On Henry Dumas' Poetry
The most fascinating aspect of his work may well be the tension between his interest in realism and his interest in the surreal. Side by side with his concrete, tactile sense of reality is Dumas's imaginative determination, fed no doubt by his interest in Eastern culture, to render the world and experience in a mythic and, symbolic sense.
From "Henry Dumass World of Fiction," in Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.
Crows, Nighthawks, Eagles--Henry Dumas's poetry is as avian as the winged dancers in Alvin Ailey's "Revelations." It soars, its head is high, like those, in Charles White's drawings--eyes aimed towards transcendence, which is as Dumas wants black people to be. This historian, teacher, guide, poet wants them to be aware of their traditions and of their power. His lines exude power and energy. He was one of the channels for the spirit of black pride that brought euphoria to millions in the 1960s, before governmental agencies, operating in secret, permitted the dumping of tons of toxic crack and heroin as a way of bringing people to the degradation we see happening in the ghettos throughout America. He successfully mediums the many black male voices that we hear in everyday life; he knows the blues of black men whose ill-wishers seem an army, and whose paranoia is justified. He is a prophet like St. John. He shows that the black male voice and style will never be for sale, will never be harlequined as tranquilizers for the suburbs. He knows Islam, Christianity, Greek, and Yoruban religion. He knows a variety of forms and techniques, He is a craftsman. He shows that even an avowedly black poet is more cosmopolitan than the average yawn-inspiring verse-maker in your average "American" anthology of poetry.
From "Henry Dumas: The Poet of Resurrection." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.
Charles Wartts, Jr.
Listen to the soul-chant of Henry Dumas. His vision is the crucible-forged prism of BlackSpirit, warping and woofing all colors into a rainbow-hued coat to make visible the ethereal body of invisible man. His voice is the thunderclap of prophecy. The prophetic tradition in literature is by no means new, is probably as old as man's first excursion into the Kingdom of the Soul brandishing the rude implements of language. However, it is this characteristic tone that will distinguish the writers and artists of the new age. It will be their mission--and every generation has one--to cultivate it to full flowering.
Listen. Listen again to the soul-chant of Henry Dumas. It is an invitation to worship and wonder. Listen to the sound of silence as it splinters into word, into flesh all natural things. Listen as Dumas speaks into allegory and paradox the bone of tree, drum becoming boom-sound of belly, the singing of skin pared with a thousand eyes, tongues hearing the whispering breath of ancestral spirits, vessels sailing into knowledge, "notes ... speak[ing] my people" (Play Ebony 3), womb of earth gestating into Time, the veined voice of tree chained "in alien temples with new gods carved upon my skin" (20), earth made into "flesh [that] bow[s] down on his knee"
From "A Coat Spun of Race, Rivers, and Rainbows." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.
What differentiates Dumas's "modernism" most clearly from that of his Euro-American antecedents--the Joyce who described the mythological impoverishment underlying the paralysis of his Dubliners would be the closest parallel--is his recognition of the practical imperatives of mythological awareness. Providing realistic and accessible images of the attempt to revive the African "King ... fossilized in our brains" ("Saba: The Lost Diadem" Play Ebony 124), Dumas's short stories continually assert the need for, and possibility of, bringing myth to life, and life to myth. In "Ark of Bones," the protagonist Headeye leads the narrator to an awareness of the physical suffering--the experience of the countless black victims of white racism--which gives meaning to Afro-American Christianity. Dumas presents the "call of the Lord" as an immersion in black experience, a way of bringing the fossilized African mythology back to life. And lived myth, rather than myth conceived in abstract or literary terms, is the primary concern of Dumas's fiction. In "Echo Tree," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?", "Devil Bird," and "The Voice," Dumas focuses repeatedly on a basic theme: that the type of myth one lives depends on choice, not conscious choices focusing explicitly on mythological issues, but the daily choices which determine the values by which one lives. Attempting to inspire an actual transformation of Afro-American life, Dumas poses a choice between two groups of values, associated--in the specific circumstances confronting the majority of the Afro-American community--with different sets of myths: the values of presence, relation, and respect associated with African mythologies or the corrupt values of individuality, abstraction, and pride enforced by the uncritical acceptance of the myths of Europe. Ultimately, the creation of myths capable of inspiring the Afro-American community cannot be separated from the willingness, the courage to live out the implications of the African myths. At the conclusion of the "Saba" beginning "we weep that our heroes have died / in our memories," Dumas negotiates the mythological challenge of "the devils / who came in Jesus ships from Europe." Celebrating the Afro-American myths, which provided the driving impulse of the Black Arts Movement, Dumas concludes the "Saba" by celebrating a lived immersion which is powered by, and empowers, ascents . . . .
