Henry Dumas

Poet, Seer and Short Story Writer






enry Dumas was a brilliant African American poet, seer and short story writer. Henry was born on July 29, 1934, in Sweet Home, Arkansas. During the 1950s, he served in the Air Force and was stationed in Texas and the Middle East. Writing poetry and short stories consumed him during the 1960s. He studied at City College and Rutgers University, and participated in the civil rights and Black Power movements of his time.

He found inspiration in the African and African American experiences. Some of his fiction employs a style of magic realism, innovative for tis time but quite common nowadays. In 1976, James Baldwin selected his story "Thalia" for the Black Scholar literary prize. Dumas was closely associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, which championed an aesthetic grounded in the black cultural nationalism. But, in the words of Amiri Baraka, Dumas produced a "a true art form, not twenty 'hate whiteys' and a benediction of sweaty artificial flame, but actual art, real, man, and stunning." All that ended when he was killed in April 1968, at the age of 33, at Manhattan's 125th street station by a New York Transit Authority policeman in a case of "mistaken" identity. Dumas had already completed several manuscripts of poetry and prose, the quality and quantity of which are seldom achieved in one short lifetime. 

At the time of his untimely death, he and the founder of Kent State University's Department of Pan-African Studies (formerly the Institute for African American Affairs), Edward W. Crosby, worked together at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville on the faculty of its "Experiment in Higher Education" located in SIU's East St. Louis Center. Prior to joining EHE, Dumas taught in Hiram College's Upward Bound Program in Ohio. Some of his poetry, short stories and novels have been published posthumously by the Southern Illinois University Press, the result of the hard editorial and promotional work of Eugene Redmond and Toni Morrison of Random House, and the original publication impetus provided by Dr. Edward W. Crosby, Director of Education at EHE, 1966-1969. The first two works — Poetry for My People and other Stories and Ark of Bones — were edited in 1970 by the poets Eugene Redmond and the late Hale Chatfield, a published poet and professor of English at Hiram College in Ohio. Eugene Redmond, who also worked with Dumas and Crosby, in East Saint Louis, later edited his Play Ebony, Play Ivory (1970), Jonah and the Green Stone (1976) and Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979). Redmond also edited Dumas' collection of short stories, Goodbye, Sweetwater (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1988).

 



A Memorial to Henry Dumas 

t Kent State University in 1972, a Henry Dumas Memorial was established to perpetuate his memory. This memorial included a small, but respectable student research library and reading room for student, faculty, and community use. It was housed in the university's Center of Pan-African Culture. The Henry Dumas Library's holdings were primarily the result of private gifts of books, journals, historical papers, audio and video tapes, and other relevant items from faculty, staff and community residents. Even though the Henry Dumas Memorial Library relied on the honor system, there were rules governing the greater community's access to the Library to prevent unwarranted loss of books and other items having academic and historical importance. Usually a librarian was on duty. On occasion, some of the Library's more that 3,000 holdings were signed out for overnight use.

Henry Dumas the Poet

Excerpts from his Poetry for My People
Edited by
Eugene Redmond and Hale Chatfield (1970).
Southern Illinois University Press


MY LITTLE BOY

My little boy speaks
with an accent.
I must remember sometime
to lean my head down
and whisper in his ear
and ask him the name 
of the country
he comes from.
I like his accent.

THOUGHT

One of the greatest roles
ever created by Western man
has been the role of :Negro."

One of the greatest actors
to play the role has been 
the "Nigger."

DECISION, SAYS THE SOURCE

Decision, says the Source
links precision.
Choose the one to strike
and strike hard.
The nail becomes
Desire.
The anvil rings fire.
Decision, says the Source
cleans the inner chambers
of the mind.
Light enters and reveals
confusion
Decision, says the Source
has two wings of light

      one fusion the other precision.

THE PUPPETS HAVE A NEW KING

Ulwaca ulooooooo!
Oh these cold white hands
manipulating
they broke us like limbs from trees
and carved Europe upon our 
African masks and made puppets

Ulwalalooooo!
Bring out the Pygmy juju
Let us, like little black spears, 
bore our way.

THE COMING OF THE EAGLES

Let us have eagles!
Let us have eagles
among my people!

