Lorenzo Thomas

1944 –

Lorenzo Thomas, a key figure in the Black Arts Movement, was born in Panama City, Panama, on August 31, 1944. Thomas moved to New York City with family in 1948. His father, Herbert Hamilton Thomas, a pharmacist, was originally from St. Vincent. Thomas’s mother, Luzmilda Thomas (née Gilling), was a Jamaican-born Costa Rican who worked as a community activist. Thomas was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. He became fluent in English while growing up in the Bronx and Queens. He sought to master the language to avoid bullies who teased him for his accent. Around this time, he developed an interest in creative writing. Thomas attended Queens College, where he earned a BA in 1967.

In the late 1960s, Thomas became immersed in the Black Arts Movement in New York. He joined the Umbra Workshop, a literary collective that included writers Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Calvin Hernton. In 1968, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the Vietnam War in 1971 as a military adviser. After he was discharged, he moved to Texas. Having already established a reputation as a poet, Thomas became writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University in 1973 for one year. While there, he assisted with editing the university’s literary journal Roots.

Thomas published six poetry collections during his lifetime: Dancing on Main Street (Coffee House Press, 2004); Sound Science (Sunbe/am, 1992); The Bathers (I. Reed Books, 1981); Chances Are Few (Blue Wind Press, 1979); Dracula (Angel Hair Press, 1973); and A Visible Island (Adlib Press, 1967). In 2019, The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas (Wesleyan University Press), the first full collection of his works, was published posthumously. Thomas’s work has also been featured in several anthologies, including Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (University of Alabama Press, 2006). Thomas also authored works of nonfiction, including the critical studies, Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2000) and Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (The University of Michigan Press, 2008).

Thomas received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCPA).

At the beginning of his literary career, Thomas led writing workshops at Houston’s Black Arts Center from 1974 to 1976. He became a professor in English at the University of Houston—Downtown in 1984. During his tenure there, he helped organize the Juneteenth Blues Festival, which was held in Houston and other cities in Texas. Thomas also served as a board member of the literary arts nonprofit organization Inprint Houston, as well as the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literary and Fine Arts. He was also a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and was one of the first African American writers to participate in the Poets-in-the-Schools programs in Texas, New York, Florida, and several other states. 

Lorenzo Thomas died in Houston on July 4, 2005.