From "Dumas, Nationalism, and Multicultural Mythology." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.
Paul A. Griffith
It is in the context of a such a black identity crisis that the mythic explorations of . . . Dumas function as ideological constructs, aiming to reverse, or devalue, the inherited self-alienating racial ideologies. This, a search for new principles of value, informs the aesthetic effort to privilege a cultural geneology. For this axiological reason, the artists take a primary critical interest in reexploring the past for the "architecture" of a tradition, evoking in their reflective process certain philosophical structures that have shaped and given significance to traditional African people's thought and action. This cultural anthropological interest acknowledges that out of the understanding of a tradition of values can come the possibilities for a people to learn more about itself. In pursuing this aim . . . Dumas find[s] restorative power in mythic structures, which function in the art as symbols of an alternative social and psychic order for a people who have found themselves adrift in modern time and space.
[. . .]
In a similar search for what Redmond, editor and literary executor of Dumas's work, calls the artist's search for "cultural self-knowledge," Dumas has also set out to trace the "Blackhuman Continuum," "to honor and re-illuminate those ancient things that remain in the ears" (Introduction, Knees n. pag.). The presence of "otherness" that Baraka finds in Dumas's art is similarly an imaginative investment in an alternative tradition. The artist, Baraka adds, eschews the "euro-literary" ethos in order to articulate a "nationalistic consciousness" basic to the needs of all African Americans ("The Works" 162-63).
It is thus that for . . . Dumas the act of cultural recovery, vital for reorienting the self, constitutes the black writer's responsibility. In seeking to rediscover such a point of spiritual contact, they chiefly orient their art in the culture of the Akan and Dogon in western Africa, the Swahili and Egyptian in eastern Africa, and also, in the New World black folk traditions. Herein, they open up the significance of their art as liberating constructs, as strategies for enabling black consciousness to get beyond the limiting forms of definition imposed through the institution of colonialism upon non-Western peoples.
Turning, then, to their past of mythic and folk traditions, . . . Dumas reappropriate[s] the cultural and self-referential power of language. Various oral conventions of the black community provide the basis of [his] linguistic reappropriation, and serve as implicit strategies for signifying the spiritual and human realities that were denied the race through the false images shaped by Western hegemonically privileged discourse. The significance of this effort to affirm the moral and political status of the black person via a constitution of his "linguistic territoriality" is suggested through the formulations offered by the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani, who informs us that "meanings are learned or clarified through symbolic communication," a situation that signifies an essential relation between the individual and "the symbolic environment of the group." Language, in other words, facilitates group identification and defines the linguistic community's location in social and cultural space, its shared history and modes of perception (490).
[. . . ]
Dumas, whose work is, as Redmond points out an "attempt to salve and balm 'the Jesus disease' and other New World maladies" (introduction Knees n. pag.) seek[s] to ground [his] work in an "experimental search for new symbols" (Gadamer's terms) expressive of mythic processes of life renewal. It is in such a context that the imaginative work of Brathwaite and Dumas, challenging social and aesthetic principles that limit possibilities of black expression and self-definition, constitutes a liberating ideal. This challenge is exemplified by Dumas in "Saba: Shadow and Act," voicing an urgent desire to invert self-alienating values and symbols. This revolutionary ideal is assessed by Baraka as the artist's attempt to build "institutions (social, political, creative, religious, historical, economic, ethos-expressing institutions) in which our best minds can research for and reconstruct our black nation" ("The Works" 163).