The hot wind has melted
ice and the ice has fallen.
The cold wind has chiseled mountains
and they have fallen.
The dry wind has gnawed
away stone and stone is sand.
The cruel winds have cut
feathers, skin and bone,
and the sparrows have died.

Let us have new wings
among my people!
Let us have bones
among my people!
Let us have visions
among my people!

Let us ride the wind
into the high country.
Let us have eagles!

AMERICA

If an eagle be imprisoned
On the back of a coin
And the coin is tossed into the sky,
That coin will spin,
That coin will flutter,
But the eagle will never fly

THOUGHT

Lord, how I wept when I came upon
a land whose people thought that they
could make boats to sail the stormy
ocean between the color of my skin
and my humanity.

I LAUGH TALK JOKE

I laugh talk joke
smoke dope skip rope, may take a
    coke
jump up and down, walk around
drink mash and talk trash
beat a blind baby on the head
with a brick
knock a no-legged man to his
bended knees
cause i'm a movin fool
never been to school
god raised me and the devil
praised me
catch a preacher in a boat
and slit his throat
pass church,
I might pray
but don't f__k with me
cause I don't play

Henry Dumas the Storyteller

Excerpts from his Ark of Bones and Other Stories
Hale Chatfield and Eugene Redmond. (1970).
Southern Illinois University Press


STRIKE AND FADE

he word was out. Cool it. We on the street, see. Me and Big Skin. We watch the cops. They watch us. People going and coming. That fire truck still wrecked up side the buildin. Papers say we riot, but we didnt riot. We like the VC, the Viet Cong. We strike and fade. Me and Big Skin, we scoutin the street the next day to see how much we put down on them. Big Skin, he walkin ahead of me. He walkin light, easy, pawin. It daylight but you still got to walk easy on the street. Anytime the Mowhites might hit the block on rubber, then what we do? We be up tight for space, so we all eyes, all feet and easy. You got to do it.

We make it to Bone's place. Bone, he the only blood on the block got a business. Mowhite own the cleaners, the supermarket, the laundry, the tavern, the drugstore, and all the rest. Yeah. But after we burn out half them places, Mowhite he close down his stores for a week.

Our block occupied with cops and National Guard, but the Guard left yesterday. Man, they more cops on the street now than rats. We figure the best thing to do is to kill the cops first so we can get back to killin rats. They watch us. But they got nothin on Big Skin and me. Naw. We clean. They got Sammy, Momo, Walter and his sister too, Doris, Edie, and they even got Mr. Tomkins. He a school teacher. I had him once. He was a nice stud. Me and Big Skin make it to Bone's place. There a lot of guys inside.

We hang around. Listen to talk. I buy a coke. Big Skin take half. I hold my coke. Police cars pass outside. They like wolves, cruisin. We inside. Nobody mess with us. A cat name Duke, he talkin.

"You cats got to get more together with this thang. Look at the cats in Brooklyn, Chicago. Birmingham and Cleveland. Look at the cats in Oakland!"

A cat named Mace, he talkin. Mace just got out the Army. "Don't worry, man. It's comin." He point out the window. "This is raw oppression, baby. Look at them mf's. Raw oppression." Mace, he like to use them two words so he sayin them over and over again. He say them words all the time. It aint funny cause they true. We all look out the window at the cops.

Bone, he behind the counter makin hamburgers. When he get too many orders he can't handle, then one of the cats come behind the counter and give him a hand. Me and Big Skin light up cigarettes. Big Skin pass them around. I take the last one. I squeeze the pack up so tight, my fingernails cut my hand. I like to make it tight. I throw that pack at the trash can. It bounce in and bounce back. But Duke, he catch it. He throw it in. Not too hard. It stay. He talkin.

"I mean, if every black man in this goddamn country would dedicate one half of a day next week to a boycott. Just don't go to work! Not a black pushin a thing for Charley. Hell, man we tie it up. We still the backbone, man. We still got this white mf on our backs. What the hell we totin him around for?"

Mace, he talkie.

"Wait. No sooner we make another move, whitey be down on us like rats on warm cheese. It be raw oppression double over. Gestapo. Man, they forget about Hitler after the man come down on us."

Big Skin he talkin.

"They say that the cats in Harlem is gettin together so tight that the Muslims and Martin Luther King got their heads together."

