Henry Dumas never made the literary big time, never saw his work published in more than a few small magazines. Yet his words live on, 30 years after he was shot down at age 33.
"I think there's a mystique about him because he died so young," says Baltimore poet Reggie Timpson. "Just to read Dumas is to go on a journey, to be swept away in his world. It's very mystical, very musical, like listening to [jazz musician] Sun Ra."
Timpson, 32, is the driving force behind a free program to honor Dumas and his works tomorrow at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch. Similar homages have been held this year in Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and New Brunswick, N.J., with more planned for other cities. They are sponsored by a group of writers, scholars and activists who call themselves the Henry Dumas 30-Year Commemorative Committee.
Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Ark., on June 29, 1934, but grew up in Harlem. During the 1950s, he served in the Air Force and was stationed in Texas and the Middle East. Writing poetry and short stories consumed him during the 1960s. He studied at City College and Rutgers University, and participated in the civil rights and Black Power movements of his time.
He found inspiration in the African and black American experiences. Some of his fiction employs a style of magic realism, innovative for its time but quite common nowadays. In 1976, James Baldwin selected his story "Thalia" for the Black Scholar literary prize.
The last surge of interest in all things Dumas happened 10 years ago with publication of "Goodbye, Sweetwater," a collection of his fiction. There were good reviews, then his name dropped off pop culture's radar screen. The black literary world kept him alive: That year, 1988, the Black American Literature Forum dedicated its summer issue to him. Timpson keeps a weathered copy.
Like others who revere Dumas, Timpson remembers the first time he read the writer's work. It happened several years ago during a Black History Month event at the Pratt. One of Dumas' books, "Knees of a Natural Man," was on display. Timpson says he picked it up and opened to "Montage," a poem. He can still recite the opening lines: "The street walked in front of me and by lamp eyes the people grew up like stone thoughts cemented to the height of the steel sky."
"I had never heard poetry like that before," he says. "It was just the sound and the rhythm and color of his work, the boldness, like [the great poet] Countee Cullen."
About two years ago, Timpson started trying to bring Dumas to a wider audience. He included Dumas' work in his public readings. This year, Timpson will publish "Verbal Gunshots," a collection of his own work. Though he considered producing a documentary on Dumas, his plans evolved into tomorrow's celebration.
Dumas is closely associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, which championed an aesthetic grounded in black cultural nationalism. But, in the words of writer Amiri Baraka, Dumas produced "a true art form, not twenty 'hate whiteys' and a benediction of sweaty artificial flame, but actual art, real, man, and stunning."
All that ended May 23, 1968, when a New York transit officer shot and killed Dumas at Manhattan's 125th Street station. It was a case of mistaken identity. The story of Henry Dumas, little-known black writer, might have ended there, but for the efforts of other writers. English professor Eugene B. Redmond, who had worked with Dumas in 1967 at an experimental college based at Southern Illinois University, became his literary executor. In the early 1970s, Redmond and writer Quincy Troupe (now writer-in-residence at Cleveland Public Library) helped get his work to Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House.
Morrison raved about him, calling his work "beautiful, moving and profound." She shepherded his work into publication. "Play Ebony, Play Ivory," a collection of his poetry, was published in 1974, six years after his death.
Other books followed, six in all. There were collections of short stories, bits and pieces of a novel, poems, blues lyrics. Many of his books are out of print. The collections show a writer slowly developing, searching for a voice. His literary ancestors seemed to be Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the blues, gospel and jazz musicians whose work filled the air around him.
"He was a student of the culture. Whenever you saw him he had a tape recorder and a camera," says Redmond, poet laureate of East St. Louis, Ill.
Before Dumas, the world of "conjure women," "haints" and black people whose spirits could fly back to Africa was found only in the oral tradition, says Redmond. Now these ideas can be found in the work of Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
"You have a strange situation with Henry Dumas, kind of like with Jean Toomer," says Redmond. "The successful and commercial writers get influenced by him, but you don't hear of him."
In his poem "The Puppets Have a New King," his words seem to comment on the experience of having another culture imposed on your own: "... they broke us like limbs from trees and carved Europe upon our African masks and made puppets."
In the title poem from his first book, "Play Ebony, Play Ivory," he seems to make a call for universal brotherhood, writing, "Play my people, all my people who breathe the breath of earth, all my people who are keys and chords ... play ebony, play ivory."
E. Ethelbert Miller, writer, professor and head of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, says Dumas' literary voice, his imaginative world, his use of folk culture "forces a young person's imagination to be broadened."
"That's the thing I think that has kept his memory alive among many young writers. Once they get a taste, they want a little more," says Miller, who will speak at tomorrow's event. "He's doing something different. He's playing Thelonious Monk, or something. He's playing different chords."
Troupe, who is spending part of the summer as writer-in-residence for the Cleveland Public Library, says Dumas was the type of artist who, like Picasso, Jimi Hendrix or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, offered a new way of seeing, hearing and thinking.
"Dumas was one of the most promising writers that the United States had until his untimely death," says Troupe, who also will speak Saturday.
Troupe, a one-time member of the Watts Writer's project in Los Angeles, remembers reading Dumas years ago in Negro Digest. Like Timpson, he can toss off a few memorable lines: "Come. It is time to make time. I see with my skin and I hear with my tongue."
"I remember the first time I read it. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I just not had read anything like that," Troupe says. "We're so rational in this country. The United States is such a rational, logical country. He took us out of the realm of the ordinary and put us into the magical in his stories."
Build on the legacy
In some ways, Dumas' death calls to mind the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. All were killed during the frightening, dispiriting spring of 1968. For all three there are the same questions: What if they had lived? How would the world be different?
Miller understands these questions, but says the focus should not be on what might have been. Dumas lived and left a body of work. That is his legacy.
"I think we look at a person's life in its entirety, even if it's short. Then it's our responsibility to either plant something similar, or continue watering what we have left," he says.
Works of Dumas
There are six books by Henry Dumas: "Play Ebony, Play Ivory," "Ark of Bones, and Other Stories," "Jonoah and the Green Stone," "Goodbye, Sweetwater," "Knees of a Natural Man" and "Rope Of Wind, and Other Stories." Here is an excerpt from the short story "Rope of Wind," published in 1979 by Random House:
"He ran. As if he were making a river, he ran. As if behind him flowed a river of blood and tears, he ran, slow, like a phantom in the nite, black Johnny B, the running spirit, breaking the silence of the nite with his breathing, the only sound that kept his feet pounding the road, running, running, and running ..."
What: Henry Dumas: A Celebration of His Life and Work. There will be readings of Dumas' work and discussions about his influence and technique by Reggie Timpson, Quincy Troupe, Chezia Thompson-Cager, E. Ethelbert Miller and other writers.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.
Pub Date: 7/24/98