[. . . ]
[The] rite of passage functions as a metaphor for the black community's lost mythic past, suggesting for Dumas cogent themes of "exit," "loss," and "return," . . . [He] employ[s] mythic themes and designs for the benefit of modern demythicized people, to suggest new collective rites for restructuring a disordered world. This creative use of cultural phenomena as literary schemata for a program of spiritual and ideological purposes invests in specific African traditions, informing which, as Ray observes, was a fundamental reliance upon particular rituals for the "recreation of the group's solidarity" and for the reforging of "the corporate life."
As he goes on to explain, "In times of colonial oppression and rapid social change, ritual symbols have also served to create and reinforce new religious and political movements" (17). This tradition, carried over into the New World, and best exemplified by the Haitian and Jamaican use of voodoo as strategies for liberation from the oppression of slavery, is here revived through the aesthetic imagination. . . .
Engaged too with such radical awakening, Dumas, who is largely influenced by DuBois's notion of black "double-consciousness," underscores Afro-Americans' alienation, according to the fourfold character of their political, economic, personal and cultural dissatisfaction and insists, as a corrective to this plight, upon commensurate revolutionary action. Responding, in "The Zebra Goes Where the Sidewalk Ends," to what William Wells Brown refers as America's "piebald policy" (223), Dumas underlines the "socialized ambivalence" of black Americans, faced with segregationist practices that seek to degrade them and deny their rights of citizenship and opportunity even as the nation touts its democratically enshrined ideals: its egalitarian dream and its principles of liberty, its constitutionalized duty to dedicate itself to universal inalienable human rights, justice and liberty.
"The Zebra Goes," drawing upon DuBois's metaphor of the "veil," points to the invisible but real barriers of prejudice that function to proscribe blacks as the pariah of American society:
Chains of light race over
my stricken city.
glittering web spun by
the white widow spider.
I see this wild arena
where we are harnessed
by alien electric shadows. (70)
Here Dumas juxtaposes the "dazzling opportunities" of the white world against the alienated and deprived situation of "outcast" Afro-Americans. Accentuating the trauma of black experience in America that DuBois represents as a mode of sociopsychological disorientation, Dumas selects parody, in his poem, as a means for highlighting and transforming the several levels of injustice within his world, The symbol "light," an icon of Christian salvation and democratic freedom in America, is inverted; through an echo of the "battle royal" drama in Invisible Man, it is spoken of as an imprisoning "chain" demarcating the boundaries (the harnessing "shadows") that separate blacks from the "dazzling" arena of opportunity.
The black and white racial tensions in the American world constitute, for Dumas, an unacceptable social order which he further explores in the connected narrative sequence of "Ark," "The White Horse," and Wandering in the Wilderness." Race relations, defined, herein, purely in terms of power, need, as the stories insist, also, to be reconceived upon principles of human equality and mutual recognition. In order to carve a meaningful place for blacks in the present order, to conceive of possibilities of justice, equality and freedom (the liberating ideals echoed in "The Marchers"), the black racial memory must be recovered. This act offers a grounding for dismantling the falsities upon which the present set of relations is built and for renegotiating the conditions of social interaction.
[. . .]
It is this existential exposure to sinister life-threatening forces that Dumas captures also in the poem "Ikef 9: Black Widow": "red is the hour glass/ (who will mark the/ widow's time?)/ . . . red is the cup." Represented in these images is a stark vision of life made victim of destructive violence: a time of blood, as signaled by the red "hour glass." The "cup" here is a version of the bloody "cup of trembling" referred to by Isaiah (Isaiah 51:17), as a metaphor for "wounded" Israel whom the Lord promised to redeem. The "cup" is also symbolically associated with Christ's sacrifice: "O my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39). Christ's ordeal and ultimate sacrifice, as chosen by Dumas, similar to William Faulkner, in Light in August, become a mode of figuration for the distressing legacy of violence perpetrated upon blacks in Southern American history—the race made a scapegoat for a morally benighted community.