Nobody say nothin. Couple cats laugh. We heard it before. Word been spreadin for all black men to get ready for war. Nobody believe it. But everybody want to. But it the same in Harlem as anywhere else. Duke he talkin.

"An organized revolution is what the man can't stand. They say it's comin? Man, when it do I be the first to join. If I got to go I take some Chalk Whitey with me and mark him all over hell."

We listen a while. The cats all talkin. We just want to get what's happenin. We split the scene. Duke, he split too.

We move down the block. It gettin evenin. We meet some cats comin. We stop and talk. We meet them later on 33rd Street. They pawin like us.

Duke talkin. "You cats see Tyro yet?"

We say naw. We heard he back in town, but we aint seen him yet. Tyro was a Green Beret in Viet Nam. But he back. He got no legs and one arm. All the cats been makin it to his pad. They say he got a message for all the cats on the block.

Duke say he makin it to Tyro's now. We walk on. I kick some glass. We see a store that is burnt out. A cop is watchin us. We stalkin easy, all eyes, all feet. A patrol car stop along side us. The gestapo's leap out. I see a shotgun. We all freeze.

The Man is talkin.

"You niggers got one hour to get off the street." Then he change his mind. "Against the wall!" There is three of them. Down the street is more. They frisk us. We all clean. One jab the butt of the gun hard on my leg. It give me a cramp in the ball.

They cuss us and tell us to get off the street. We move on. Around the block. Down the street.

I'm limpin. I dont say nothin. I dont curse or nothin. Duke and Big Skin, they mad, cursin and sayin what they gonna do. Me, I'm hurtin too much. I'm lettin my heat go down into my soul. When it come up again, I wont be limpin.
We see some more cats pawin along the block. About fifty. We join. They headin to 33rd. Some cats got heats, some got molotov's. One cat got a sword.

Tyro on 30th Street. We go up. Three other cats come with us. We run up the steps. We pass an old man goin up. He grunt out our way. We say excuse. I'm the last up. The old man scared. We hear a siren outside. The shit done started already.

Tyro's sister open the door. I know her before I dropped out of school. She know me, but she iggin. All the cats move in. I close the door. "We come to see Tyro," I say. She chewin some food, and she wave with her hand. It mean, go on up front. I watch her walk. "You Tina?" She swallow her food. "Yeah. You come to see Tyro, he in there." She turned and went into a door and closed it. I followed the other cats up front. My ball still hurt.

There were six cats already in the room. Six more come in. Somebody pass around a butt. I scoot in a corner. So I am meetin Tyro. He known on the block for years. He used to be the leader of the old Black Unicorns. They broke up by the cops and social workers.

I look at Tyro. He a black stud with a long beard. He sittin in a wheel chair. He wearin fatigues like Fidel Castro. When we paw into the pad, Tyro he talkin.

". . . the Cong are masters at ambush. Learn this about them. When we fell back under fire, we fell into a pincher. They cross-fired us so fast that we didn't know what hit us. Out of sixty men, I was left. I believe they spared me so that I could come back and tell you. The cat that found me was hit himself, but he didn't seem to care. He looked me in my eye . . . for a long time. My legs were busted up from a grenade. This VC stood over my blood. I could tell he was thinkin about somethin. He raised the rifle. I kept lookin him in the eye. It was one of the few times my prayers been answered. The cat suddenly turned and ran off. He had shot several of my buddies already, but he let me go.

"All I can figure is that one day the chips are all comin down. America is gonna have to face the yellow race. Black and yellow might have to put their hands together and bring this thang off: You cats out in the street, learn to fade fast. Learn to strike hard, but dont be around in the explosion. If you dont organize you aint nothin but a rioter, a looter. These jigs wont hesitate to shoot you.

"Naw. I aint tellin you to get off the streets. I know like you know. Uncle means you no ultimate good, brothers. Take it for what it is worth. I'm layin it down like it is. I got it from the eagle's beak. That's the way he speak. Play thangs careful. Strike and fade, then strike again, quick. Get whitey outa our neighborhood. Keep women and children off the streets. Dont riot. Rebel. You cats got this message. Do what you got to do. Stick together and listen for the word to come down. Obey it."

When Tyro finish talkin, some cats get up and shake his hand. Others leave. Out in the street sirens are going. The doorbell rings. Everybody freeze. It some more cats. We all leave.

