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It was during the late Sixties that University of New Orleans historian Joe Logsdon,

long interested in black history  and having heard of Christian from friends and

coworkers, located him and facilitated his hiring by UNO to teach black history

and literature. For the first time, Christian, now in his sixties, had an adequate

income, an office,  and, for the first time since his Dillard days, contact

with students and other scholars.

 

 

Books by Marcus Bruce Christian

Song of the Black Valiants: Marching Tempo / High Ground: A Collection of Poems  / Negro soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans

 I Am New Orleans: A Poem / Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718–1900 The Liberty Monument

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Books by Tom Dent

 

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

 

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Marcus B. Christian

A Reminiscence and Appreciation

 By Tom Dent

 

The growth of black literature in Louisiana and the interest in black Louisiana history since the 1960s owe, in some important measure, to the gifted historian and poet Marcus Bruce Christian. As a black writer in New Orleans, Christian’s career and the achievements of his work are both significant and symbolic of the range of problems black writers face.

I first met Marcus Christian when I was a boy of eleven. I had been assigned by my father, who was the President of Dillard University, to go to work since he believed there was something inherently evil in my idling time away during summer vacation from school. I was told I would be working in the Dillard library—to me a dark, dank basement—making books in white ink. I was already a rather bookish child, capable of deriving excitement and wonder and knowledge from books, but I was also attracted to the sunlight and the ebullient beauty of New Orleans summer days. Sitting in small cubicle in a basement marking books was not exactly the way I would have chosen to spend my eleventh summer.

The school’s librarians were strict but kind, and it was here that I met Christian, who was working that summer as an assistant librarian. It was he, who alleviated some of the drudgery of those days for me, whom I remember so indelibly. Christian had a habit of entertaining the staff by reading aloud from his favorite books during the lunch hour (or whenever we could entice him). I particularly remember his reading versions of the Brer Rabbit stories and folk stories like the legends of John Henry and Annie Christmas. He was marvelous dramatic reader. It wasn’t that I thought the stories so great; rather his excitement, his interest in books as a key to a certain kind of knowledge fascinated me. Christian was unusual, entertaining, possibly a “character.” Even so, when I was eleven and condemned to a life, I imagined, of slave labor, bending over paper and books, he made my days worth living through.

Within a very short time, Christian discovered I had done quite a bit of reading, though mostly boys books, and he began to point me in the direction of adult reading, to tell me some things about the world of literature, a world that existed even in the small library, waiting for someone to explore it. I began to see all those books as more than a rock pile of dreary labor; suddenly they became dusty treasure chests containing diamonds of knowledge and adventure, I suppose I can partially blame Christian for my lifelong attitude toward work: Do just enough for your employer to get by; steal time for your own interests—i.e., your real work.

I have always been a terrible employee, constantly given to adventuresome detours, and that tendency began gloriously right there in the Dillard library. Christian was a secret co-conspirator in my lassitude, despite my father’s strict injunction that I must learn to work, work, work. Sometimes when I emerged from the shelves after a suspiciously long time, he would ask, a twinkle in eye, “Soooooo, what was so inneresting back there?”

Years later, after I had lived in New York, there somehow tenuously attaching myself to the extremities of what was to be known as the black consciousness movement, I returned here in the mid-Sixties to work for the Free Southern Theatre. In those days, occupied of FST and a beginning commitment of young writers to create a working black Southern literature, I often wondered what had become of Christian, who was unknown to the younger writers and Sixties’ activists. I received information that he had receded into extreme isolation; no one seemed to know what he was doing, what had happened to him, or where he lived.

I was therefore very surprised and happy when he resurfaced at the University of New Orleans in the later Sixties as a teacher of black literature and culture. News of Christian came in an amusing way: Some of the members of FST workshops were in Christian’s classes at UNO, and they reported that, though they liked him, he had quite boisterously made it known that he was a staunch opponent of black protest literature. It wasn’t art to him; it didn’t come up to his standards; in fact, he didn’t recognize it. Though I wanted to see Christian again, and thought he might be naturally interested in what I was doing, his expressed opinions were in direct conflict with mine, and I didn’t see any sense of going to him with what were really only childhood memories, with the probability that we might wind up in a vicious and unnecessary argument.

