Ark of Bones, and Other Stories, 1970
Rope of Wind, and Other Stories, 1979
Goodbye, Sweetwater, 1988
Jonoah and the Green Stone, 1976
Poetry for My People, 1970 (better known as Play Ebony, Play Ivory)
Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas, 1989 (Eugene B. Redmond, editor)
Henry Lee Dumas (dyew-mah) became increasingly recognized, in the years following his tragic death in 1968, as one of the most significant voices of the Black Arts cultural movement of the 1960’s. In the mid-1940’s Dumas, the son of Appliance Watson and Henry Joseph Dumas, moved from Arkansas to Harlem, where he graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After briefly attending City College, Dumas entered the Air Force and served there until 1957. In 1955 he married Loretta Ponton, with whom he had two sons.
Following his discharge from the Air Force, Dumas enrolled at Rutgers University, where he attended as a full-time and a part-time student; he left the university in 1956 without completing 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. At the same time he continued to work, write, study, and provide for his growing family.
Little of Dumas’s work–he wrote poetry and short fiction, as well as the draft of a novel–was published during his lifetime. It was 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 urging, 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 efforts also resulted in subsequent publication of Dumas’s work by major publishing houses.
The settings for the greater portion of Dumas’s work are generally divided between the rural South of his youth and the urban North of his adolescence and adulthood. At times he explores the feelings of loss and hopelessness of those who are powerless against overwhelming forces; at other times he celebrates the strength of those who are deeply rooted in the black experience. Both emphases mark the opening of Dumas’s unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, in the opening chapters of which a small boy is made an orphan when the Mississippi River floods in 1937. As the boy, identified only as John, floats down the river aboard a raft, he is saved by a family who have also lost all of their possessions. He becomes part of their extended family and discovers that just as the family saved him he saves them as well, for he has brought them an ark, as it were: thus his new name, Jonoah. Dumas deals effectively with the loss and devastation from an uncontrollable natural force, but he also shows how the coming together of those with a common suffering, coupled with a familial love, helps all to overcome a sense of hopelessness and to achieve a greater strength than they previously realized.
Dumas had a keen interest in the music and the folk elements that are so much a part of the black experience. In a number of his works, the poems, in particular, he explores the significance of these elements. In the title poem of the collection Play Ebony, Play Ivory Dumas posits not only the historical importance of music to the black experience but also its innateness to African Americans. The poem is also an overt call for the preservation of a culture, an important theme of the Black Arts cultural movement. In another poem, “If You Behave,” this theme is repeated, and the urgency of its message is underscored by the rhythmic technique found in much of Dumas’s poetry. Indeed, many poems either take the blues form or contain strains of black gospel music. Dumas found both blues and gospel music indispensable and intriguing as means of expression.
Dumas frequently addresses other important themes of the 1960’s. In a poem titled “Afro American,” Dumas attempts to define the black identity and captures the essence of what it means to be the offspring of a dual heritage. He declares the need for full recognition both of a dual heritage and of what each member contributed to its product. In the short story “The Marchers,” Dumas presents a poignant reminder of the celebrated Civil Rights marches of the 1960’s. In another, titled “Harlem,” he explores some of the political philosophies associated with the movement. Finally, in Goodbye, Sweetwater, Dumas examines the reality of limited opportunities for young blacks in the South and considers the promise of a better life in the North.
Dumas produced a large volume of work within a short time span, and he seldom revised. A number of critics have faulted his work with being unpolished. Nevertheless, all of his work attests Dumas’s many strengths as a writer: a keen eye, a sensitive ear, and a clear, passionate voice. The best of his pastoral writing is often compared to that found in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), and his pleas and demands for the preservation of black culture rank with those of writers Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka. Dumas believed in literature as a public art and often engaged in public readings, literary workshops, and the editing of literary magazines in an effort to get the word out to the masses.
One of Dumas’s last works was the elegy “Our King Is Dead,” written after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, 1968. This poem became a prophecy, for some six weeks after King’s death, Dumas himself was dead, killed by a white police officer in a New York subway; the incident was officially described as a case of mistaken identity.