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The Fire of a Forgotten Black Genius : GOODBYE, SWEETWATER New and Selected Stories by Henry Dumas (Thunder's Mouth Press: $19.95, cloth; $9.95, paper; 347 pp., ISBN 0-938410-59 and ISBN 0-938410-58-X)

June 19, 1988|Grace Edwards-Yearwood | Edwards-Yearwood's novel, "In the Shadow of Peacock," was recently published by McGraw-Hill. and

Henry Dumas, before his death at the hands of a New York City transit policeman in 1968, accomplished more in his 33 years than most writers aspire to in a lifetime. Born in Sweet Home, Ark., he grew up in New York and later served in the Air Force, married, attended Rutgers University, became deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and founded a small magazine, all while turning out a body of work unique in quality and quantity. Had he lived, he would have been recognized as one of the foremost writers of our time.

"Goodbye, Sweetwater," a collection of short fiction, is tightly woven with strong threads of lyric mysticism and speaks of immense struggle with the forces of nature and racism. There are references throughout to the awesome and insidious destructive power of both.

Dumas, on intimate terms with nature, speaks of the river of his Arkansas childhood as if he had been born knee-deep in its generous, sometimes treacherous waters.

In "The White Horse," the 12th story in this collection of 25, Jonoah, a small boy is pulled from the raging flood waters by Mamada Masterson, and her family, who, it turns out, are tryin1730176101vastly more ominous than the flood.

When a second survivor, a wretched, cunning man is rescued minutes before the water makes its final assault on him, Jonoah observes . . . "the white man stormed onto the boat. I got the feeling that it was dangerous to have him there because somehow I thought of him as the flood. Even though there was a warmth in his voice as he began talking to Papa Lem, it was not a magnetic warmth, but expedient, necessary because men caught up together in a rise always feel something with each other despite the color of their skins or any other difference. Enemies become friends when the Mississippi rises. But this man, thin and covered with mud, eyes544499809you, spoke loud even though the flood had climbed up to his ankles. He seemed irreverent."

The river figures as a spiritual component, a temporary resting place in "Ark of Bones" as two young boys are drawn out into the mists at the approach of a mysterious ship. ". . . A wind come up. And even though the little waves slappin' the sides of the bank made the water jump around and dance, I could still tell the river was risin' . . . . If you're sharp-eyed, you always seein' something along the Mississippi."

And the boys are drawn on to the ship, a huge ark that contains bones, millions of bones. " . . . big bones and little bones, parts of bones, chips, tidbits, skulls, fingers and everything," and listen in silence to anguished moans as the ghosts of black crewmen carefully retrieve and catalogue these sacred artifacts that bear horrific testimony to the fate of the African in the diaspora.

These interlocking threads that wend their way through Dumas' prose warn of moral and mortal danger and man's inability to distinguish between the two.

In "Harlem Game," a man subjects his son to the casual psychic brutality of a petty shell game and in a few seconds of fast, slick talk, appropriates the child's meager coins that he then uses to resume gambling. This is poverty that shrinks the soul, and Dumas' language gives shape to its brittle realism.

Hot currents flow through this work. There is a rhythm of rage and frustration and narrow-eyed determination expressed with rare poetry. We feel the spirit of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X in the exhortations of the street-corner prophet Dawud who poses questions too painful and profound to be answered. ". . . They (the integrationists) think that if they become the exact carbon copy of their white master then he will let them in the back door. . . . But whoever heard of a carbon copy being of any value as long as the original is around . . . ?"

Dumas' style and range are wide. He is able to capture, in rural and urban voice alike, the sense of loss, of reality unraveling. In "Rope of Wind," a young boy makes a heart-bursting eff1869771808victim in sight on a starless country road. We run with him and feel the dust and terror in our throats; and there is the realization by another boy as he scrambles up the twisted branches of a chinaberry tree that his mother was never going to send for him, to rescue him from the bald, burnt country environ where, because of corporate rape, nothing grew anymore, and even the well water tasted like discarded metal. Perched atop the stunted tree, he watches endless freight trains pass, going on to somewhere and knew that his mother was trapped in her own Northern prison, and whatever promises there were to be kept would be the promises he made to himself.

Loss again is examined on a snowswept Harlem street as three teen-agers struggle to close the hold that death has made in their tight-knit group. They stumble through their grief, feeling the loss of the friend whose a capella notes once caused the leaves to move on the trees in St. Nicholas Park.

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