During this period it was my good fortune to meet Octave Lilly, a slightly younger contemporary of Christian’s who was nearing retirement after a fine career at the People’s Life Insurance Company. Lilly had published poems in national black journals during the late Thirties and early Forties, gone through a long period of silence, and to my amazement had begun to publish poems in journals like Black World and The Crisis, in addition to an excellent collection, Cathedral in the Ghetto.

One of the poems Octave Lilly published in Black World was critical of a black nationalist poem written by my close friend, the exile South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who often visited New Orleans. So, on one of Kgostitsile’s visits, we decided to call People’s to see if we could meet Lilly and well, just talk. The meeting was not only cordial, but led to a friendship across generations. I saw Lilly often after that, as did Kgositsile whenever he returned to town, until Lilly’s death a few years later [7 May 1975].

Out of these meetings came not only a respect for Octave Lilly and his struggle to produce artistic work, but a feel for the isolation and loneliness that Southern black writers, particularly those few in New Orleans, must have felt during the lean Forties and Fifties when there was hardly any interest in or incentive to produce literary work and when it was so difficult to get published because of the paucity of journals and lack of interest. It struck me that, though some of the older black writers took exception on paper to the stridency and slogans of the Sixties, the active confrontations of the Sixties brought them back to life, renewed their sense of immediacy.

About this time (1972), Christian’s small book Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718–1900 was published. The title understates the breadth of this extremely well-documented, smooth-reading treatise, which hints at the voluminous and important documentation Christian and other scholars (including Octave Lilly) had accumulated during the Federal Writers’ Project years at Dillard. The book led me to want to discover more about that project and the writers who had worked on it, and I decided I would attempt to see Christian. I simply journeyed out to UNO one day, searching for Christian’s office, and found him there. His office was small, stuffy, cluttered with books and old papers, magazines, files—even an ancient printing press. I got the feeling he more or less lived in there.

Christian was talkative but gruff; he acted as if he didn’t have much time. He said he had read some of my material, but he didn’t say he liked it. He launched into a savage attack of black protest poetry, saying it was beneath him. I complimented him on Ironworkers, which, he replied, was “nothing, just a little ‘wrist-exercise,’” a line so good I think I’ll use it myself some day. I asked him how much he got for it. He told me. It wasn’t much. Then he went off to fight the great windmill of his life: how he had been unfairly taken advantage of by wealthy Creole author Frank Yerby, whom he felt had stolen the plot for The Foxes of Harrow from him. He also intimated that others had used his material without crediting him. The legend had developed that Christian became reclusive to prevent further thefts of material or stories. But in the next breath he told me he had been invited “a few years ago” to lecture on black history at Tulane and was interviewed “for hours” with the tape recorder spinning.

We talked for almost two hours. As I asked questions about black history and literature, he lectured me. He complained about students, and about the militancy and bad manners of my closest friends and colleagues, diplomatically excluding me from his scathing comments. As part of the general incompetence of the younger black generation, he noted that none of his students were interested in learning to operate the ancient printing press he kept in his office. “They’ll need to know how to use this one day,” he shot at me, “though they don’t realize that now.”

Finally, we began to argue a little about the black movement; after three hours or so, I had to go. He followed me out to the parking lot where I was illegally parked, remarked that my beat-up Plymouth was “very nice,” and pointed his car out to me, with pride.

Later, when I thought about this conversation, I felt that Christian’s gruffness, even some of his self-assuredness and seeming resentment of the younger black writers, was a thin veneer. He was a lonely man, no doubt with some bitter feelings toward the new black consciousness literature, but still he must have yearned, I think to be part of that. Talking with Christian gave me a peek into what a lonely career writing could/would be—working for years without even a hint of commercial success, without appreciation from the society in which one lives, without validation (for Christian was too imaginative to be an academician); struggling against those barriers to get work done, struggling to reinforce one’s sense of worth.

