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."