Henry Dumas

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Henry L. Dumas
Henry Dumas 01.jpg
Born Henry Dumas
(1934-07-20)July 20, 1934
Sweet Home, Arkansas
Died May 23, 1968(1968-05-23) (aged 33)
Manhattan, New York
Occupation poet, short fiction writer, teacher
Literary movement Black Aesthetic
Spouse Loretta Ponton
Children 2

Henry Dumas (July 20, 1934 – May 23, 1968) was an African-American writer and poet. He has been called "an absolute genius" by Toni Morrison,[1] who as a commissioning editor at Random House published collections both of his poetry, Play Ebony, Play Ivory,[2] and his short stories, Ark of Bones.[3]


Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, in 1934 and lived there until the age of ten, when he moved to New York City; however, he always kept with him the religious and folk traditions of his hometown. In Harlem, he attended public school and graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After graduating, he enrolled in the Air Force and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he met future wife, Loretta Ponton. The couple married in 1955. While in the Air Force, Dumas was stationed on the Arabian Peninsula for eighteen months, where he developed an interest in Arabic culture. Dumas was in the military until 1957, at which time he enrolled at Rutgers University but never attained a degree.[4][5] Dumas and Ponton had two sons, David, born in 1958, and Michael, born in 1962. In 1967, Dumas began work at Southern Illinois University as a teacher, counselor, and director of its Experiment in Higher Education program. It was here that he met fellow teacher and poet Eugene Redmond, forming a close collaborative relationship that would prove so integral to Dumas' posthumous career.[5]


On May 23, 1968, at approximately 12:15 a.m., Dumas was shot to death at the age of 33 by a New York City Transit Police officer on the southbound platform of the 125th Street Station of the New York City Subway's IRT Lenox Avenue Line. According to the Associated Press report, the officer claimed that Dumas had been threatening another man with a knife. The officer said that he ordered Dumas to drop the knife, but that Dumas instead turned, attacked the officer, and slashed the officer's cheek. The officer stated that he fired three times.[6]

The circumstances of the shooting remain unclear as no witnesses testified[7] and no records remain as the Transit Police Department's records of the shooting were destroyed when the agency merged into the New York City Police Department in 1995.[8] Dumas' death is often called "a case of mistaken identity," but there is no evidence to either confirm or refute this claim.[9][10][11][12]

Dumas was buried in Long Island National Cemetery in Suffolk County, New York.[13][14] His death is mentioned in the poem "An Alphabet of My Dead," by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky,[15] as well as the poem "Night, for Henry Dumas" by Aracelis Girmay.

Posthumous Recognition[edit]

Poetry for My People was first published in 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press, where Dumas worked before his death. Toni Morrison, then working as an editor at Random House, read Poetry for My People and used her influence to have Random House publish two collections of Dumas' published and unpublished writings in 1974, Play Ebony, Play Ivory, which was a reprint of Poetry for my People, and Ark of Bones.[7][9] To generate interest in Dumas, Morrison hosted a book launch party on October 13, 1974. In her invitation, Morrison said of Dumas' work that it was "some of the most beautiful, moving, and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read."[1]

In 1976, Dumas' short story "Thalia" was awarded the Black Scholar's literary award by James Baldwin.[9] Poet Eugene Redmond, Dumas' literary executor and editor, helped renew interest in Dumas in 1988 with the publication of the short story anthology, Goodbye Sweetwater, which contained both previously published and new works. Redmond released a second anthology, Knees of a Natural Man, in 1989. In 2015, Redmond spoke of his hope that "the Black Lives Matter movement will help introduce Dumas to a whole new audience and help bolster the foundation that the moment rests upon."[7]


Dumas described himself as having been heavily influenced by Moms Mabley and gospel music at a young age. Dumas used his spiritual upbringing as well as his other experiences as a black child growing up in the south during the 1930s and 1940s frequently in his writings.[5]

