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Umbra Writers Workshop, 1962-1964

New Orleans-born poet, essayist, and playwright Thomas Covington Dent was a founding member a writer’s collective the Umbra Writers’ Workshop that grew out of On Guard for Freedom, a Black Nationalist literary organization founded in 1960 in New York City. Dent helped to produce the organization’s journal called On Guard for Freedom, which represented members such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Harold Cruse, and Calvin Hicks. Involvement with this group and its activities lead to the creation of the Umbra Writers' Workshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1962. Umbra was a collective of young black writers who felt they were excluded from the mainstream white literary establishment. The group was a supportive enclave of Friday-night workshops, meetings, and readings that allowed black writers to showcase their talents and express their unique voices highlighting African American experiences and history.

Umbra Meeting, Askia Toure, Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed, photograph by Alvin Simon, circa 1962.

The roots of the Black arts literary movement came from the Umbra collective of young writers involved in the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School founded by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Workshop members included Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al Haynes, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, and Askia M. Toure (Roland Snelling). The group's literary magazine, Umbra, featured poetry and other genres of creative writing, and became one of the earliest and most prominent "little magazines" that focused on African American authors and literature.

Dent was a prolific writer of letters, poetry, and prose throughout his lifetime. The Tom Dent papers span over thirty years of African American literature through his correspondence with editors, writers, and artists. Dent returned to New Orleans in 1965 after the Umbra collective dispersed, but he kept in close touch with members throughout his lifetime. Letters in Dent’s papers from the various participants of the Umbra Writers' Workshop, dating from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, are of particular interest and often contain discussions about poetry and writing projects interspersed with personal reflections. Letters from both Calvin Hernton and David Henderson are long and descriptive covering not only their own writing projects, but also information about what the former Umbra group members are currently doing and their thoughts about the work of Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas.

The Tom Dent Papers are a strong source for the study of discrimination and racism in the United States, particularly in the area of the disenfranchisement of Black artists and writers. More information about Tom Dent and his work with the Umbra collection can be found in his papers held at the Amistad Research Center.

Image from the Tom Dent Papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission

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