The image of the "widow" in Dumas's poem is an inversion of Isaiah's own of the fulfilled bride (Isaiah 49:18), a correlative for liberation as a state of consummation. The reversal suggests the poet's impatience; the black community continues to drink from the blood filled ("red") cup of trembling. The race's condition of bitter alienation is underlined in the poem's final, desperate question, "And who sent the/ nigger wandering in/ the night?" . . . Dumas associates the uprooted blacks with "wounded" Israel, "outcasts," in "captive exile," where they are "oppressed . . . without cause" (Isaiah: 52:4). Through the constant identifying of their own suffering with that of the Israelites, who too were oppressed in a land of exile, black Americans, as Bell states, found "religious explanation for their rejection by and isolation from white America." Through this parallel, they found means to a vision of liberation. As Bell adds, blacks encouraged a belief "that, like the Jews, they too were a chosen people whom God would, in his own time deliver from oppression and exploitation" (228).
[. . .]
The consequent mandate that Hughes had prescribed for the black artist, to express his "racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the blues becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears" (1631) is taken up by Dumas, who, through a symbiosis of literary and Afro-American musical art forms of expression, subscribes to this, essentially, Afrocentric aesthetic principle. Dumas, accepting an ideology of liberation, an aim to redefine an alienated conception of self, approaches this responsibility as a creative commitment to black folk traditions. This implicit movement of cultural resistance is outlined in Redmond's metaphorical flourish: "Dumas spun his many fibered predicament . . . around an Afrocentric cultural encasement[:] . . . the cultural, aesthetic, sexual, economic, racial and political connotation that perpetually stalked him" (introduction, Knees n. pag.).
Aesthetically, "double vision" becomes for Dumas a mode of sublimating irony, and psychically it constitutes a medium for spiritual transcendence of the contradictions of black life. The scope of this "vision" encompasses the blues mood through which the community transforms an unjust economic order (in "Employment Blues" and "Out of Work Blues," for example) as well as the poet's own metamorphosing consciousness in "A Coat of Many Fibers." Herein the poet celebrates the legacy of creative folk feeling as a resource upon which Afro-Americans have relied for spiritual self-preservation.
[. . .]
It is the spiritual and creative response to life coveted by Dumas that had earlier claimed the attention of Eliot, for whom, also, spiritual exhaustion was an effect of the demythicized character of the modern Western world. In "The Fire Sermon," Eliot dramatizes the reification of human life in the modern city by revealing that the sex act which should consecrate the most binding of spiritual unions cannot but express human jadedness, sterility, and the impossibility of intimate connectedness. The two automated urbanites, at the center of the poem, their souls paralysed, have become metamorphosed into mere corporeal fragments. Empty frames (identified as "eyes and back[s]"), and devoid of emotion, they function as "human machines[s]/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting," in anticipation of a passionless tryst.
Through this common theme of the violation of love and sexuality, both Dumas and Eliot are rejecting a sterile environment that conditions human impotence. But what is essentially, for Eliot, a religious appeal is for Dumas, both a religious and a political issue. He is passionately lamenting the loss of human vital essence brought about by the uprooting of blacks from their creative traditions. Nikki Giovanni employs similar images of urban spiritual enervation to sound a call to American democracy for social change. The inner city, as she sees, in "For Saundra," is turned into a landscape of death: "no trees grow / in manhattan." For Giovanni, however, the way to transform this oppressive situation lies not in an aesthetic of "memory," but through a militant consciousness driven by radically revolutionary tactics: "maybe i shouldn't write/ at all/ but clean my gun/ and check my kerosene supply."
Adopting the alien culture and its foreign mode of conceptualization, as far as Dumas is concerned, intensifies black Americans' exposure to self-estrangement, a problem which Allan defines as "our vulnerability to loss of meaning, to confusion about who we are and what we should do, what our role is in society and what our society's role is in history" (31). It is the "dissociation of sensibility" which Ngugi diagnoses as an effect of the colonized person's separation "from his natural and social environment" that Dumas conveys through the sense of a split personality, suggested via his refusal to name the two voices heard in "Echo Tree."
