Henry Dumas Essay - Critical Essays

Dumas, Henry

Dumas, Henry 1934–1968

Dumas, a Black American poet and short story writer of enormous talent, was also an editor and publisher of little magazines.

There is a shape to this posthumously published collection ["Ark of Bones"] lent by the order in which the stories occur. Beginning with a simple, stunning fantasy of two black youths who are taken aboard an ark in the "Sippi" river, the imagination of the author moves steadily through a series of ideas that are more complicated, characters who are richer and better defined, all within the realm of black experience in the rural South and the urban North. The final story, "Fon," returns to a traditional Southern situation—the seemingly "uppity" black youth confronting rednecks. But nothing about it will tolerate comparison to its predecessors. Dumas had a rich and varied talent, and he was foremost an original. (p. 36)

John Deck, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.

The people in [Ark of Bones] are easy to know. Dumas has loved them to perfection in gesture, tone, mood, and purpose. There is an easy hard Blackness. Too sure for overstatement. There is exactness snug in a warmth of portrayal. Dumas knew no borders; his vision was both fantastic and actual.

In the stories "Ark of Bones," "Fon," "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," "Echo Tree," and "The Crossing," Dumas weaves spiritual and flesh experiences so tightly they meet inside a Black/ethos. As Eugene Redmond, the book's editor, has suggested in his fine and feeling Introduction, these stories are close to Biblical in their shape, though these myths are less leaden in tone and embrace. They sing with a humor that moves the way we normally do, not overdone. There is, too, a moral exactness that our tradition has cherished. There is spine and point. (p. 51)

You will feel this terrible sense of union and destiny after finishing this book. One characteristic technique of Dumas is to pull back the reader's eye from the character center. We study milieu: shadows wallwalking; birds rising; dogs barking. Perhaps Dumas says here that we are not alone in this universe. There is a larger continuity. We are a part.

Perhaps you will want to say that Dumas was a tall-talesman. Incredible. But the conclusions of these stories are resolute, each right to the initial promises of the piece. ("Strike and Fade" is a tight and strong martial song.) They follow no obvious Rules of Fiction.

They are honest. (p. 52)

Angela Jackson, in Black World (copyright © January, 1975, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Angela Jackson), January, 1975.

["Ark of Bones" is a] collection of extraordinary short stories…. Most of the stories are about people who are fairly young, all are about people who are very poor, and all—whether set in the backwoods of Arkansas (where Dumas was born) or in the streets of Harlem—are faithful to the speech of the plainest of plain black men and women. Dumas was that rarity—a passionately political man with a poet's eye and ear and tolerance of ambiguity. Thus, in "A Boll of Roses" we see the almost tidally wrenching effect that a team of Northern civil-rights workers has on a poor young cotton picker; in "The Crossing" we see how very young black children absorb and deflect the hatred and contempt shown them by whites; and in "Double Nigger," a story about a group of men coming home from "helpin' out" a white construction gang, and in "A Harlem Game," a story about a boy who is cruelly used by his father, we see how poverty and feelings of powerlessness can warp and distort the most critical human instincts. There are stories here, too, about religious or spiritual transcendence over reality; they are somewhat less successful than the rest but show an impressive willingness on the author's part to take risks and to find affirmative truths to write about. Mr. Dumas was thirty-four when he died. 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. (pp. 81-2)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 6, 1975.

Dumas's poetic range was wide, and in an older, more accomplished poet, this would have indicated versatility. Dumas was still the poet-in-search-of-his-subject, however, exploring moods, themes and forms with uneven results. Many of [the] short poems [in "Play Ebony Play Ivory"] read like fragments that might have found their form, if there had been time. Other poems suffer from excessive imagery, coyness and manufactured black rage. A section of blues lyrics is embarrassingly bad, and a poem called "Cuttin Down to Size" is an unfortunate excursion into anti-Semitism.

Dumas's talent asserts itself more effectively when he writes from within an experience rather than about it. In the autobiographical "Son of Msippi," there are overtones of Jean Toomer ("Bare walk and cane stalk/make a hungry belly talk"), and an intentional, Whitmanesque image:

               out of the loins
               of the leveed lands
               muscling its American vein:
               the great Father of Waters

A few lines later, however, he shatters this perception of the river with an image that could have been written only by a black poet: "the bone-filled Mississippi."

Dumas's authentic voice is heard most clearly when he writes from within what seems to have been his subject: Africa and Nature. He is the first Afro-American poet to speak convincingly in the voice of an African…. Dumas does not personify nature; he becomes it. Nature is not an object of beauty, but a living, articulate organism…. In the sparse lines of "Hunt," the poet speaks as a dog. The majestic "Ngoma" effectively creates and melds the sound of "ngoma" (Swahili for drum) with the heartbeat of the unborn child in the stomach of the woman narrator of the poem. It is a stunning achievement.

Besides the African voice, Dumas also had a lyric one which was beginning to approach the purity of haiku.

                 The lights gathering
                 on the night lake
                 sing a thousand songs
                 of the sleeping sun.

At his best, Henry Dumas was the most original Afro-American poet of the sixties, and ["Play Ebony Play Ivory"] is the portrait of a poet in the budding time. (pp. 10, 12)

Julius Lester, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.