A cursory inspection of Christian’s voluminous notes, poems, and letters—placed in the UNO Archives following his death in 19761—confirms this impression. An indefatigable notemaker, Christian kept a diary that runs through four decades and comments on almost everything he came in contact with, from the seeming trivial to the most pressing concerns of his life, like his fabled and painful battle with Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Drafts of his poems are often accompanied by notes which comment on the poems—and sometimes are more revealing. For instance:

Thursday, February 23, 1956 app. 9pm. Sitting up in bed writing this. Lazed about all day today after my busy day yesterday bringing my bed back into the house from the outhouse where I had lugged it when N______ came last year and M______ made a hurried departure. So, for the first time in nearly 5 years I slept once more in my own bed. If someone had told me that when I came down here I would not have believed it. But now I have decided come hell and high water, I make my stand here, now.

 

………………………………………………………………

 

Starting setting up "Segregation Blues" and plan to send copies to those beleagured, fighting Negroes in Alabama. It might add 1 percent stiffness to their strong backs. Good work, Brothers.

 

Now to sleep.

Or ponder this marvelous, undated reflection of a Canal Street scene he saw, probably in the Thirties or early Forties:

Just came in from Dillard University. Got a transfer and bought some meat for myself at the market at Krauss’ and while waiting for a transfer I began to look at the huge bale of cotton standing before Krauss’ and wondered about them. I had tried to shake them as I had walked over to catch a car and found that they were heavy by so many rains of the past week. The bale was as compact and as soggy as a piece of spongy rotten wood. But I was thinkingg how many hopes and disappointments of a black man had gone into those bales that line Canal Street. How many drops of actual blood had gone into their making? How many outraged cries of an oppressed people were muffled when the huge press had descended down upon the soft fleecy cotton? How many lynchings—how many cries of underfed black children—how many moans of raped black women—how many cries of help from the black manhood of the South have been called in vain because of that bale of cotton?

Before my eyes the building faded—the multi-colored lights of the twentieth century dimmed—and there stood before me the queen city of the South—New Orleans in the days of old. Then cotton was King, and the hundreds of thousands of blacks of Louisiana bowed beneath the lash of the cursing overseer. Huge laden drays in which black drivers lashed straining mules, carried bale upon bale of the rich produce to the waiting wharves of a busy city where it was whisked away to an eager and waiting world, and men in the South grew fabulously rich and entertained like princes. Negroes found themselves deeper and deeper in the meshes of a system that threatened to annihilate Democratic America altogether. At last things became so great that the South became firmly convinced that nothing could dethrone King Cotton—and then came the fires of the Civil War, and Butler at New Orleans, and bales of burning cotton on the wharves of New Orleans.

Then brave and honest men sought to liberate black men and wronged white men from the meshes of the toils of King Cotton, and so the Negro was flung a dubious liberty called “freedom” and King Cotton again ascended his throne, more powerful than ever. …

Those cotton bales on Canal Street, they drip with the blood of black people

Marcus Christian seemed isolated, but he wasn’t really. He was a lonely man primarily because he was a man of ideas, a man of books and language, a black man ahead of his time in this too-often-backward community. As black people, we will appreciate him more as we develop a deeper truer appreciation of ourselves, the value of our history and of our struggle. The few moments I spent with him are treasured moments.

In New Orleans, when scholars cite early black writers they usually refer to the pre-Civil-War, free Creole poets of Les Cenelles, or the militant journalists of the Reconstruction. But in terms of a black literature, citing such predecessors is somewhat complicated, for the Creoles of Les Cenelles hardly considered themselves black, or Afro-American. They did identify themselves black or utilize their scant African ancestry as literary theme. The Reconstruction writers are truer predecessors of what now consider Afro-American sensibility and literature. They fought against justification of slavery and the growing resurgence of the revenge-seeking South with dedication and honors in the journals L’Union and Tribune, but they left little of literary worth. For the story of nineteenth-century efforts in Louisiana, and of their participation in the military battles against the South during the Civil War and their valiant battles against segregation after Reconstruction, we turn to the elegant and impassioned personal history of Rodolphe DesdunesNos Hommes et Notre Histoire (Our People and Our History), published in 1911.

As for the blacks who were slaves and descendants of slaves, little if anything was written by them of themselves until very recently. Yet they were the focus of the South’s continuing moral, political, and economic conflict, and still are. Lacking education, the means or even the reason to produce literature in the style of European literature, these more African and slavery-impacted people produced and sustained culture in art forms which were essentially non-European—music, dance, oral storytelling and myth, cooking, building and trade inventiveness, self-protective and racially self-sustaining societies, and strong, Afro-infused churches.