As this story suggests, in reorientating himself through a religious or mythological mode of perception the individual finds unity within himself and with his community. In the symbolic drama between the halves of the divided self, a voodoo conjuration is enacted as healing rite, or mode of cultural reclamation for the urbanized and spiritually atrophied "character." In this manner, the "lost" cultural self is reunited with the life-affirming power of generations of ancestors. This is why the ceremony (a voodoo "ceremony of the souls" which is associated with the Yoruba god Elegbara, and the Haitian god Legba, represented as having one foot in the past and one in the future) calls up, from the past, the soul of his "cursed" companion's dead brother whose name is Leo, synonym for lion, and a correlative for Afro-Americans' African familial bonds, the grounding of their true identity.
The significance of Dumas's reference to the voodoo ceremony lies in both African and New World traditions, especially the Haitian revolution, which was initiated, as Taylor points out, by the moral force and organization produced by the loas of the religion. A strategy for social and political change, this mode of cultural expression, Taylor further explains, held liberating significance for slaves in the Caribbean. The slave had found that by acting out of his African-based religious world view he was able to convert his ritual acts into a force for social transformation and for restoring order and meaning to his community. Thus he turned his religion into a political instrument that would enable him "to survive in a situation of oppression, to resist that oppression, and, ultimately, to bring about emancipation" (117). The shared correspondences between the messianic and political structures in the art and the folk culture are illustrative of the symbolic potential for addressing the question of liberation which the artist finds in his literary use of ethnographic structures and symbols.
The salvational principle behind Dumas's use of the religious invocation is similar to that which the cultural anthropological study of Michael Laguerre, in "The Place of Voodoo in the Social Structure of Haiti" also, describes as important to the use of voodoo as a political force. The voodoo spirits, as Laguerre states, served to create a center of unity within the oppressed community, providing strength to the group members, making them conscious of their power, and encouraging their hope even in the most difficult moments of their struggles for liberation (44). The slaves, then, saw voodoo as a means for addressing their alienation, and for defining their "conscious place of differentiation from the world of their masters." The loas "carriers of cultural order," embodied an alternative tradition, and were trusted by the slaves to eliminate "the social disorder that was slavery" (117).This "quest for relevance," for a meaningful resolution to the struggle against social and cultural domination is centrally projected, in the art of . . . Dumas, via a pervasive iconography of life-death images that suggest the artists' faith in human rebirth as a principle of the individual's innate creative capacity. The counterbalancing rhythms of nature, implicit in the archetypal life cycle—a concern also connected to African traditional values—function as an image of the tenacious life force, or immanent energy and potential for freedom in the lives of the oppressed.
[. . .]In "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" (a reference to the Afro-American Negro spiritual) Dumas associates New World black folk music with traditional forms of African magic. This inherent preoccupation with the power of the creative imagination is an attempt to realize, through art, the kind of revolutionary or innovative consciousness that the writer thinks that Afro-Americans need in order to rescue themselves from their oppressed social circumstances. Dumas is pointing here to the spiritual attainment of the race as a mode of social power, capable of staging an imaginative inversion of the status of black people, historically marginalized, exploited, and oppressed in American society.
[. . .]
Dumas too seeks self-liberation as, fundamentally, an inner phenomenon, a defiant self-acceptance. The poet's religious preoccupation is, essentially, a response to the decay of values attached to traditional ideas and structures. The disintegration of one's culture, the turning away from one's roots under pressure of colonial ethnocentric codes becomes, for the poet, a perversion of one's real self that now needs to be redeemed:
[. . .]
Dumas, too, sings a song of "awakening" "for the songless, the dead/ who rot the earth":
so up! you bursting lungs
you spirits of morning breath
up! and make fingers
and play long and play soft
play ebony play ivory. (3-4)
He finds that renewed through dimensions of African spirituality, black persons can articulate "bridges" of a new and harmonious discourse. Through such media they, like the poet, can mend "broken chords." He suggests, in this same context, that by finding his spiritual self, the black person may possess a capacity to witness to the unification of mankind. And in a mutually recognized multicultural universe, help to cater to a human bonding across racial experiences of black and white, "ebony," and "ivory."
