blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Son of Msippi"

George Barlow

The simple statement, sense of place, and urgency of "Son of Msippi" can be found in other poems in the collection, but the history of a people struggling for survival is singularly more terrible, singularly more beautiful in this poem than in any of his others.

From "Awushioo: Henry Dumas at the Rainbow Sign." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.

Quincy Troupe

In "Son of Msippi" and "Jackhammer" . . . we encounter Dumas's powerful rhythmic sense as it propels forward a pulsating, syncopated musical language rooted in sound-idioms of African American worksongs, field hollers, the songs of prisoners working Southern chain gangs, jazz and blues.

From "For the Griot from Sweet Home." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.

Craig Werner

The link between Dumas's poetry and the music of the streets is by no means incidental. Dumas clearly understood that music--gospel, blues, jazz, or funk--would play a crucial role in recovery of the African mythological heritage. . . .

Dumas's "Son of Msippi" is a powerful expression of what Robert Stepto calls "ascent," the drive to rise "Up / from the river of pain."

From "Dumas, Nationalism, and Multicultural Mythology." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.

Nia Damali

Upon reading the works of Henry Dumas one is overwhelmed by the complex simplicity of his style. On the surface his style evokes, through language, a deep feeling of down-home living. His is the language of Arkansas and Mississippi, the Gullah of South Carolina, and the hip talk of N.Y.C. and other Afro-urban areas. Yet beneath all this "folk talk" lies a highly complex system of rhythmic philosophy. Take the poem "Son of Msippi":

I grew
beside the prickly boll of white,
beside the bone-filled Mississippi
rolling on and on,
breaking over,
cutting off,
ignoring my bleeding fingers.
Bare stalk and sun walk
I hear a boll-weevil talk
cause I grew
up ...

Note how the formal English style fuses with Dumas's Mississippi dialect. Dumas evokes music, plays the spirits, and beats the drum of the Black historical/folkloric tradition into a tune deeply rooted in his culture yet uniquely his.

From "Dumas: A Man and His Work." Black American Literature Forum. Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 1988). Copyright © 1988 by Indiana University Press.

Paul A. Griffith

The aesthetic "mask" throughout Dumas's work takes various forms, as pure tough-minded defiance, survival myth, or blues irony, but the poet's aim is the same: to surmount, through inner resource, the alienating circumstances of a dehumanizing situation. Whether life is trapped in the urban reality of stark misery and ghetto destitution, as in "Harlem Game"—a shabby environment of deferred dreams characterized by tense, fierce rituals of survival and spiritual atrophy, similar to the kind we find in section two of Toomer's Cane—or in rural conditions of backbreaking peasant toil, as illustrated by "Son of Msippi," the poet points to the value of the indigenous tradition of folk art as a vehicle of expression for the survival will:

from Msippi I grew.
(Bare walk and cane stalk
make a hungry belly talk.)
from the river of death [. . .]

Cane-sweat river-boat
nigger-bone floating

Up from Msippi I grew,
wailing a song with every strain. (19-20)

A drama of encounter is played out here between life's inexorable energy and the forces of a grim environment permeated by forces of death. But the life-affirming, contrapuntal rhythms of the poet's creative "wailing" assures his "growth"; his survival spirit refuses to be cowed by the destructive power symbolized in the "river of pain" and the "river of death," a geographical metaphor derived out of the slave songs, as DuBois notes (270), to define the alienating forces within the American social landscape.

The folk jingle upon which the poem ends juxtaposes these counterpointing rhythms nourished by the landscape: the capacity for pain and release, death and creation. The final lines read, "Woman gone woe man too / baby cry rent-pause daddy flew." The vitality of the folk response to experience is recognized in this couplet where the poet employs not only what Redmond calls "the pain-stained-blues 'wailing'," but also the rhythmic and mnemonic rhyme effects of the folk ditty, container and conveyor of the feelings of cultural homogeneity. Here the poet seeks to invest in the strong sense of group identity or collective morale that imbues folk values with a religious quality. The troubles that haunt the individual's soul are woven into a simple song to be shared by the community so that the potential ordeal may be transcended by transforming the personal experience into the enduring accomplishment of shared community feeling.

The folk creations, valuable as affirmations of the spirit, constitute, for the artist and the community, morally and politically viable strategies of liberation from the pain of daily existence as well as the psychic terror caused by unjust domination. Important here too is the act of locating the art within the perspective of the oral tradition; this is a vital framework through which the poet invokes the values of his own history, and articulates an alternative aesthetic vision as a basis for a "resistance culture" to the angst of social and psychic alienation.

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