This kind of background is necessary to assess the work of Marcus Christian, the first black writer to attempt to make sense of the complex, often contradictory history that revolves around the black Louisianian, particularly the black New Orleanian. His accomplishments will be far more appreciated when the full extent of his wide-ranging, explorative unpublished material is made known.

Born near Houma, Louisiana, in 1900 of hardworking, religious parents, Marcus Christian emigrated to New Orleans when he was only nineteen to work and attend school. He began to write poems in the Twenties, attempting to publish his own work. I imagine that he sent some of his early poems to the few national black journals that published aspiring black writers, Opportunity and The Crisis most notably, and in the late Thirties his poem about a black girl’s preparation for McDonough Day in New Orleans was nationally published and has since been widely anthologized. Supporting himself by operating a dry-cleaning business on Tulane Avenue in the Thirties, Christian in the late Thirties gravitated toward the few other black writers in New Orleans who became the Jim Crow division of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. In the early Forties, Christian became director of the black FWP, focusing on researching the folklore and folk history of the state. This innovative project, then headquartered at Dillard University, also featured rather extensive interviewing of ex-slaves.

The historical research done by Christian and the black FWP writers from roughly 1937 to 1944 was the beginning of what Christian hoped would be a comprehensive history of the black man in Louisiana. During this period, Christian wrote several excellent historical essays which were published in black historical and intellectual journals. This was a time of great intellectual excitement among the few black scholars in New Orleans, many of whom were working as Dillard’s first faculty. This group included Lawrence D. Reddick, Benjamin Quarles, St. Clair Drake, Allison Davis, Horace Mann Bond, Elizabeth Catlett, Rudolph Moses, Julius Miller, Charles Buggs, Clarence Mason, Randolph Edmonds, Octave Lilly, and Fred Hall, scholars and artists who later became nationally prominent in history, social studies, the sciences, and the arts.

But the late Forties and Fifties brought an end to the FWP, the exodus from Dillard of all the scholars mentioned above, and a general period of regression from progressive and hopeful social and artistic programs for the race nationally and locally. Christian must have suffered greatly during the period—all his fellow workers, fellow spirits, having deserted the city. He became something of a recluse, retreated from writing, worked part-time and a printer and then as a delivery man for the Times-Picayune newspaper. Few of his friends and former associates saw him or even knew his whereabouts. Living in virtual poverty, Christian tried to maintain his vast and valuable collection of historical documents and rare books, his long-hoped-for volume on black Louisiana history still incomplete. And thus he went into the Sixties, when he experienced a low point of indignity and frustration. During Hurricane Betsy of 1965, his house in the Lower Ninth Ward was flooded. Realizing that his valuable collection would be ruined by floodwaters, he attempted to save his material, only to be arrested as a “looter” while trying to wade to his house.

It was during the late Sixties that University of New Orleans historian Joe Logsdon, long interested in black history and having heard of Christian from friends and coworkers, located him and facilitated his hiring by UNO to teach black history and literature. For the first time, Christian, now in his sixties, had an adequate income, an office, and, for the first time since his Dillard days, contact with students and other scholars. He responded positively and vigorously, beginning to write poems again and publishing a short section of his voluminous Louisiana research under the title Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana. He still planned to complete his entire history, but, facing the problems of age and poor health, he collapsed in class in November 1976 and died in Charity Hospital a few weeks later. It was a death that went unnoticed to all but a few in the black community.

Though not a formally trained historian, Marcus Christian had a natural love of history, a fascination for both the written document and oral lore. He lived in the right place, for New Orleans is rich with complex and romantic legend, much of it entangled around the role, or legend of, blacks. The accomplishments, travails, and defeats of European Louisianians are fairly well-documented in written records, if one knows how to get to them. But in terms of traditional historical materials, the accomplishments, travails, and stories of black men and women are a land of shifting sands. It’s difficult to get a sense of truth, for one has to trudge through a world of myths, lies, racist, assumptions, and racial abuses to discover the “official” line on the lives of Louisiana blacks. Christian’s task in attempting a comprehensive black Louisiana history was, therefore, primarily critical, corrective—setting the record straight.

Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana is excellent for the thoroughness with which Christian examines the conclusions of the “official” historians and points out the generally undervalued contributions of Creole and black artisans to New Orleans architecture. In particular, Christian notes the existence of ironworking in West Africa hundreds of years before the slave trade, providing a backdrop of prior African knowledge to the excellent wrought-iron work of the early nineteenth century. The extensiveness and creativity of the black New Orleans artisan tradition is further explored in the fine introductory essay, “Free Persons of Color," by Sally Kittredge Evans in The Creole Faubourgs volume of the New Orleans Architecture series. Most of Christian’s work focuses on the French Quarter, particularly its ironwork and blacksmithing, whereas Evans focuses on Creole building in the Marigny section.

Several of Christian’s other essays deal with the extremely crucial but complex role played by free Creoles in early-nineteenth-century New Orleans. His work on the comparative freedom the Creoles enjoyed under the Spanish, as compared to the French and Americans, is excellent and buttressed by folklore and racial knowledge. His essay on the role of the Creole militia in the state, culminating in its participation in the Battle of New Orleans, shows that the Creoles not only were an integral part of the militia of the Louisiana territory, but played a role in suppressing slave rebellions, particularly the rebellion of 1811 in St. John’s Parish.

Christian has no equal in elaborating on the mysteries and suppressed stories of who might have possessed African blood, who sired children by women of color. This kind of material is rarely in the written records, of course, but it adds a feeling of humanness, contradiction, and irony to the “history,” enhancing one’s “feel” for what actually happened.

Some of Christian’s most important ideas emerged as talks he gave on black New Orleans history to small groups around the city; he rightfully carried the reputation as the authority. One of the ones I like best he called “New Orleans As It Was, Is, And Is Not.” In it, he points out that, with the first settlers to Bienville’s Louisiana in 1718, came free blacks from France, one of whom was apparently affluent enough to lend money at interest to white settlers. It was African slaves, brought to New Orleans in 1719, who cleared away land so that the city could be laid out. More interestingly, it was West African slaves from the grain coast who taught the early settlers how to raise rice: “It is an odd commentary upon the vagaries of the human mind that these Negroes—supposedly ignorant—were thus called upon to lend their knowledge towards the sustenance of whites,” remarks Christian; “ . . . more than any other factor these intelligent dark people and their seed rice account for the founding of what is today one of the state’s largest industries.”

Christian also attacked the commonly-held assumption that the process of sugar granulation was first developed by Etienne de Bore on his plantation: “The story persists among the descendants of the old free colored class that sugar granulation on the de Bore plantation was achieved by Negro sugarmakers from Santo Domingo. … This is extremely credible when one reflects that long before de Bore’s experiment Negroes of the West Indies had already gone down in history as experts in the matter of sugar granulation.”

This is important work, for the real problem of future historians will be to attempt to reconstruct the stories of those we view as masses, as slaves, who in Louisiana were the source of remarkable accomplishments but left no testimony of their own. Possibly much more detailed work should be done by oral historians, since the tradition of history keeping in the Africa sense has always been oral. Certainly oral history is an important direction for black historians to move in, where sensitivity and racial knowledge become so important.

Some of the best oral history on the New Orleans black community has been done on early jazz musicians—books like Hear Me Talkin to Ya, for instance, or Jelly Roll Morton’s taped autobiography, or the interviews with elderly blacks which greatly assisted Donald Marquis in his research for In Search of Buddy Bolden. But because the more Afro-dominant portion of Louisiana’s black population has been quite speechless, mystery still shrouds such fascinating questions as who Marie Leveau, or the Leveaus, really was and how she really worked. Who were the leaders of the fascinating slave rebellion of 1811, and is there an in-race legend that has persisted through generations about the rebellion? Who, to blacks, was Bras Coupe, and is there legendary survival of his defiance evident in the black community today, shielded from the white power structure?

Which West African cultures are most strongly represented in New Orleans, the largest slave port of the South, and can the African origins of the dance we call the “second line,” the funeral we call the “jazz funeral” be precisely located? Did the form of New Orleans black music differ from that of the Mississippi Delta because of different African origins, or because of differing processes of Europeanization? The list goes on and on, as we get deeper into the rich Louisiana black culture. The interesting areas opened up by Melville J. Herskovits in The Myth of the Negro Past need to be further explored, for they can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of black American culture; but this work can only be done by someone who is as intimately familiar with New Orleans as Marcus Christian was, and who is also willing to devote time to live and study in West Africa.

