origins of the writer’s 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 writer’s 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. This evidence, crucial for a full assessment of Dent’s later work, marks Dent as a writer from the Black South who sought something more substantial 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. 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 editor’s 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 Dent’s 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 what’s 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 life’s 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).

Dent’s 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, Dent’s 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 Williams’s eight o’clock 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 o’clock 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 o’clock in the morn,

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to land on that lawn.

We may assume that a small number of Morehouse men valued Dent’s 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!

Borders’s tone suggests that we might seek to locate Dent’s 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 Editor’s Corner was replaced by Harold A. Hamilton’s 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 Dent’s later concerns with all facets of writing as a discipline, especially the importance of listening to audiences.

Dent’s 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 Time’s 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 doesn’t 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 aren’t for anything and we aren’t against anything. We just let things rest if they’ll 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 don’t want to fight it, we’re too tired. We’ve 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 Dent’s language, the positioning pronoun “we” having a decidedly James Baldwin flavor but not the strategic force of Baldwin’s 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 didn’t 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. 

Dent’s 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).”

Dent’s April 1952 editorial “When Professors Object We Must Always Yield” was a humorous tale of Professor N. P. Tillman’s 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 Dent’s knowledge, did not exist. Feigning repentance, Dent wrote: “I’m 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” (Dent’s word) to appreciate free publicity. The heart of the editorial narrates the exchange between Tillman and Dent, and Dent’s 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.

Dent’s 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 Dent’s 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 history’s progress.

In Dent’s 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 Dent’s 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 don’t know anything and the second is to laugh. Since you don’t 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, who’d hired some plainclothes thugs to monitor blacks who attended poetry readings there. He’d 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 Dent’s 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. Mark’s Church.

That was the beginning of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Joel Oppenheimer ran the poetry workshop; I ran the fiction workshop. If you check out the St. Mark’s Poetry website, none of this is mentioned, another example of how the black participation in the counterculture gets expunged from the record.

—Ishmael Reed,


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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

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 form—the 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 history—lies 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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Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

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American Uprising

The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

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 back—breaking 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 States—and one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and the nation.

American Uprising is the riveting and long—neglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel army’s dramatic march on the city and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave revolt—not Gabriel Prosser, not Denmark Vesey, not Nat Turner—has 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.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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Southern Journey

A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

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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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

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 Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s 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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Weep Not, Child

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 country—the 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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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 21 February 2012




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Related files:    Tom Dent Bio   Tom Dent Speaks      Southern Journey  Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian  The Art of Tom Dent  My Father Is Dead   Jessie Covington Dent