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Henry Dumas' Life and Career


Trudier Harris

The literary legacy of Henry Dumas is one that has been kept alive almost single-handedly by fellow poet Eugene Redmond. Dumas inspires interest not only for his unique vision of black people in the diaspora, but because of the tragedy of his own life. Mistakenly shot down by a New York City Transit policeman on 23 May 1968, when he was a mere thirty-three, his life is emblematic of the precarious position of black men in America and the painful situation of a talented young man dying so young. Observers can only speculate, sadly, about what he might have accomplished if he had somehow escaped the fate assigned to him. In many ways Dumas has become a cultural icon in African American literary circles.

Henry Dumas was born on 20 July 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas, where he spent his early years and was saturated with the religious and folk traditions of that soil. He claimed Moms Mabley and gospel music as particular influences upon him. At the age of ten, he was taken to Harlem, where he attended public schools and graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. He enrolled in City College that year but left to join the air force. Stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, he maintained his interest in religion by teaching Sunday school while there. Dumas also spent a year on the Arabian Peninsula, where he developed an interest in the Arabic language, mythology, and culture.

Dumas married Loretta Ponton on 24 September 1955, while he was still in the military. He fathered two sons before he came to his untimely death. The first son, David, was born in 1958, after Dumas had completed his tour of duty and enrolled at Rutgers University. His second son, Michael, was born in 1962, three years before Dumas terminated his part-time attendance at Rutgers; he did not complete his degree. Though he had compelling duties as a husband, father, and IBM worker (1963-1964), Dumas was nonetheless active in civil rights and humanitarian activities, including transporting food and clothing to protesters living in Mississippi and Tennessee.

In 1967 Dumas went to Southern Illinois University as a teacher, counselor, and director of language workshops in its Experiment in Higher Education program. It was here that he met Eugene Redmond, a fellow teacher in that program. Over the course of the ten months Dumas lived in East St. Louis, he and Redmond forged the collaborative relationship that would prove so fruitful to Dumas's posthumous Career. He and Redmond read their poetry at common gatherings; Redmond especially remembers Dumas reading "Our King Is Dead," his elegy for Martin Luther King, Jr. Dumas also frequented the offices of the East St. Louis Monitor, which Redmond edited and which featured an obituary on Dumas on 6 June 1968.

Dumas's first collection of short fiction is entitled "Arks of Bones" and Other Stories (edited by Redmond in 1974), which includes nine stories and in which his largely mythic vision of African American existence is apparent. In "Ark of Bones," for example, Dumas depicts an ark that lands in a river in Arkansas, to which a young African American boy, Headeye, is called to assume his priestly role on the ship. The ship contains bones, bones of black people who died in the Middle Passage or who have otherwise lost their lives in a repressive, racist world. The only living inhabitants on the ark are the eternal caretakers of the bones; Headeye has been selected to become one of these and is initiated into the role he must play. Like Velma Henry in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters or the general pattern in which African Americans, especially preachers, are chosen by forces beyond this world for duties in this world, Headeye finally accepts the fact that he hears voices that other people do not hear, that he has one foot in the realm of the empirical and one foot in the realm of the extranatural. Instances of otherworldly phenomena permeating the natural environment also occur in other stories in the collection.

Redmond's commitment to making Dumas's work readily available to scholarly communities continued in the publication of Goodbye, Sweetwater (1988) and Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (1989). The first volume contains eight of the stories that first appeared in "Ark of Bones," along with excerpts from Dumas's unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone (1976), stories from Rope of Wind (1979), and three selections from "Goodbye Sweetwater." One of the stories in the final section is "Rain God," which develops the African American folk belief that, when it is raining and the sun is shining, the devil is beating his wife. Three young black boys literally witness this phenomenon as they are on their way home one rainy-sunny day. The second volume contains previously published as well as unpublished poems, including several poems with the title "Kef" and an accompanying number, and "Saba," with the same pattern. Some of the poems in Knees had appeared in Play Ebony: Play Ivory (1974), a collection of Dumas's poetry, which Redmond edited singly in 1974 and which he had co-edited in 1970. Dumas's poetry is inspired by African American music, particularly blues and jazz (he studied with Sun Ra), and he develops themes consistent with the Black Aesthetic of the 1960s. His poetry also focuses, in keeping with his fiction, on themes of nature and the natural world.

Readers coming to Dumas's works are most struck by his extraordinary vision, his unusual ways of looking at the world, at the experiences of African Americans , and at the intersections of natural and super natural phenomena. Redmond had done yeoman work in encouraging interest in Dumas's fictional and poetic creations. It remains to be seen whether the planted seeds will indeed sprout into a critical industry.

See also: Eugene B. Redmond, introduction to "Ark of Bones" and Other Stories, 1974. Carolyn A. Mitchell, "Henry Dumas," in DLB, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 89-99. Eugene B. Redmond, "The Ancient and Recent Voices within Henry Dumas," introduction to Goodbye, Sweetwater, 1988. Eugene B. Redmond, "Poet Henry Dumas: Distance Runner, Stabilizer, Distiller," introduction to Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poems of Henry Dumas, 1989.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.


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