[. . .]
As Rickard argues, Joyce's investigation turns to the repositories of memory in other literary works in order to help us understand the ways in which we are constituted by traditions and unconsciously shaped by the voices and echoes of mythic paradigms. It is in this respect that . . . Dumas, in this particular phase of [his] socio-aesthetic preoccupations, reflect upon and constantly allude to that storehouse of memories of our long journey through time from the remotest past that Carl Jung describes as the "collective unconscious." These race memories give shape to what for both black writers is a collective "soul," a realm of archetypes seen as religious ideals imbued with a livingness and power to aid the artists in their radical efforts to redefine limited modes of thought and perception about human culture and value. In conjuring these "intertextual" echoes, or through their aesthetic investment in the repository of primordial "images," they are in quest of principles for social solidarity, or seek a political charter of human freedom.
Dumas, imaginatively reaching into this realm of group consciousness for the nucleus of his revolutionary vision, attempts to reconstitute a climate of racist tension and its devastations upon the psyches of Afro-Americans.
[. . .]
Dumas’s art, like Morrison’s novel, [Song of Solomon] posits the psychic benefits inherent in the continuity of cultural rootedness—a question of individual life taking on meaning in the united wholeness of the group that Morrison herself voices in an explanation of the historical grounding of her own art:
I could blend the acceptance of the supernatural and profound rootedness in the real world at the same time with neither taking precedence over the other. It is indicative of the cosmology, the way in which Black people looked at the world. We are very practical. . . . But within that practicality we also accepted what I suppose could be called superstition and magic which is another way of knowing things. (342)
For the artist, in other words, the metaphysical mysteries intuited in the soul of the race, are themselves epistemological. It is this way of knowing the self that, as Morrison adds, was discredited in the West (342). Because such scepticism and condemnation, moreover, had led black people to despise themselves, New World black writers believe that a revaluation of the past ontological principles is now necessary in order that psychic wholesomeness may once more be possible for the group denied access to this salvational ideal.
The artists point to our contemporary divisiveness and conflicts as effects of our ignorance of the deep and unifying mysteries that the folk consciousness had invested in the cosmos. Dumas, against this background, seeks to stimulate our imaginative faculties in order to restore us to a greater and more inclusive vision. Such a purpose underlies his fable of cosmic harmony "Ikef 18: Breathe With Me":
[. . .]
Via the religious folk feeling in which ideals of cosmic harmony were constantly kept alive, Dumas seeks to free the urbanized modern mind and spirit, held hostage within "barren/ termite tunnels of brick and metro steel" and to awaken the urgent desire for a new age of cooperation in which humankind may once again be drawn to the deep and creatively unifying spirit centered in the mysteries of the cosmos.
. . . the search for an alternative mode of consciousness or an arena in which creative autonomy may be possible becomes, for Dumas, vital to the liberating vision in black art.
[. . .]
The essence of the self-liberation prescribed here is reinforced in "Saba" ("we weep that our heroes have died") where Dumas proposes that inner freedom is gained not through sentimental withdrawal and silence but from creative action:
we weep that our forefathers kneeled
and let the knife take our tongues [. . .]
a people cannot create the real hero
until they create the real hero
not by mirrors or masks or muscles
but by men the soil is nourished
and one day
we will not weep but sing him up. (169)
The confidence in this final line attests to Dumas's vision that the artist, revising the forms through which blacks create and envision themselves, will liberate the consciousness of the people, bring them back into recognition of their heroic status. Dumas affirming here also that amnesia is a condition of "death," recommends a journey back to one's rooted being, to the "soil" in order to generate the sustained energy for wholesome survival.
from "The Liberating Imagination: Politics of Vision in the Art of Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Henry Dumas." Diss. Pennsylvania State University, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Paul Anderson Griffith
Return to Henry Dumas