Celebrating Poetry, Part 2

Umbra No. 2

Umbra No. 2

Prior to joining the staff of the Amistad Research Center, I had studied and collected “little magazines” – small circulation, avant-garde literary magazines – for a number of years. One of my favorite titles was Umbra, which was published by a group of African American poets in New York City beginning in 1963. Like many “littles,” Umbra was short-lived, lasting only a few issues, but it had a profound influence on African American writing and gave voice to many leading poets of the era. One of the greatest (and pleasant!) surprises I found when I came to Amistad was that the Center housed the papers and library of Umbra co-founder and editor Tom Dent.

Dent’s library houses the first two issues of Umbra, and his papers provide a wonderful look into the lives and works of the group of writers that became known as the Umbra Writers’ Workshop or the Society of Umbra. One of the best histories of the group is Calvin Hernton’s “Umbra: A Personal Recounting.” Along with Dent and Hernton, members of the workshop included David Henderson, Calvin Hicks, Rolland Snellings, Ishmael Reed, Alvin Simon, Lorenzo Thomas and others.

Dent’s correspondence includes numerous letters with Umbra members, in which they discuss their lives and their writing. In addition to the letters, the collection includes essays and interviews by Dent on his Umbra days, as well as a wonderful set of photographs of early Umbra meetings by Alvin Simon. The workshop and his former cohorts are also represented in Dent’s poetry, including the following:

“Ten Years After Umbra”
– by Tom Dent
we had seen
our minds reach out
touch fingertips
musics crawl in like
lazy smoke on Friday nights
taste the wine &
leave us a whiff of real road

we had seen
our fingertips recoil
our minds reel
from the impact
of our tounged knives

but then

we were naked then
and we stripped our souls
easy as the sun rose
and what went on
in that tenement prison
was something in us
bursting free like
a flash fire.

do you too now feel
the drag of too many jammed years?
Stanley’s fades into dream
and so with our touching
our hurting…

as for me
the dirt roads of Mississippi
are a long way
from anywhere

but then the sun will rise
just as easy tomorrow
over this black earth

join me there.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Image from the Amistad Research Center library collection. May not be reproduced without permission.)

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