(1932–1998), poet, essayist, oral historian, dramatist, cultural activist, and noted figure in the Black Arts movement.
Thomas Covington Dent, who prefers to be known as Tom Dent, was born on 20 March 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Dr. Albert Dent, president of Dillard University, and Jessie Covington Dent, a concert pianist. During his formative years in New Orleans, Dent wrestled with the sense of African American identity and the sense of place that seems to be the legacy of southern writers. Thus, it is not surprising that issues of political and cultural history are so germinal in his mature works.
After completing his early education in New Orleans, Dent earned his BA in political science from Morehouse College in 1952. Some of his earliest writing appeared in the campus newspaper, the Maroon Tiger, for which he served as editor during his senior year. After doing graduate work at Syracuse University, he served in the U.S. Army (1957–1959) and then moved to New York, where he worked for the New York Age a black weekly, and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He became a member of On Guard for Freedom, a cultural nationalist group. In 1962 he moved to the Lower East Side and founded the Umbra Workshop with Calvin C. Hernton and David Henderson. This group chose Dent to be the editor of its poetry journal Umbra, which lasted for two issues (1963 and 1964) before the group dissolved.
What might be considered the first phase of Dent's literary career is marked by his concern with escaping from the restrictions of his black middle-class origins and acquiring a clear understanding of the issues of liberation, black nationalism, and cultural identity that occupied African American intellectuals in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was Dent's idea that Umbra should be a collective of writers and artists who were exploring craft and discovering their voices and visions. It was within the group, as Dent revealed in an essay (“Lower East Side”, African American Review, Winter 1993), that he discovered more respect for diversity and possibilities for rendering his vision of what history might mean. However much Dent profited from his discussions with such writers as Hernton, Henderson, Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed, Askia M. Touré, and Norman Pritchard, his deepest concerns were focused on how the African American imagination fuses politics, aesthetics, and history. In 1964 some of his earliest poems appeared in the anthologies New Negro Poets, U.S.A. and Schwartzer Orpheus.
Dent returned to New Orleans in 1965, convinced of his need to rediscover his southern past and of his ability to use the insights and ideas he had gained in New York. He began working for Free Southern Theater (FST) as an associate director, a position that initiated an intense period of writing, civil rights activity, and work in building cultural groups. In 1967 Dent wrote his most famous play, Ritual Murder, one of the most eloquent examinations of black-on-black crime in African American theater. Aware of the need to help young writers develop a cultural base in New Orleans, Dent served as director of the FST Writers’ Workshop or BLKARTSOUTH (1968–1973), becoming the mentor of Kalamu ya Salaam and other writers whose work appeared in New Black Voices (1972). He saw this group and the Congo Square Writers Union, which he founded in 1973, as outgrowths of his Umbra experiences. While he continued to write reviews and articles for such magazines as Freedomways, Southern Exposure, and Black World, Dent also cofounded the journals Nkombo (1969) and Callaloo (1975). His first book of poems Magnolia Street was published in 1976. By the time his second poetry volume Blue Lights and River Songs (1982) appeared, Dent was very deeply involved in the work of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance (founded in 1974), a federation of community theater groups, had begun to tape oral histories about jazz in New Orleans and with key figures in the civil rights movement, and had begun work on an autobiography with Andrew Young. In the early 1990s Dent worked as executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation before he resigned to work on Southern Journey, an oral history of the civil rights movement and the contemporary South. That memoir was published in 1997 as Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement.