This is The Blacklist, a monthly column by Michael Gonzales exploring out-of-print books by African-American authors.
In the spring of 1968, the Rascals tune “A Beautiful Morning” was one of the most popular songs in the country, but for black Americans, things weren’t quite so sweet. While the decade began with Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights protests, sit-ins, and marches against segregation and other racial inequalities, by the mid-60s the roar of black power began to drown out the passive voices. Although King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 was inspiring, it wasn’t strong enough to hold back the turbulent riots and flowing blood, sometimes courtesy of trigger-happy cops. The “summer of love” had come and gone, replaced, as poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron later sang, by “winter in America,” and the entire nation was on edge.
Fifty years ago, thirty-three-year-old southern expat Henry Dumas, a young black writer, was killed. In a mysterious case, he was slain by a rookie cop named Peter Bienkowski at the 125 th Street and Lenox Avenue subway station in 1968. Like an American version of Rashomon, there are different sides of Dumas’ death scene, one involving him flashing a supposed knife, while another claimed he was acting erratic and had gotten into an argument with another transit customer. In the end, besides Bienkowski, there were no witnesses and the official records have since been destroyed.
As a writer, Dumas had published mostly in several collections and journals, the highest circulation publication being Black World (formerly Negro Digest) , a Chicago-based Johnson Publishing magazine on black aesthetics, African studies, art, and literature. Dumas died weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the furious, fiery riots that followed. Dumas had moved with his family to Illinois, where he was teaching, and was only visiting New York City for a wedding when he was killed.
After he was slipped into a body bag, taken to the morgue, and buried in Long Island National Cemetery in Suffolk County, New York, it was through the continuous efforts of literary executor Eugene B. Redmond that his work did not die too. A Pushcart Prize-winning poet and professor, in 1976 Redmond was named Poet Laureate of East St. Louis. He became friends with Henry, whose friends called him “Hank,” in East St. Louis, Illinois when they were both teachers at SIU’s Experiment in Higher Education in 1967.
For the last five decades Redmond, along with Dumas’ widow Loretta (married in 1955, the couple had two sons, David and Michael), has served as Hank’s gatekeeper. “When he died, I was in my early thirties,” eighty-year-old Redmond laughed in a recent telephone interview from his home in Illinois. “I didn’t know I’d be working on this stuff for fifty years.” For the last published collection Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas, published by Coffeehouse Press in 2003, Redmond wrote the forward.
Henry Dumas was a child of the segregated South, born and raised under Jim Crow laws in Sweet Home, Arkansas and relocated to Harlem when he was ten in 1944. The Harlem Renaissance was long over, but the community was still vibrant artistically during that World War II era, when trumpeter Louis Armstrong played on the radio, writer Ann Petry was working on her Harlem novel The Street, and painter William H. Johnson was capturing their “colored community” on canvas.
Living with his aunt and uncle until his mama came north, he graduated from Commerce High School on the Upper West Side in 1953 and attended City College briefly before joining the Air Force. It was while enlisted that he started writing, and his material-gathering tools usually included a tape recorder and camera.
In Dumas’ writing life, he’d already finished several manuscripts of poetry and short stories, but it was Redmond who took those many words and edited them for various volumes published by Random House—the books were overseen by then-editor Toni Morrison, an early supporter of his work—including Play Ebony, Play Ivory and Ark of Bones and Other Stories (1974). For all the time Dumas spent in the big cities, his mind and heart stayed in the South, and he even enjoyed cooking southern food for his friends.
“Henry could never give up his roots, because he felt he was his roots,” Redmond said. “If you saw him, you didn’t see a Harlem hipster. Although he knew all of that, there was still something country about the way he dressed and talked. Many come north and get shamed into change, but Henry kept his southern ways.”
Dumas’ stories were usually about young boys or men dealing with challenges while constantly having their manhood tested. A few weeks before Dumas’ death, black sanitation workers striking in Memphis were wearing signs that read “I Am A Man,” and his fiction backed up that assertion.
Whether it’s a brother protecting his sister from becoming the next Emmett Till in “The Crossing,” or seven-year-old Jonoah navigating a raft over the rough waters of the Mississippi River in his novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, the challenge of masculinity was always hovering in his work. “There is a search for manhood,” Redmond said, “but there was also, by the way he got into the language and psyche of his characters, a reclaiming of their lost African heritage as an assertion of self.”
Yet, while Dumas wrote passionately about the lush landscape of his youth that was filled with spiritual visions, as in the story “Ark of Bones,” he also wrote gritty ghetto scenarios as shown in the brilliant urban tales “A Harlem Game” and “Strike and Fade,” a story about a street gang planning their next moves as they maneuver through the riot-raged streets. A response to the 1964 Harlem riot that broke out on July 16th, after police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan killed fifteen-year-old James Powell, the stark story was as hardcore literary pulp as anything penned by Chester Himes. Rereading it recently, D’Angelo’s “1,000 Deaths,” from the album Black Messiah, served as the perfect soundtrack.
It was poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe who introduced his friend Toni Morrison to both Dumas’ work and Redmond. Having moved to New York City in 1971 to teach, Troupe was already a well-known poet and essayist on the West Coast. “I didn’t know Dumas personally, but I loved his literary voice,” Troupe said from his home in Harlem. “His voice was different from the other young poets; it was elegant, but also as haunting as voodoo. I gave Toni the two books ( Poetry for My People and Ark of Bones) published by Southern Illinois University and she freaked out. She loved them and wanted to publish them at Random House.”
In a 1975 review, the New Yorker called the prose in Ark of Bones a “collection of extraordinary short stories,” while also declaring that “Dumas was that rarity—a passionately political man with a poet’s eye and ear and tolerance of ambiguity . . . one of the saddest things about his book is that it leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that there were even better books to come.”
On the night of his murder, Dumas, who in photos was a lean, goateed man, had just left a rehearsal with jazz futurist Sun Ra and his Space Arkestra, and was headed downtown, perhaps to hear more way-out musical sounds at the Vanguard or Slugs. Although he also loved gospel and the blues, it was at Slugs where Dumas and Sun Ra met in 1966. “Everybody should try to be what they are,” Sun Ra told the young scribe, whose tapes of the interview were released posthumously as The Ark and the Ankh in 2001. According to the Redmond-penned liner notes, “The two men were very close and Sun Ra waxed alternatively angry and depressed when he received news of his protégé’s death.”
Located on East 3 rd Street, Slugs’ Saloon was where the “new music” free-jazz playing of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Ra ruled the night, playing a rebellious brand of jazz that many purists thought of as noise, but others, such as poet, playwright, and music critic Amiri Baraka (then going by his birth name LeRoi Jones) championed in his Down Beat magazine columns, liner notes, poetry, plays, and fictions. Reading Baraka’s work, one could see and feel how the free influence of experimental music’s break from tradition inspired his own writings.
Shortly after the death of Malcolm X in 1965, it was Baraka who, inspired by the pioneering Lower East Side poetry collective, Umbra, that he and Dumas were once members of, spearheaded the Black Arts Movement. The literary side of the arts movement wrote with a swaggering style that was streetwise and avant-garde, on-the-corner cool and soapbox political.
Well-read and educated, they knew well the rules American writing as offered by The New Yorker or the collected works of Ernest Hemingway, but they made a conscious decision to reject all that and do their own thing. It was what Baraka referred to in his foreword to the anthology Black Fire (1968) as, “A tone, your own.” Writers and thinkers Askia M. Touré, David Henderson, Steve Cannon, Sonia Sanchez, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Ntozake Shange were part of that loose literary canon that roared between 1965 and 1975. “Henry processed through his art some of what he was observing in the US and how black people and their psyche are impacted by racism,” Jeffrey Leak said.
Writer D. Scot Miller, author of The AfroSurreal Manifesto, a Dumas aficionado, cited him as a major influence. “In an introduction to Henry Dumas’ 1974 book, Ark Of Bones, Amiri Baraka puts forth the term Afrosurreal Expressionism for what he described as Dumas’ ‘skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one . . . the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life.’ When I first ran across the term, I experienced an instant recognition that changed the course of my artistic life. Dumas’ influence seemed to imbue large swathes of the (1960s/70s) era, yet he was rarely mentioned in the public discourse of the time. He had been rendered invisible in the history: Everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I found that intriguing and inspiring, for reasons I didn’t understand.”
Unlike the more famous above 110 th Street chroniclers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, the author of the classic Invisible Man (1952) who’d once discouraged Dumas’ writing when the elder author was a visiting professor of creative writing at Rutgers University in the early sixties, Dumas was just another brother with a typewriter and a dream.
“Ralph was like that with all of us, man,” Quincy Troupe laughed. “Me, Baraka, Steve Cannon, Ishmael Reed, he was discouraging to us all. Ellison’s problem was, he wanted to be the only Negro in the room, but (the black literary field) was expanding with us rebels and Ralph couldn’t relate.” Decades later Ellison’s biographer John S. Wright ( Shadowing Ralph Ellison) would also write the critical introduction for Dumas collection Echo Tree.
Dumas, however, was not deterred by Ellison’s rejection. When he was at Rutgers, as poet Jay Wright wrote in the 1974 introduction to Play Ebony, Play Ivory, “He spent a great deal of time trying to organize informal readings, or starting or promoting small publications, or persuading one or another of his friends to go to a gospel concert. It was very hard to figure just when he had time to write. But he did write, and quite a bit. Whenever he appeared, he had stacks of new poems, pages of a novel, articles, prose poems, sketches for a play.”
