Recovering writers like Henry Dumas from oblivion is a way to alter black destiny.
Every article about Henry Dumas starts with May 23, 1968, the day he was shot and killed by a policeman on a New York City subway platform. The articles, essays and introductions written about him have given us a sense of what was lost on that day, lauding his posthumously published writings – collected in works like Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (compiled by his friend and literary executor Eugene Redmond), the story collection Goodbye, Sweetwater, and the poetry collection Play Ebony, Play Ivory. Henry Dumas’s death is inextricably linked to his work, but with recent political developments there’s now an opportunity to move beyond it, revisit his writing, and introduce him to a new generation of readers, writers and activists. One of these days, we’ll be able to talk about Henry Dumas without starting with his tragic death. One of these days, he will be familiar enough to us that we won’t need to recite the circumstances of his killing every time we write about him. But we’re not there yet.
The work of recovering a writer like Henry Dumas from the oblivion of white supremacy’s history is part of the longer game of a #BlackLivesMatter movement, and an extension of a black intellectual tradition that has always operated on the margins of the mainstream academy with its generational reproduction of anti-black thought. Jeffrey Leak’s new biography, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, from the University of Georgia Press last year, fills a hole in black literary history, showing us a brilliant, complex man who evolved in his artistry over his short life and left us with a lively, engaging body of work. This biography of Dumas has arrived like a gift from the past for a moment of protests and conversations about police brutality and the value of black life in America. The roll call of unarmed black people killed by police during arrest, or while in custody, is painful and numerous, and extends long before the most recent publicized events in the past two years. But while police brutality was the catalyst, #BlackLivesMatter has never been just about the police. It’s a movement that addresses all the ways that black lives are devalued and destroyed by white supremacy, even from within.
Jeffrey Leak doesn’t shy away from the unsavory details of Dumas’s life. He was no stranger to the demons of self-destruction, particularly in his later years when alcoholism and drug use began to corrode some of his closest relationships. He struggled with artistic insecurities, and had difficulty balancing his artistic ambitions with his family life. Dumas put that pain into his work, showing characters fighting against the stranglehold of white supremacy on their bodies, spirits and minds. But in his work there’s also a celebration of all the glories and contradictions of black culture, religions and politics. There’s a record of the black struggle over the course of the 20th century, a tension between the South and the promises and setbacks of life in the North. And there’s a supernatural and futuristic vision of a world beyond the mundane, a cosmic spiritual sensibility.
In bursts of insight recorded in short stories – some only a few pages long, others reading like sketches of novellas – and in lyrical poems that borrow from a broad range of African-American poetics, from the modernism of the Harlem Renaissance, to the defiantly free-form poetry of the Black Arts Movement, Henry Dumas’s work encapsulates all of the major themes of 20th century black literature, and even anticipates future tropes of 21st century urban life, computer technology and space exploration.
His story “Rope of Wind” is an evocative lynching tale about a young boy who witnesses the murder of a local black man. The gruesome details of the killing are reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane and its presentation of the quotidian ugliness of Southern racial violence. It’s a story about the terrorism of the South and the lost innocence of black youth. “A Boll of Roses” depicts the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the South, with Northern activists coming down to Southern cotton fields to interview and organize people, and black Southerners struggling to make sense of what the presence and activities of these “outsiders” would mean for them. I am struck by how “the North” exists as a constant presence in these Dumas stories set in the South, the way its glittering cities occupied the imagination of black Southerners as they pondered how city life changed those who moved away, and how it might change them if they decided to follow. For young Southerners coming of age in the early 20th century, the idea of moving up North was imbued with a sense of promise, excitement, fear and wariness all at once.
Dumas’s family moved to Harlem when he was ten, and he returned to live in New York after his time in the Air Force and several years as an on-and-off student at Rutgers. His stories of urban life are just as compelling as the ones set in the South. “Harlem” is among the eeriest of these urban stories, given his infamous death. It begins on a subway train with a young intellectual named Harold Kane, who steps out onto the vibrant Harlem streets and is enchanted by the legendary sidewalk orators of 125th Street, including one Elder Dawud. There he hears exhortations about black knowledge and self-determination, and is swept up in Harlem’s lively and challenging intellectual milieu. Like in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Dumas depicts Harlem as a passionate, lyrical place full of the promise of the future, yet haunted by the ghosts of the past. The story ends on an ominous note with a police shooting of a black youth, followed by the beginnings of a riot, a sequence of events repeated in Harlem and other chocolate cities of America.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” first appeared in Negro Digest, in a 1966 issue focused on the “meaning and measure of black power.” In this story, an avant-garde jazz musician named Probe plays his ancient Afro-Horn, an instrument with mystical powers, at the Sound Barrier Club. On that particular night, three white hipsters who claimed to be friends with Probe manage to maneuver their way into the black-only club to hear him play. In the end, the instrument’s power proves to be deadly for the white patrons, and they collapse and die from hearing the music. Leak suggests the story is “signifying” on Norman Mailer’s argument in “The White Negro” about how the white hipster lives vicariously through the black experience. Leak also reads into the story Dumas’s own ambivalence about his extra-marital relationship with Lois Silber, a white woman he met at Rutgers who encouraged his writing, and his ambivalence toward the white bohemians with whom he occasionally associated. The story certainly brings to mind some of the conversations about white privilege and white alliance that have circulated within and around the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Like other Dumas stories it also bears an intellectual history of Afrocentric thought developing in his time, as black scholars and artists explored the idea of the African past and African “survivals” in contemporary black culture.
