Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

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Although “Ark of Bones” is based on a common short-story convention of a central character who undergoes a mysterious and unexplained experience, and although it makes use of a fablelike form common to the short story since its beginning in biblical parables, Henry Dumas adapts these conventions to a uniquely black idiom and theme. The story depends on that unique blend of African black magic and Christian religion that creates the spiritualism that often characterizes black religion in the United States. The black magic of the mojo bone is connected to the idea of the dry bones in the Old Testament, and Headeye is both an Old Testament prophet and an African witch doctor. Dumas combines these two folk traditions of the supernatural to create a parable of the black experience in the United States. The notion of the dry bones being like little babies combines the idea of the death of the black man in white America with the promise that he will rise again and take his rightful place; thus, the bones are scrupulously cared for, as if they were incubating for a rebirth. Although the story does not make clear how Headeye is qualified to fulfill such a role, he is the chosen prophet for black resurrection, a seer who hears the moans and cries of his people and sets off in the end to fulfill his sacred promise to “set my brother free.”

Fish-hound is the one who remains behind to tell the story of the sacred encounter and of Headeye’s holy mission. Headeye is special because, as his name suggests, his eyes are large enough to see what no one else can or wants to see—the soul and spirit of the black man in the United States. The notion of the Ark still traveling the water is a metaphor for the idea of there being no place for the black man to land, no home for him until his bones can be bound up together and he can rise whole again. Fish-hound has several intimations of the meaning of Headeye’s encounter and mission, but he keeps them to himself, for he is a sacred witness, the one allowed to see the encounter, although he is unable to understand or explain it fully. He never tells anyone about the Ark, only the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. Indeed, “Ark of Bones” strangely combines black versions of both the Ezekiel story and the Noah story to serve as a subtle and submerged metaphor of the black experience in America. Thus, although “Ark of Bones” is not an explicit outcry against injustices against the black man, it is a sly and sacred parable of those injustices.