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.