For me, some of the most moving and perceptive of Henry Dumas’s writings are his poems, most recently collected in Play Ebony, Play Ivory—“play ebony, play ivory/all my people who are keys and chords.” They include a series of Langston Hughes-esque blues poems, including “Outer Space Blues,” a poem dedicated to and inspired by Sun Ra, and “Machines Can Do It Too (IBM Blues),” a blues inspired by his stint working as a Multilith operator for IBM in Dayton, New Jersey. The latter poem articulates the anxieties of human labor being replaced by automation in the industrial age, and seems to anticipate some of the anxieties of our own time, when machines are taking over cognitive and affective labor as well. It ends with lines that call to mind the creepy Spike Jones artificial intelligence film Her, “Let me tell you people, tell you what I have to do/Let me tell it like it is people/ tell you what I have to do / If I find a machine in bed with me/ that’s the time I’m through.”
This (Afro)futuristic vision of Dumas’s writing has something to offer to the bibliography of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It was through Sun Ra that I first encountered the name Henry Dumas, on the syllabus for Ra’s “Black Man in the Cosmos,” a course he taught as an artist-in-residence in 1971 at UC Berkeley
Ytasha L. Womack, in the anthology Afrofuturism, describes this movement as one which “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.” Afrofuturism seems to be in its maturity as an artistic movement with museum shows, film festivals, a plethora of blogs and other digital media, university sponsored panels, and a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. The Sun Ra Arkestra itself, now led by the 91 year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, keeps plugging along with an impressive tour schedule that has the band regularly circling the globe. Parliament Funkadelic, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, DJ Spooky, and many others have been clustered together in this critical field.
But there are skeptics. In his own time, Sun Ra’s burlesque was dismissed by some black folks as frivolous, escapist nonsense. I’ve also heard similar grumblings about Afrofuturism among black intellectuals. I recall a conversation with a black writer at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair who insisted that the popularity of Afrofuturism is a sign that the black left is “out of ideas,” that young black artists retreat into this spiritual mumbo-jumbo because they have no answers for the stifling structural inequalities that entrap black people in poverty and incarceration. Her challenge has been buzzing in my ear ever since. Certainly a movement like this, with its visions of outer space and alternate realities, hazards becoming a newer, hipper version of the same pie-in-the-sky theology of the black church, with Heaven being replaced by The Mothership.
But I don’t think Henry Dumas, Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic or Octavia Butler were ever out of ideas, nor are the artists being inspired by them today. In fact, it seems the #BlackLivesMatter movement is directly drawing on Afrofuturism’s theories of black mythmaking, on the importance of creating alternatives to the iconography, culture and thought of white supremacy. Accusations of escapism have been lobbied against nearly all forms of artistic expression when faced with the material realities of injustice and oppression. (“Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” goes the mangled aphorism attributed to Theodor Adorno.)
In the refrain of #BlackLivesMatter, I hear what Sun Ra referred to as The Alter-Destiny, a new way of thinking and being that diverges from the destructiveness of life as it exists on the planet now. In the film Space is the Place he asks the people who come to his OuterSpaceways Incorporated, “are you ready to alter your destiny?” And in one of my favorite tunes he says that the way to alter your destiny is to “find fate when fate is in a pleasant mood.”
Though this movement is driven by the brutal murders of black people at the hands of the police, by mass incarceration and by ongoing structural inequality, Fate seems to be in a pleasant mood for a movement that is syncing up the energy of youth activism with new communications technologies. At its best this movement is seeking alternatives to the relentless incarceration of the prison industrial complex, and the over-criminalization of black and brown people. This is a movement that is challenging some of the orthodoxies of the black old guard as well, revising their sexism and homophobia, taking the concerns of black feminist and queer activism seriously, and rejecting black pathology discourses that hinge on respectability for inclusion.
One Dumas story perfectly connects Afrofuturism and #BlackLivesMatter in this way—his “Ark of Bones,” a posthumously recovered story that speaks to the trajectory of his own writing. Narrated by a young black boy named Fish-Hound, and featuring his close friend Headeye, who seems to have a gift for the supernatural, the two young boys encounter a mysterious boat drifting down the Mississippi River. They board the ghost ship and find that it is staffed by strange people gathering up the bones of the black dead, from the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. The story contains elements of Dumas’s own theological background (at one point he was on track to become a minister), directly referencing the biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones. It also contains elements of his Afrocentric cosmology, as one of the elders on the boat tells them, “Every African who lives in America has a part of his soul in this ark.”
The story dramatizes what the archivist Arturo Schomburg wrote about in “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” that the recovery of black history is a vital, necessary political act for a people who have been told they have no meaningful history. Toni Morrison deserves credit for her role in bringing Dumas’s work into print as an editor at Random House, publishing the first story and poetry collections. And now Jeffrey Leak has performed an important recovery of Dumas’s biography, gathering up the bones of his work in letters, interviews and manuscripts to recreate a narrative of a life lost too soon.
Recovering that history is an important part of the Alter-Destiny, building a future based upon a past different from the one catalogued in white supremacy’s history books. The enterprise of black literature has always been one of building a creative and intellectual tradition around the works of writers whose lives and works have been heretofore ignored and lost. The way Henry Dumas died matters, for too many familiar reasons. But hopefully we will also come to appreciate the fullness of his life, and the luminous writing that he left for us to light our path toward the future.