Art for The Visions of Henry Dumas.
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John Keene,  May 3

The Visions of Henry Dumas

On a genre-breaking forerunner of Afrofuturism

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Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas by Henry Dumas, ed. Eugene B. Redmond. Coffee House Press, 424 pages.

When a writer of rare talent and distinctive vision dies young, fellow authors and readers not only celebrate the work the writer was able to produce, but mourn the lost art that is never to be realized. In the case of Henry Dumas, shot and killed under mysterious circumstances by a rookie police officer in the 125th Street New York City subway station in May 1968, few beyond Dumas’s widow, Loretta, close friends and colleagues, and a few astute readers could have estimated the immense artistic and cultural loss to African American and American literature his death represented. Only thirty-three, Dumas was a native of Sweet Home, Arkansas, and a longtime resident of New York, where his family had moved when he was ten. The military veteran, young father, and teacher had published only a handful of stories and poems in literary journals, including Black World, before his murder, which occurred not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, as his friend and literary executor Eugene B. Redmond, whom he met while teaching and working at Southern Illinois University’s Experiment in Higher Education in East St. Louis during the summer of 1967, points out in his excellent foreword to a new edition of Dumas’s collected short fiction, Dumas had been in conversation with his peers across the United States, and had been regularly writing the work that would cement his posthumous legacy.

Most who encountered Dumas during the years before his death had glimpsed only a small portion of the striking literature he had been working on for nearly a decade. This work included the poems that would be published posthumously in Poetry for My People (1970) and Play Ebony, Play Ivory (1974), as well as the novel Jonoah and the Green Stone (1976), which Toni Morrison, who described him as “an absolute genius” after Quincy Troupe brought the poems to her attention, ushered into print. It also included a cache of short fiction, superbly collected and edited by Redmond, that appeared under the titles Ark of Bones and Other Stories (1970) and Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979), which were later republished together as Goodbye, Sweetwater: New and Selected Stories (1988) and which are gathered together now, with the mini-collection The Metagenesis of Sunra, in Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas.

Born in 1934, Henry Dumas came of age during an era of world-changing political and social revolutions for African Americans and people of African descent globally. The U.S. civil rights movement, in its multiple manifestations, was already underway toward the end of his teenage years, decolonization and independence efforts were unfolding across Africa and the Caribbean during this same period, and the American Black Power movement would begin in the mid-1960s, as Dumas entered his thirties. Alongside the political shifts, numerous cultural ones were occurring as well, and had been since the pioneering predecessors, including the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, successors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and Négritude figures such as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, strove to center Blackness and African American, African, and African diasporic culture and traditions in their art, creating a new aesthetics that would place their work on the same level with that emanating from Euro-America. Similar shifts were occurring in areas ranging from music to the visual and plastic arts. Heirs to these preceding movements, Dumas and his generation of Black writers both in the United States and across the diaspora continued to grapple with fashioning new aesthetic models and forms to record and address the social and political transformations taking place around them, transformations they were participating in and effecting, while also honoring the past and pointing ways forward to an empowered, liberatory future.

Dumas and his generation of Black writers both in the United States and across the diaspora continued to grapple with fashioning new aesthetic models and forms to record and address the social and political transformations taking place around them.

While some of Dumas’s African American fiction-writing contemporaries, such as Ronald Fair, Kristin Hunter, Paule Marshall, Julian Mayfield, and John A. Williams primarily pursued the path of realism, and others, including Morrison, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and William Demby, were writing prose that was experimental at the level of structure, form, and language, Dumas’s fiction, paralleling but distinct from peers like Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and Charles Wright in the United States, and Wilson Harris in the United Kingdom, sought to expand the genre’s possibilities by incorporating speculative modes and elements of the fantastic. Dumas drew from a range of traditions, including realist, gothic, horror, and supernatural fiction, yet he also grounded his work in African and African American spirituality, folklore, and myths, drawn from oral and written traditions of storytelling, producing in the process what one might term an authentically Black, politically engaged “magical realism,” while also creating early, signal examples of what would eventually come to be known as “Afrofuturism.” In addition, as his fiction underlines, African American and African diasporic vernacular cultures, including superstition, folk spiritual and religion, and legends and tall tales, should be understood not as opposed to knowledge and reason but as heralds of alternative epistemologies and necessary guides and tools for understanding and processing the complex and contradictory realities around us. Dumas was, in effect, creating a counter-epistemology directly linked to the creativity, born of imagination, improvisation, and resistance, that was and remains crucial for the survival and self-determination of people of African descent in America and across the globe.

Written more than fifty years ago, Dumas’s visionary fiction, with its focus on the social and psychological challenges facing Black boys and men, both in urban northern and rural southern settings, possesses considerable relevance and resonance for today. Its concern for the recurrent threats, two decades into the twenty-first century, that Black Americans face—including the ongoing wave of police killings of unarmed Black people, prefiguring his tragic, untimely death—and for the particularities and expansive cultural and affective dimensions of Black humanity, underline much of contemporary African American literature and themes central to Black Lives Matter and related movements. In “Ark of Bones,” it is a folk spirituality that the young characters learn to negotiate as they proceed to manhood, while in “Fon,” despite the horrific danger pressing in on the protagonist, he proceeds with preternatural confidence knowing that it is the spiritual protectors themselves who will take on the white supremacists threatening to lynch him. Other stories, like “The Marchers,” unspool almost like fables, the language at times as poetic as scripture and at others as direct as at the protest rallies seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other Black people killed or injured by state or extrajudicial forces, that have marked the tumultuous summer of 2020. Throughout, it is Dumas’s acute eye, his poetic ear, his assured narrative technique, his often otherworldly sense of humor, and his willingness to push the limits of conventional narrative that cast a spell on readers, leaving them with the twinned feeling of having read work that is both highly novel and yet imbued with something essential and familiar.

As in his work, so in life: on the evening that he was killed, Dumas had spent time at a rehearsal by the vanguardist musician, poet, and performer Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Dumas and Sun Ra had met only a few years before, and both shared a profound love of Black art, including music and poetry, from the traditional through the utterly experimental, as Sun Ra’s own career exemplified. Both also shared an interest in African-based metaphysics and the New Age psychedelia that were taking root in the late 1950s and 1960s. Like Sun Ra, Dumas aimed to produce art that succeeded in capturing the spiritual and ineffable through the medium of language, in the process revealing the permeability between the real and the fantastic, an approach that Amiri Baraka, in his introduction to the 1973 edition of Ark of Bones, evocatively labeled “Afrosurreal Expressionism.” Echo Tree’s final section includes Dumas’s overt tribute to the great musician, “The Metagenesis of Sunra,” a long story as original and exploratory as Sun Ra’s compositions that suggests other literary paths Dumas might have pursued had he not been killed and been allowed to develop his art further. Fortunately, readers have this volume to explore the remarkable, extensive, and influential body of short fiction that Dumas did produce in his lifetime, and to recognize its beauty, originality, and resonance, which are as significant and necessary today as they were when he was writing it.

Used by permission from Echo Tree (Coffee House Press, 2021). Introduction © 2021 by John Keene. Echo Tree © 2003 by the Estate of Henry Dumas.

John Keene’s recent books include the story collection Counternarratives (New Directions, 2016) and several books of poetry. He has also translated the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014) and numerous other authors from Portuguese, French, and Spanish. His recent honors include an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award, a Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction, and a 2018 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He chairs the department of African American and African Studies and teaches English and creative writing at Rutgers University–Newark.

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