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The Death and Resurrection of a “Cult” Poet  

Henry Dumas.

A few years ago, the most powerful Black editor in New York asked me to submit outlines for two books he wanted to publish. I went one better. I submitted two manuscripts. He told me that the salespeople rejected them because “they’d only win prizes and critical acclaim.” Judging by trends in Black literature, the salespeople have won out. In a Poets and Writers’ interview, a superior novelist, Elizabeth Nunez, complains that publishers demand “girlfriend books” from Black authors. The other genre that’s trending might be called “how-to-get-along-with-Black people,” an auxiliary of the self-improvement industry. The recent list of 100 Black fiction writers compiled by U.S.A. Today, leaned heavily toward the fiction of Black women, but even that category omitted major Black women writers like Nunez, Charlene Hatcher Polite, Kristin Hunter Lattany, and Margaret Walker, whose “Jubilee!” should be taught in tandem with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a view of slavery from the inside and one from the outside.

The dean of Black writers, Louise Merriweather, is also missing. Her Daddy Was a Number Runner, a Harlem classic, did not receive the backing that powerful interests accorded a few male novelists of her time and those interests were probably offended by some of her characterizations. The novel takes place in the 1930s, and the prevalent conditions then–evictions, police brutality, etc.–exist now. Of course, if she were a white novelist of her stature there would be no need for a Go Fund Me effort to assist in her recovering from the Covid virus. She’s bedridden and requires round the clock care.  She’s $6,000 short of her $30,000 goal.

The male novelists of her generation, to flatter liberal book buyers, were required to pose as the literary sons of a white master. Maybe that’s why novelist Ralph Ellison, who cited as his influences Eliot, Faulkner, and Hemingway, named Vachel Lindsay as Henry Dumas’s literary father. Lindsay would probably object.

Though Vachel Lindsay used the term Jazz in some of his titles, and his “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” which I have anthologized, is early Hip Hop, he despised Jazz. He said that he resented being called a “Jazz poet” because the phrase has been used to mean something “synonymous with hysteria, shrieking, and fidgets. I abhor the kind of ballroom dancing that goes with jazz, jazz is hectic, has the leer of the badlands in it, and first, last, and always is hysteric. It is full of the dust of the dirty dance. The saxophone, its chief instrument, is the most diseased instrument in all modern music; it absolutely smells of the hospital.” Jazz has kept generations of Black writers sane. Writers like James Baldwin depended upon Jazz as a cure for depression.

Though Toni Morrison called the late Henry Dumas “a genius,” and championed his work while an editor at Random House, Ralph Ellison said of Dumas, according to Dumas’ biographer Jeffrey B. Leak, author of Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas: “If that Vachal Lindsay poem-writing nigger shows up at my door,” Ellison thundered, “tell him I’m not here. I’ll hide in the supply closet if I have to, to get away from him.” A “Vachel Lindsay poem writing nigger?” I’ve found nothing in Henry Dumas’s work that would connect him to Lindsay, author of perhaps the most abominably racist poem in the American library. ”The Congo,” subtitled, “A Study of the Negro Race. Their Basic Savagery.” It contains the kind of lines that one might find among the comments in social media favored by thousands of policemen like “Tattooed Cannibals.”

One might attribute Ellison’s comment to his fear, cited by his biographer Arnold Rampersad, of a younger generation that might replace him and other Black Modernists, who’d been intimidated by government committees that found Black writers less than loyal. In a review of Arnold Rampersad’s prize-winning biography of Ellison, Charles Matthews writes,

“As a member of the exclusive Century Club in New York, he made no effort to recruit other black members (and strongly opposed the admission of women). He steadily refused to provide blurbs for the books of younger black writers.”

Or it might have been based upon a regional bias. Ellison and his friends were urbane and part of the New York elite. The Century Club was a place where, according to Ellison, one could have “good food, drink, and a good conversation.” Some of Dumas’s characters prefer soda pop. While Big Bill Broonzy showed that to play the country Blues, all one needed was a Harmonica and your stomping foot, Ellison and his friends preferred Urban Blues. His friend Albert Murray wrote a book (Good Morning Blues) about Count Basie.

The Black modernists were influenced by Sartre, André Malraux, Marx, Freud, and Existentialism. They often muted their characters with heavy-handed psychoanalysis. Dumas’s characters go to church. They don’t deal in ambiguities and alienation. And when they speculate about metaphysics, it takes a humorous turn. In the short story, “The Voice,” which takes place in Harlem, on the way to a memorial held to commemorate the death of a friend, whether God exists is discussed by members of a singing group. During their journey, which is expertly directed by  Dumas, with minor characters entering and exiting, they pick up passersby who join the confab.

When Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe, and I interviewed Ellison he spoke of the down-home attempt to stifle the imagination. Well, down-home didn’t stifle Dumas’s imagination. Though some of his scenes have a setting in places like Harlem, he was at home in the country. In one story, one learns how pecans are grown. In another, traffic is held up by a cattle crossing. His literary skills can be viewed in the classic anthology Black Fire, edited by Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka. His “Ark of Bones” is considered his masterpiece.

Another reason for Ellison’s nervousness with Dumas was Dumas’s alignment with the proletariat writers of the 1930s, a radical period in Ellison’s history that he and his publisher sought to expunge.

Before I left New York for California in 1967, I used to hear from Dumas. He’d call me while I was living in Chelsea. His persistence was mistaken for imposition. He seemed to have boundless energy. Maybe he knew that he had to make use of every moment because he would die young. Ironically, the writer who wrote about police brutality would be the victim of a policeman. On May 23rd, 1968, Dumas was shot in New York while entering a subway turnstile. He was thirty-three. There were no cameras there to record the shooting. No demonstrations. Black Lives Matter hadn’t been invented.

Toni Morrison said that it was a case of mistaken identity. His widow Loretta Dumas received no compensation from New York. She had to raise two sons alone. They both committed suicide, David in 1987 and Michael in 1994. It was because of her and the efforts of poet Eugene Redmond, the executor of his estate, that the “cult” writer will achieve a wider audience. His collection of short stories, “Goodbye Sweetwater,” will be published in December. On Saturday, PEN Oakland, called “The Blue Collar PEN,” by the New York Times,  will award Dumas a posthumous Adelle Foley Award, named for the late Oakland poet and humanist.

Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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