I first met Davis Henderson along with Ishmael Reed in 1963 a few months before Kennedy was assassinated. They were involved with a writers workshop they named “Umbra” which meant shade. The reason for this was that it included African Americans and white folk’s writers, artist, and musicians. Some of the writers were as follows Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Lorenzo Thomas, James Thompson, Raymond Patterson, Lenox Raphael, Calvin C. Hernton, among others.
The workshop was indicated by Tom Dent whose father was President of Dillard University in New Orleans. Tom had graduated from Syracuse University and had been there at the same time as the famous football player Jim Brown was a student.
Tom Dent worked for the NAACP legal defensive where he met Ralph Ellison’s wife who also worked there. His interest was to meet other writers, Roland Snelling among others. The workshop met once a week at Tom’s apartment on East 2nd street in New York.
I, myself did not get involved until later after Kennedy’s assassination, until 1964. I was asked to review W.E.B. DuBois “The World and Africa” which was never published. Along with James Thompson and Lenox Raphael we did an interview of Ralph Ellison about American letters and his career. This interview was never published by UMBRA but subsequently by the Atlantic Monthly and in a book essays by Ellison called “Going to the Territory”.
The Break-up and demise Umbra
The split occurred between the nationalist and the integrationists. Some writer’s excited by Malcolm X and his fiery rhetoric and others by Martin Luther King. Those who sided with Malcolm went with Leroi Jones and left the Lower East Side and went to Harlem. The others stayed downtown and eventually went their separate ways. One of the many ideological splits was because of a poem by Ray Durem criticizing the Kennedy presidency. It was to be published in a UMBRA issue sometime after the assassination. Some of the writers thought it would be in bad test to publish the poem in light of his death. Others saw nothing wrong with it.
Guns Were Drawn
The manuscript was held hostage by those who side with Leroi and Malcom X. In its roughly three year existence, with its workshop and friends UMBRA did leave a historical mark. Many writers and artist of that period went on to fame such Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Joe Oberstreet, among others. Ishmael was to publish the first multicultural anthology of up and coming writers, with Asian, Afro-American, white folks, Hispanic, and others “19 Necro-Romantics from Now”. Leroi Jones (Amiri Barka) with Larry Neal from later publish an anthology “Black Fire”
Both anthologies were a result of the fiery times we lived through during the 60’s.
Steve Cannon is playwright, novelist, poet, and executive director of A Gathering of the Tribes