In the 1960s, Dumas became increasingly involved with both the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement, immersing himself in music, particularly gospel, spirituals, jazz, and blues. Dumas studied with jazz musician Sun Ra during the mid-1960s. Dumas' poem "Black Paladins" became the title track for a recording by Joseph Jarman and Famoudou Don Moye in 1979.[5]

Writer Margaret Walker and musicians James Brown and John Coltrane proved to be major influences on his writing. Elements of Black Christianity, Islam, Sufi mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American mythology, and African mythology appear in Dumas' works.[5]

Both his fiction and his poetry developed themes of the Black Arts, or Black Aesthetic movement.[7]


  • Poetry for My People (1970) (poetry)
  • Ark of Bones and Other Stories (1974) (short stories)
  • Play Ebony, Play Ivory (1974) (poetry)
  • Jonah and the Green Stone (1976) (novel)
  • Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979) (short stories)
  • Goodbye, Sweetwater: New and Selected Stories (1988) (short stories)
  • Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (1989) (poetry)
  • Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (Coffee House Press, 2003) (short stories)[16]


  1. ^ a b Morrison, Toni (1988). "On Behalf of Henry Dumas". Black American Literature Forum. 22 (2): 310–312. doi:10.2307/2904523. JSTOR 2904523. 
  2. ^ Henry Dumas, Play Ebony, Play Ivory: Poetry. Edited by Eugene B. Redmond. New York: Random House, 1974.
  3. ^ Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Edited by Eugene B. Redmond. New York: Random House, 1974.
  4. ^ "Henry Dumas". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 2017-10-28. Retrieved 2017-10-29. 
  5. ^ a b c d e "Hnery Dumas' Life and Career". www.english.illinois.edu. Retrieved 2017-10-29. 
  6. ^ Associated Press, Knife Brings Death Bullet, reprinted in the Herald Statesman (May 23, 1968), page 5. Retrieved on August 23, 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d "Henry Dumas Wrote About Black People Killed By Cops. Then He Was Killed By A Cop". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-10-29. 
  8. ^ Jeffrey B. Leak, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, pages 2 and 145-53 (2014).
  9. ^ a b c 1969-, Bader, Philip, (2004). African-American writers. New York: Facts On File. ISBN 1438107838. OCLC 234075137. 
  10. ^ Scott Saul, "The Devil and Henry Dumas – A lost voice of the Black Arts Movement", Boston Review, October/November 2004.
  11. ^ Doris Grumbach, Notes of a Visible Man, New York Times (June 26, 1988). Retrieved on August 23, 2015.
  12. ^ M. Dion Thompson, Author left legacy of promise and magic; Anniversary: 30 years after his untimely death, Henry Dumas is remembered for what he wrote and what he might have been, Baltimore Sun (July 24, 1998). Retrieved on August 23, 2015.
  13. ^ Page for Henry Lee Dumas, Find A Grave. Retrieved on August 23, 2015.
  14. ^ National Gravesite Locator, from the website of the National Cemetery Administration of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved on August 23, 2015.
  15. ^ "The Hopkins Review | Krieger School of Arts and Sciences | Johns Hopkins University". Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2017-10-29. 
  16. ^ http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/echo-tree-the-collected-short-fiction-of-henry-dumas/

Further reading[edit]

  • Eugene B. Redmond, introduction to Ark of Bones' and Other Stories, 1974.
  • Carolyn A. Mitchell, "Henry Dumas", in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 89–99.
  • Eugene B. Redmond, "The Ancient and Recent Voices within Henry Dumas", introduction to Goodbye Sweetwater, 1988.
  • Eugene B. Redmond, "Poet Henry Dumas: Distance Runner, Stabilizer, Distiller", introduction to Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas, 1989.
  • Dana A. Williams, "Making the Bones Live Again: A Look at the 'Bones People' in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Henry Dumas' Ark of Bones", College Language Association Journal 42: 3 (March 1999): 309–19.
  • Jeffrey B. Leak, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, Univ of Georgia Press (2014) ISBN 978-0-8203-2870-6

External links[edit]