For about two years I carried a postcard of his picture with me. His serious look reminded me of a serious guy I was enamored with and dated for a bit back in college. But Henry began to make Jerard look like a wimp. Jerard was an unsure writer of some articles and a few poems, had attended prep school and was trying to get settled for his future. He was mostly diligent, a little quirky and he adored me, at least most days. I thought he’d be a good husband, but I kept thinking of Henry, perfect Henry and comparing Jerard to Henry. Henry was a man on a seemingly self-imposed mission, and I liked that and fell in love.
At 33, American writer Henry Lee Dumas (1934-1968) was shot and killed on a subway by New York City transit police in a case of “mistaken identity.” But before his mysterious and tragic death, this black arts movement writer had published several pieces in arts magazines and had completed several non-published manuscripts. His prior and posthumous works now total more than a half-dozen, thanks due mostly to Eugene B. Redmond, my college professor and Dumas’ friend and colleague who was the long-time executor of Dumas’ literary estate. Redmond introduced me to my literary love and I continue to fall for Dumas whenever I think of him or his work.
“He was tuned in. Turned on. Cultural stabilizer. Cultural modulator. Funkadelic verb-gymnast. . . .Henry Lee Dumas was called to bear witness to the terrible swish and sass and swoon of life; to bear and bare the word. . . .” –Eugene B. Redmond
“. . . [H]e had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read…. He was brilliant. He was magnetic and he was an incredible artist.” –Toni Morrison
“Henry seemed to be awake even when he was asleep.” –Loretta Dumas, wife
And I found this all to be true. He had so much to say in so many different ways; his brilliance shined through; and I wondered, “When did he ever sleep?”
I’ll saint you but I wont haint you
I’ll test you but I wont touch you
I’ll fake you but I wont brake you
you know what I mean?
I’ll hook you but I wont spook you
Thas all IF YOU BEHAVE!*
–from “If You Behave”
You are a despiser of black and a misunderstander of white.
You are a mystery of yourself and a hater of that.
You once were a star that blazed,
but now you are overcivilized, oversterilized, overrated.
If you were a barren tree in my garden
I would come and cut you down.*
–from “Tis of Thee”
I have to adore the earth:
The wind must have heard
your voice once.
It echoes and sings like you
The soil must have tasted
It is laden with your scent.*
–from “Love Song”
I taught Dumas to my college students. Though more than 30 years removed from his work, many thought we were reading a contemporary artist. My students could relate. They knew when Dumas was jivin’. They understood his jibes, and they recognized when he was simply showing love. Dumas reached multiple generations, and the relevance of his work transcends time. His work is rhythmic. His work is rhymed. His work is poignant, impressing upon our minds to think about love and hate, work and play, justice and defeat. I’m so thrilled Professor Redmond met Dumas and introduced me to him, my literary love, a man whose life and works have inspired me, and I am grateful to have come to know.
Copyright 2010 by Rhonda J. Smith
*Excerpts taken from Knees of a Natural Man, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.