Community and History

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The title story of the first posthumous collection, “Ark of Bones,” exemplifies the tension between communities set in history and those placed outside history. As in almost all the stories collected in Ark of Bones, the tension between the two communities is represented by two male protagonists—here, Head-eye and Fish-hound. As the narrator, Fish-hound is the voice of convention, spokesman for the community; he is the everyday, normal person. Head-eye, though, is uncommon. As the narrator says, he is “bout the ugliest guy I ever run upon” and “bout the smartest nigger in that raggedy school.” More important, Head-eye follows his mojo to an Ark that majestically and magically rises from the Mississippi River, bearing within its hull all the bones and spirits of enslaved Africans. The allusion to Noah’s Ark is deliberate; in Judaic-Christian theology, Noah’s Ark is an emblem of God’s mercy and grace, an island of life surrounded by a sea of death.

The Ark of Bones is, for Head-eye and, eventually, for Fish-hound, a sign of a promise more radical than the Judaic covenant. For them, the Ark of Bones is an island of life-in-death surrounded by a sea (the community) of death-in-life. Rather than the simple disruptive discontinuity symbolized by the Flood and Noah’s Ark, the Ark of Bones allows Head-eye and Fish-hound to end the isolation of a black community uprooted from the soil of its ancestry. At the story’s end, however, Head-eye leaves the community for parts unknown, while Fish-hound is completely transformed by the experience. Suddenly, people in the community view him as strange, like Head-eye, they say. Fish-hound has severed his ties with the historical living and bound himself to the mythical living dead. The story ends with the implication that Fish-hound, like Head-eye, will soon disappear, perhaps after “converting” yet another community member the way Head-eye converted him. Continuity with the past becomes a possibility for the individual, not a privilege of the community.

The conversion of the skeptic through the intercession of the believer, and their subsequent disappearance, suggests that Dumas may not have always been optimistic about the possibility of community—as opposed to individual—regeneration through the affirmation of heritage. This theme gets repeated in the story that follows “Ark of Bones,” “Echo Tree.” Once again, Dumas deploys the framework of myth to underscore...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)