Down on the street, it like a battlefield. A fire in a store down the block. Cops see us. We fade. I hear shots. Then I know somethin.

The word is out. Burn, baby, burn. We on the scene. The brothers. Together. Cops and people goin and comin. Some people got good loot, some just hoofin it. A police cordon comin. We shadows on the wall. Lights comin towards us. We fade. Somebody struck them. The lights go out. I hear shots. I fall. Glass get my hands. The street on fire now. We yell. 33rd Street here we come! Got to get together!

We move out. Strikin. All feet. All soul. We the VC. You got to be. You got to be.

An Analysis of Henry Dumas' Locatedness

by Molefi K. Asante

ne of the greatest (in my judgment) African American writers was born on July 29, l934, and killed in New York on May 23, l968. His name was Henry Dumas and his death at the age of thirty four cut short a brilliant career of a poet and short story writer who gave meaning to the Afrocentric term, located

Henry Dumas' work, Ark of Bones and Other Stories and Poetry for My People, was published posthumously.1 However, he had been engaged in teaching at the Experiment in Higher Education at Southern Illinois University and served as a member of the editorial staff of the Hiram Poetry Review and through these activities had made many friends and acquaintances who knew his creative power. Hale Chatfield and Eugene Redmond ably brought Henry Dumas to life again in the editing of his works. Few African American writers have been so successful as Henry Dumas in demonstrating the opposite perspective of the race shedders. Dumas, as we shall see, was pre-eminently an Afrocentric writer in every aspect of the term. 

For the reader seeking to possess the literacy necessary to understand the stories or the poetry of Dumas, it suffices to say that one must pay attention to every nuance of the African American culture. That is to say one must understand the "bop" and the "do." Furthermore, the reader must be able to see how nicknames locate a person in the text as well as the author's ability to write culturally, that is, out of the culture. For example, Henry Dumas gives his characters names like Blue, Fish, Tate, and Grease. These are important names in the context of Dumas' stories. Actually, each of the names carries definite meanings. Blue, for example, relates to a person being so black he looks blue. Fish is the nickname for a a person who swims very well. Tate is the nickname for a person whose head is shaped like a potato. Grease is the name of a smooth talking individual. There are several reasons why these names are significant in Dumas' cultural understanding and our appreciation of his art. In the first place, nicknames are means for placement, location, identity. They are often more descriptive and defining than the European names given to African American children. Since many people did not have access to African names, the practice of nicknaming became a major avenue for the maintenance of African culture and expression. Names could still mean something much like names had meant among the Yoruba, Ibo, Fanti, Asante, and Congo. Dumas understands the relevance of the nickname and appropriates its use to the functions of his art. Another reason Dumas' use of these names is important comes from the creation of atmosphere in his works. He seeks always to expand the boundaries, to move against the tide, and to raise the difficult questions. There is no better way to create atmosphere than to allow the traditions to blossom, particularly in reference to what people call things, that is, the words given to identify persons and objects. 

The richness of Dumas' language, the clarity of his symbolic attitude, and the rhythm of his trajectory, cannot be overestimated. He impressed himself as well as others with the tremendously accurate portrayal of the African American language. Indeed, Eugene Redmond wrote "Dumas – a brilliant, creative linguist – contracts and expands English, Black Language and various African tribal (sic) sounds to come up with what is perhaps a 'found' utterance. . . ." 2 Redmond's introduction to the stories of Henry Dumas is a penetrating look at the style of the artist. What Redmond observes in the language of Dumas is what places him squarely within an Afrocentric location. When Redmond says "Dumas is also the first among young black writers to re-acculturate," he is speaking to Dumas' love of his language.3 There is no caricature of the African in his use of African language; no self conscious concentration on loss exists in the mind of Henry Dumas. He finds the African American language richly endowed, as he found the people. 