These are possible directions for further scholars and artists, particularly black scholars and artists. Marcus Christian has opened the door. The thoroughness and imagination of his work serves as a standard for those who will follow.

As a poet, Christian had a tendency to be little too tied to nineteenth-century English form, to the detriment of his Afro-American sensibility. The desire to give expression, to give voice through poetry to a people who have not been heard in written literature, was, however, a lonely undertaking, all the more difficult because Christian was working mostly in isolation and with hardly any readership. It is not surprising that almost all of his poetry (in the UNO collection of his works) remains unpublished, though much of it is fine and should eventually be published.

I like best his work when he is impassioned or obviously moved. The poems “Commencement” (in honor of Benjamin Quarles), “My Heart Is With the Hunted” (with a note about Bras Coupe), “Striking Longshoremen,” “Carnival Torch Bearer,” “Only This Song,” “Plowman’s Song,” and “Epitaph” I think are excellent; they mute his overbearing sense of form with meaning and substance. Of additional value to future researchers of Christian’s life and works are his meticulously dated notes on the sources of his poems—an excellent record of his frustrations, dreams, and loneliness. Through his notes we learn to know and love this man who walked the streets of a hostile, uncaring South; this rare poet-scholar of our race.

It is fitting that poetry and history should merge in Marcus Christian’s long lifetime of literary work, for Christian assumed the most difficult of tasks: the telling of the black American’s story for himself in a way he could understand it, reflecting the truth of his journey. The telling of that story remains an ongoing process and will take quite a time. Marcus Christian stands as a beacon light from the earliest, hardest days. His is strong, indelible testimony.

Note

1Most of Marcus Christian’s papers, manuscripts, books, and correspondence are in the University of New Orleans Archives. As summarized by UNO historian Joseph Logsdon, the correspondence cover the years 1935–1976, including correspondence with fellow writers like Sterling Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps. Included too is Christian’s correspondence concerning his belief that Frank Yerby stole the idea for The Foxes of Harrow from notes Christian made on an old family tale originating from Houma, Louisiana. The collection is also rich in Christian’s notes to himself: observations, ideas for literary projects, reflections on his economic condition and hardships. Probably most valuable is an unfinished, 1000-page manuscript on the “History of Blacks in Louisiana,” initiated during the period of the Federal Writers’ Project. The collection includes notes and research for the “History” done by Christian and other FWP scholars. There are, in addition, voluminous clipping, journals, and articles dealing with blacks in Louisiana. Finally, there are several hundred unpublished poems (many of them excellent) short stories, essays on Louisiana history, and notes on New Orleans and Louisiana which, in my opinion, should be edited and published, as there is no comparable source of extant published material.

Source: Black America Literary Forum • Vol. 18, No. 1 • 1984

Tom Dent, New Orleans-born poet, essayist, playwright, teacher, and oral historian was an active participant in the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements. He was a leading literary figure in New Orleans, publishing two books of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982), and a prolific oral historian, whose work culminated with the publishing of his book, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1997).

Thomas Covington Dent was born on March 20, 1932, to Albert Walter Dent and Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent, and was the oldest of three sons. Dr. Albert W. Dent was the president of Dillard University (1941-1969). Jessie Covington Dent was a trained classical pianist originally from Houston, Texas, and trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a fellow of the Juilliard Musical Foundation.

The Dents were a prominent New Orleans family active in the Black community and often hosts to well-known individuals of the civil rights era. . . . Dent chose to discontinue his studies in Syracuse and moved to New York to become immersed in writing. Early on during the New York years (1959-1965) he became involved in political activities that coincided to the emergence of Black Nationalism.

Dent became a news reporter for the New York Age (1959) and was appointed press liaison for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (1960-1963) by Thurgood Marshall. This position took Dent to several hot spots of the Civil Rights Movement, including Jackson, Mississippi, where he became involved in getting James Meredith admitted as the first Black student of the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Through the community in Harlem, Dent helped to produce a journal called On Guard for Freedom, which represented an early Black Nationalist artists' group and included members such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Harold Cruse, and Calvin Hicks. Involvement with this group and its activities led to the creation of the Umbra Writers' Workshop (1962-1964) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for which Dent was a founding member. 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). The Umbra Writers' 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 writing.