I first discovered Henry Dumas in a second-hand copy of Black Fire, a landmark collection from the Black Arts period edited by Baraka and Larry Neal. In the author’s bio, Dumas wrote, “I have just finished my first novel which is long overdue. I am very much concerned about what is happening to my people and what we are doing with our precious tradition.” Dumas contributed three poems and the haunting southern gothic ghost story “Fon,” which involved a white lynch mob hunting down black boys in the backwoods. “That’s a fabulous story that came out of a deeply spiritual mind,” Troupe said. “I read a lot of Latin writers, and you get that same sense of Magic Realism in Henry’s work.”
Although a few critics compared Dumas’ lyrical style to Jean Toomer’s poetic novel Cane, I felt there was an earthy connection to Zora Neale Hurston, who was more than simply an observer, but was also a participant; in both Hurston and Dumas, you could feel the soil in their fingers. “Dumas was so deep in folklore,” Troupe said. “Reading his stories is like sitting on a back porch with a deeply spiritual southern guy talking about stuff while chewing on his pipe and swigging whiskey.”
Again, it was because of Morrison that Jonoah and the Green Stone was published in 1976. “After Random House published the poems Play Ivory, Play Ebony and Ark of Bones and Other Stories, Toni asked if there was any more work,” Eugene Redmond said. “I said there was other stuff, but I wasn’t sure how good it was. The book wasn’t finished, because it didn’t have an ending. Henry planned it as a trilogy. He sent the book to a few publishers before his death, but no one was interested. When I sent it to Toni, she thought it was incredible.”
Originally called Visible Man, an obvious riff on Ellison’s classic, the title was changed by Redmond to save readers from confusion. In 2014, author Jeffrey Leak, an English professor at UNC Charlotte, adapted the title for his Henry Dumas biography. “I think,” Leak said from his office, “the title was Henry’s way of telling Ellison, ‘I’m not invisible, you’re not invisible.’ That was one of his mantras and he’d say it to people often. I used the title as a tribute to him.”
Jonoah and the Green Stone was assembled much the same way that Ellison’s incomplete second novel Juneteenth would be five years after his death from cancer in 1994 . “There were different drafts of Dumas’ manuscript, so it was finished, but he was still revising it,” Leak said. “Even on the cover it says ‘arranged by Eugene B. Redmond,’ because it’s an amalgamation of Henry’s changing thoughts about the narrative and Redmond’s understanding of Henry’s decisions.”
As told through the often tragic experiences of the title character protagonist, Jonoah and the Green Stone is a hallucinatory, brutal and, as fellow Arkansas native Al Green once sang, simply beautiful book. Utilizing the power of biblical blues, the bittersweet story is much more than “a pieced together novel” that Boston Review critic Scott Saul dismissed it as in his essay, “The Devil and Henry Dumas.” For me, the somewhat fragmentary state of text which Redmond explains thoroughly in the introduction seemed a postmodern device that contributed to the otherworldliness (or nightmarish) feeling of the book that opened with a steady rain that soon turned into a raging flood.
“The real fear can be traced back to those years when I was a barefoot boy,” Jonoah said in the beginning of the book. Already sick with fever when the river began to rise, his own family soon drowns but, riding the coarse waters on a raft, he soon connects with another family that quickly adopts him. As though things weren’t bad enough for Jonoah and his new kin, the world would soon get worse after they rescue a hostile white man named Whitlock, who, as Kanye West said of George W. Bush after Katrina, “didn’t care for black people.” In fact, he hated them.
After they save his life, Whitlock curses the family and even tries to kill them. For years after the flood, Jonoah was haunted by those events as he wandered vagabond style across the country trying to escape the wickedness of his world. The memories, as he said of Whitlock, “ . . . loomed in my mind like a great phantom riding a horse.” But, as he later discovered, wickedness was everywhere and bad memories came with the territory of being a black man in America.
Almost fifty years after his murder, Henry Dumas’ work and legacy is as relevant as never before with Leak’s biography, Ta-Nehisi Coates quoting the poem “Root Song” in Black Panther #3, Dee Rees’ shadowy southern landscape in film Mudbound, which was shot in the Dumas Country of the Mississippi Delta, and Redmond is currently in talks with publishers to get Jonoah and the Green Stone reprinted. “Dumas’ work is old and new, ancient and fresh,” Redmond explained. “I think his recent popularity is because the world has finally caught up to him.”
It’s a shame that, with all his brilliance, Dumas has also become a tragic symbol of young black men slain by police. “Henry Dumas did not carry a gun and he wasn’t a flaming revolutionary,” Quincy Troupe said. “That cop just shot and killed him, and those types of murders are still happening today. Just think about what he would’ve done, not just for African-American writing, but for world literature. Because of that cop, we lost a lot.”