Henry Lee Dumas (dyew-mah) became increasingly recognized, in the years following his tragic death in 1968, as one of the most significant voices of the Black Arts cultural movement of the 1960’s. In the mid-1940’s Dumas, the son of Appliance Watson and Henry Joseph Dumas, moved from Arkansas to Harlem, where he graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After briefly attending City College, Dumas entered the Air Force and served there until 1957. In 1955 he married Loretta Ponton, with whom he had two sons.
Following his discharge from the Air Force, Dumas enrolled at Rutgers University, where he attended as a full-time and a part-time student; he left the university in 1956 without completing a degree. During the early 1960’s Dumas became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, journeying to the Deep South on several occasions to take clothing and supplies to those on the front lines of the struggle. At the same time he continued to work, write, study, and provide for his growing family.
Little of Dumas’s work—he wrote poetry and short fiction, as well as the draft of a novel—was published during his lifetime. It was largely through the efforts of Eugene B. Redmond, who became the executor of Dumas’s literary estate, that the various collections of Dumas’s work have been published. At Redmond’s urging, Southern Illinois University Press published collections of Dumas’s poems and short stories posthumously; Dumas had been associated with the university’s Upward Bound Program shortly before his death. Redmond’s efforts also resulted in subsequent publication of Dumas’s work by major publishing houses.
The settings for the greater portion of Dumas’s work are generally divided between the rural South of his youth and the urban North of his adolescence and adulthood. At times he explores the feelings of loss and hopelessness of those who are powerless against overwhelming forces; at other times he celebrates the strength of those who are deeply rooted in the black experience. Both emphases mark the opening of Dumas’s unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, in the opening chapters of which a small boy is made an orphan when the Mississippi River floods in 1937. As the boy, identified only as John, floats down...
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