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The Re-Emergence of a Singular Voice : Writer Henry Dumas Died 20 Years Ago, but His Penetrating Tales Are Drawing Lavish Praise from a Growing Coterie of Admirers

May 15, 1988|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Henry Dumas, a singular black writer of the '60s, was killed in the subterranean night by a transit policeman on a New York City subway platform 20 years ago. He was 33. But in a short life, says Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, "he had completed work, the quality and quantity of which are almost never achieved in several lifetimes." His poetry and fiction are among the most "beautiful, moving and profound . . . I have ever in my life read," she says. "He was brilliant. He was magnetic and he was an incredible artist."

Dumas was shot the night of May 23, 1968. In the two decades since, a cult has developed around him sustained by other black writers and publication of his work in counterculture journals, says poet Eugene B. Redmond, editor of a new collection of Dumas' stories, "Goodbye, Sweetwater" (Thunder's Mouth Press: $9.95), to be released this week.

And in July, a special volume of articles in praise of Dumas will be published by Indiana State University. Redmond is also the editor of that collection, a double issue of "Black American Literature Forum," which will include critiques of Dumas' work by 60 writers, including Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Jane Cortez and Ismael Reed.

Redmond hopes that this volume of critical praise and the "Goodbye, Sweetwater" collection--coupled with a savvy promotion strategy he devised aimed at every urban university English department, every black college, every black newspaper and periodical, black sororities and fraternities--will bring Dumas' work to a wider audience.

The circumstances of his shooting--which occurred in a climate of general social upheaval and urban race riots--have remained painfully vague for his admirers and family.

Widow Works as Secretary

Softly, his widow, Loretta Dumas, says there has never been any satisfactory explanation of his death. She is 54 and works as a secretary in Newark, N.J. "I don't brood and dwell on it. It's one of those things that you will never have the answer to. I believe the times . . . had a lot of influence on what happened. That was during the '60s when there were a lot of riots." The officer who shot Dumas was white, and "the tension" of the time "contributed a lot to the incident," she believes.

Dumas left two sons. The loss of his father--a month after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a month before Robert Kennedy was killed--became so unbearable for one son, David, that he committed suicide last year, his mother says. He was 28.

While the circumstances surrounding Dumas' death may be unclear, it is crystalline, according to Redmond, editor of "Goodbye, Sweetwater," that Dumas was both uniquely gifted and a prototype for today's much heralded writers--notably Morrison, Alice Walker and, in his later work, the late James Baldwin.

Dumas, says Redmond, wrote "funky, fictional arias," his work permeated with African spirituality, expressed in the language of myth and with the consciousness of a writer deeply connected to nature.

He was born in Sweet Home, Ark., and moved to Harlem when he was 10. But he "'carried the South north with him," Redmond says. "He was also very much in love with black people. But the overriding thing is that he loved black people more than he hated anybody."

That was unusual in the '60s, a decade, Redmond says, that spawned the Black Arts Movement, a flowering of black theater, literature and music, similar to the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s, but grounded ideologically in black cultural nationalism.

Then, Redmond says, "if poets said they liked black people, it was at the expense of some other people. Dumas never did that. He was a healer. People are uptight with the race thing, and he wasn't going to buy into that."

In the poem "Play Ebony, Play Ivory," Dumas declares:

so up! you bursting lungs

you spirits of morning breath

up! and make fingers

and play long and play soft

play ebony play ivory.

play my people

all my people who breathe

the breath of earth

all my people who are keys and chords . . .

The "Play Ebony, Play Ivory" collection of poems, published in 1974 but now out of print, prompted writer Julius Lester to praise Dumas as "the most original Afro-American poet of the '60s."

What continues to astound Morrison, however, is Dumas' tremendous artistic range. She compares his writing to Gene Toomer's, author of the classic Afro-American novel "Cane."

Dumas wrote "meditative pieces, and experimental pieces and urban pieces and rural pieces," she says. "He inhabited the geography of the country in a way I think very few people do. That is to say, his familiarity and his ability to translate an uptown Harlem experience as well as the Mississippi River (experience) as well as his familiarity with . . . those violent civil rights confrontations. He was everywhere. And usually people carve out for themselves narrow, if deep, territory."

Praise for Dumas

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