Tom Dent returned to New Orleans in 1965 after the disbanding of the Umbra workshop. He did not intend to stay in New Orleans, but discovered new things about the city that were different from when he had left fifteen years earlier. One major discovery was the Free Southern Theater (FST) founded by John O'Neal and Gilbert Moses as an integrated Tougaloo Drama Workshop at Tougaloo College, Mississippi, in 1963. Dent had met John O'Neal previously in New York and by the time he returned to the south, the FST was based in New Orleans. Dent became the Associate Director (1966-1970) and authored a one-act play, Ritual Murder (1967). The FST was organized as an integrated touring company that used volunteers to play for civil rights centers of the South, particularly in Mississippi. The administration of the company was often divided as to its direction.

Gilbert Moses attempted in 1965 to reorganize the FST into an all-Black company with its base in New Orleans; however, John O'Neal and the fundraising committee were based in New York. The new Black orientation of the theater caused confusion for the integrated New York-based fundraising committee, and by 1967 there were conflicts about the direction of the theater between the groups in New Orleans and New York. The touring concept coming from New York at the time was to hire professional Black actors from New York for the touring season. As the direction of the theater continued to be in conflict throughout the late sixties, Dent's development of the New Orleans-based community workshop program progressed. . . .

Thomas Covington Dent died on June 6, 1998, at the age of 66 in New Orleans.AmistadResearchCenter

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Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

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Profiles on Marcus Bruce Christian and the Federal Writers Project

 

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993.

Clayton, Ronnie W. “The Federal Writers Project for Blacks in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 19(1978): 327-335.

Dent, Tom. “Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation. Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp. 22-26.

Hessler, Marilyn S. “Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection.” Louisiana History 1 (1987):37-55.

Johnson, Jerah. “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 20.1 (1979): 113-115.

Larson, Susan. “Poems in the Key of Life.” Times-Picayune (Book Section), July 4, 1999.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Introduction.” I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus Bruce Christian. Edited by Rudolph Lewis and Amin Sharif. New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1999. Reprinted in revised form in Dillard Today 2.3 (2000): 21-24.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Magpies, Goddesses, & Black Male Identity in the Romantic Poetry of Marcus Bruce Christian.” Paper presented at College Language Association, April 2000, Baltimore, MD.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Marcus Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic.” Paper presented at the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference held June 1999 at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Published in ZNHS FORUM (Spring 2000).

Peterson, Betsy. “Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet.” Dixie 18 (January 1970).

Redding, Joan. “The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project.” Louisiana History 32.1 (1991): 47-62

Source: Wikipedia

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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, EastVillage

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#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

Non-fiction

#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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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.

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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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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 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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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perceptiona lyrical account of one boy's attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spiritswho alternately terrify and inspire himall carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that "God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward." In writing from a child's perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”

His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls

By Dorothy Sterling

Dorothy Sterling’s biography of Robert Smalls is Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958). In most history books, the contributions of Negroes during the Civil War and Reconstructions are ignored. Robert Smalls was one of the heroes who is rarely mentioned. He was a Negro slave who stole a ship from the Confederates, served on it with the Union Army with distinction, and finally served several terms in Congress.

All this was accomplished against the handicaps first of slavery, then of the prejudice of the Union Army, and finally of the Jim Crow laws, which eventually conquered him. Besides its value in contradicting the history book insinuation that the Negro was incapable of political enterprise and that the South was right in imposing Jim Crow laws, Captain of the Planter is an exciting adventure story. Captain Smalls’ escape from slavery and his battle exploits make interesting reading, and the style is fast moving.—Barbara Dodds

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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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posted 27 January 2010

 

 

 

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Related files:    Tom Dent Bio   Tom Dent Speaks   Southern Journey   The Art of Tom Dent  My Father Is Dead   Jessie Covington Dent   

The Federal Writers Project For Blacks in Louisiana    Marcus B. Christian and the WPA (Johnson)  Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet   

Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection