A Brief but Significant Career

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Henry Lee Dumas has become increasingly recognized, in the years following his tragic death in 1968, as one of the most significant voices of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, on July 20, 1934, the son of Appliance Watson and Henry Joseph Dumas. In the mid-1940’s Dumas moved to Harlem, where he graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After briefly attending City College, Dumas entered the Air Force. He served until 1957. In 1955, he married Loretta Ponton; together the couple had two sons.

Following his discharge from the Air Force, Dumas enrolled at Rutgers University, attending variously as a full-time and a part-time student before leaving the university altogether in 1965 without completing requirements for 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. In the meantime, he continued to work, write, study, and provide for a growing family.

Little of Dumas’s work was published during his lifetime, although he had written poetry and short fiction, as well as the draft of a novel, in the years preceding 1968. It has been 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 behest, 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 continued efforts resulted in subsequent publication of Dumas’s work by major publishing houses.

Community and Fiction

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

For the traditional folk artist, value, be it cultural, political, economic, or aesthetic, must be grounded in a preexisting concept of community. In the short stories of Henry Dumas, the concept of community is both a refuge from a hostile world and a microcosm of that hostility; it is both a reservoir for creativity, social activism, and political consciousness and the very embodiment of destructiveness, social stagnation, and moral conservatism. Published posthumously, all of Dumas’s short fiction concerns, to one degree or another, the precarious relation of an individual black male, or black males, to a black community. Some of these communities are rural, others are urban; some are working class and poor, others are middle class and relatively solvent.

Poor or comfortable, the community is never a homogeneous source of support or compassion. Nevertheless, Dumas proffers a higher or transcendent community as an alternative to the real-life community. The implications of the necessity of positing an other community, located outside space and time, outside history, in the ethereal realm of the mythic, underline the central dilemma of all folk artists in general, and black folk artists specifically: How does one valorize community “values” when some of those values call into question or block not only the folk artist’s remedies to community problems but also the folk artist’s individual vision that inspires those remedies? For a black folk...

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Against Skepticism

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Taken as a whole, Dumas’s fiction links a white, mechanistic racist culture of the city with the black skeptic. Refusing to believe in the magical powers of nature as articulated by African cultures, refusing to see beyond the immediate and tangible world of contingency, the black skeptic implicitly, like the white racist explicitly, denies the validity and interconnections of the natural world, black cultures, and black histories. Thus, even the black urban landscape becomes, for Dumas, the site of intraracial hostility at worst (“A Harlem Game”) and interracial combat at best (“Strike and Fade”). “A Boll of Roses” also deals with this theme, but on a grand scale. Here, black rural life confronts black urban life in the persons of Layton, a young southern sharecropper, and Rosemarie, a Northern Freedom Rider trying to register voters. The story opens with the familiar paradigm: Layton, the young believer who expresses more than a casual interest in this Rosemarie, and Floyd, his cynical friend, who tells him in no uncertain terms, “Man you crazy! That girl ain’t thinkin about no cotton pickin nigger like you!”

Though Layton remains determined to meet Rosemarie with roses, his already shaky self-confidence is systematically broken by his encounters with his mother, Floyd, and the other sharecroppers, who all, to one degree or another, question his worthiness to a girl like Rosemarie. Thus, when Layton finally does get an opportunity to speak with her, he becomes the no-good, foul-mouthed “cotton pickin nigger” everyone has implied he is. At the story’s end, he decides to give the rejected roses to his mother, symbolizing, perhaps, his reconnection to his rural heritage. The urban world of Rosemarie—she is accompanied by a young white woman—is precisely what Layton must shun if he is to remain true to himself, to his community.

While the stories in Ark of Bones are primarily marked by the symbolic, those collected in Rope of Wind are extensive allegories. The opening story, “The Marchers,” sets the tone; it is an excoriating parable about the domination of the group over the person, the facile preference for abstraction and sloganeering over active and difficult struggle. In a white dome, a black prisoner sits, “shackled to inertia by a great chain of...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baraka, Amiri. “Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 164-166. Explores the connection of Dumas’s work to the Black Arts movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the black liberation movement of the 1960’s.

Baytop, Adrianne. “’Into the dawn light/ the shadow walks behind you’: Henry Dumas.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 171-174. Discusses the importance of blues music and water images as sources of spirituality and comfort in the lives of African Americans.

Collier, Eugenia. “Elemental Wisdom in Goodbye, Sweetwater: Suggestions for Further Study.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 192-199. Focuses on what the author believes are the fundamental structures of Dumas’s fiction: allegory and archetype.

De Jongh, James L. “Notes on Henry Dumas’s Harlem.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 218-220. Examines the multiple rhetorical function of Harlem in Dumas’s fiction.

Halsey, William. “Signify(cant) Correspondences.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 238-240. Explores the African tradition of naming as a method of linking individuals separated by history. Shows how naming-as-link connects Dumas with such other African American writers as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Mitchell, Carolyn A. “Henry Dumas and Jean Toomer: One Voice.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 297-309. Argues that Dumas’s fiction descends directly from Jean Toomer’s poetic novel Cane (1923) in terms of both writers’ attempts to establish the basis for a new spirituality for African Americans.

Morrison, Toni. “On Behalf of Henry Dumas.” In What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Tribute to Dumas by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

Traylor, Eleanor. “Henry Dumas and the Discourse of Memory.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 365-377. Explores the function of memory in Dumas’s work and its influence on Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987).

Werner, Craig. “Dumas, Nationalism, and Multicultural Mythology.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (Summer, 1988): 394-399. Attempts to construct Dumas as a postmodern descendant of the modernist Langston Hughes by showing how not only Hughes’s but also T. S. Eliot’s, James Joyce’s, and Ezra Pound’s modernism is undermined and revised by Dumas.