In the powerful story, "Ark of Bones," Dumas brings together all of the experiences of his young life to produce a text richly contoured with cultural artifacts of language. Headeye, one of the characters, had a mojo bone in his hand. But we learn that "Headeye, he ain't got no devil in him." His only problem was that he had "this notion in his head about me hoggin the luck." Dumas knows the close community language as well as the religious allusions, but his knowledge of this language is a gift of his sensitivity to the voices he has heard. The reader knows precisely where Dumas is at all times, even though as you read him you know that he is aware of every thing he is doing in the text. There is no stream of words here floating endlessly on with no point; this is a master writer whose point is made in every sentence. "Headeye acted like he was iggin me" is about as precise as you can get with language. To understand iggin is to be right in the center of the culture; however, it is an understanding that comes from experience or from study. One of the most insidious forms of critical hierarchy is the criticism of Afrocentric writers by those who have neither studied nor lived the culture. The assumption that one can simply make critical judgment and commentary about the text, perhaps locate the writer, without serious study of the culture is an arrogant and false assumption. As one who does not know white American culture can truly understand it without some background, neither can Afrocentric writers be understood without some background. Normally, the student of American literature gains the knowledge of the nuances of white American literature and can adequately place the writers. But Afrocentric literature is much like Old English literature in the sense that it must be seriously studied or else the reader will usually miss the point. I am not just speaking about knowing the meaning of words or understanding the structure of Ebonics, that is a starting point. More fundamentally, the reader must know from what center of experience the writer writes. An African American person writing from a Eurocentric basis will produce text that may have some references to the cultural materials of the African American people but will remain essentially a white writer with a black skin. Such a writer is not much different from a white writer who writes knowledgeably about certain cultural icons of the African American community. But to really come from an African-centered perspective in literature, the writer must immerse herself or himself in the culture of the people. The value of this immersion is that one becomes more authenthically a voice of the culture, speaking much like Henry Dumas the language of the African American heritage with all of its universal implications in similar experiences of other people. To deny Afrocentric writers this possibility, either through criticism or creation, is to assume that the special language of the African American is somehow different from other languages, i.e., Spanish, Yoruba, Gikuyu, Polish, and so forth. 

Dumas understood the nobility of the culture from which he had come and so when he wrote that Headeye's daddy "hauled off and smacked him side the head" he recognized that the perfection of action could only be told with two verbs. Rather than say, as might be said in English, that his daddy "smacked him side the head", Dumas goes into the culture and brings to bear the full meaning of this action. To truly complete the act the daddy had to have "hauled off and smacked him." This construction is like the one I often heard in Georgia as a child when someone had become a member of the local church. People would say, "Child, she got converted and joined the church." Another such construction of language is the command "Turn loose and jump down from there" to a child who is climbing a tree.4

In his stories as in his poetry Dumas gives his readers all of the signposts of his location. He is not a writer without a place in his own culture;he is firmly planted in the midst of ancestors, ghosts, haints, and spirits of the past as well as the generative power of the present condition of African Americans. Among the expressions and terms which he employs are: Glory Boat, afro-horn, Aba, Heyboy, Sippi, catcher-clouds, and Saa saa aba saa saa. While his corpus is limited because of his early death, he remains one of the most centered of African American authors. Language, attitude, and direction are clearly demarcated in his works. When we read Dumas we are reading a profoundly honest writer who tells his and his people's special truth to the world. Contained in the language, the attitude, and the direction of his work is the symbolism of strength, mystery, energy, dynamism, intelligence, wisdom, and trust. A compact exists between Dumas and the characters of his stories which allows him to use their language to tell the truth. He "ain't give on to what he know" but the reader knows that Dumas found the center of his cultural being intact and never left it. Why should he have left? What other writers would be required to leave? How silly of a writer to think that he or she must leave the source of power in order to be universal; true universalism in literature adheres in the ability of a writer to capture the special story or stories of his or her own culture in ways that those stories make [may?] impact on others, regardless of the first language. In the end, the serious reader of writers must work to re-affirm the centrality of cultural experience as the place to begin to create a dynamic multicultural literacy because without rootedness in our own cultural territory, we have no authentic story to tell. 

M.K. Asante, "Locating a Text: Implications of Afrocentric Theory" at http://www.asante.net/articles/LocatingText.html.

Notes

     1. Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Edited by Hale Chatfield and Eugene Redmond. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, l970. 

     2. Eugene Redmond, "Introduction," in Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Edited by Hale Chatfield and Eugene Redmond. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, l970, p.xiv. 

     3. Redmond, ibid., p.xv. 

     4. Molefi Kete Asante, "The African Essence in African American Language," in M.K. Asante and K.W. Asante, African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity. Trenton: Africa World Press, l990. 



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