On May 23,1968, seven weeks after the assassination of Dr. King, thirty-three year old Henry Dumas entered the subway station at 135th Street in Harlem. A confrontation ensued. Little else is known about that incident, other than the fact that a transit officer shot Dumas and killed him.
In most accounts, the policeman fired at Dumas, a husband and father of two sons, in a case of “mistaken identity.” According to Dumas’s biographer, Jeffrey B. Leak, the New York City Transit Police documents describing what little investigation occurred into the killing at the time were destroyed in a routine “bureaucratic merger in the 1990s.” The fact that the justice system literally lost Dumas's case makes him a symbol of the nameless and faceless who have been maimed, murdered and mistreated by the police. This point is sharpened, too, by a cruel twist of fate: Dumas, a writer, became a victim of the same violence against black people he described in his work. Dumas's short stories—parables, realist fiction, sci-fi and folklore—contextualize in the African American tradition the attending duty and cost of being a witness to brutality. Because today's activists have drawn attention to police killings, we are experiencing en masse what it means to witness one state-sanctioned black murder after another.
Henry Dumas is a writer for these times. For how he died, and the work he made while he lived.
Born in Sweet Home, Arkansas in 1934, Dumas moved to Harlem at the age of ten. He served in the military, traveled to the Middle East, studied Eastern religions and participated in the civil rights movement. In 1967, Dumas took a teaching job in the Midwest where he met the poet and scholar Eugene B. Redmond. After Dumas's death, Redmond devoted much of his career to editing volumes of Dumas's poetry and prose, bringing the work to the attention of Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House. Morrison published a collection of Dumas’s poetry, Play Ebony, Play Ivory, and a collection of some of his short fiction, Ark of Bones and Other Stories, calling his work, "some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read."
Like Morrison's fiction, Dumas's focuses on the overlap between what the critic Trudier Harris has called "the natural and the supernatural." In the story "Ark of Bones," two boys, Headeye and Fish-Hound, the narrator, encounter a mysterious ark on the Mississippi. Manned by griots, the "soulboat" contains the meticulously organized bones of those lost to the Middle Passage as well as Jim Crow. Headeye boards the ark to preserve the ancestral bones alongside the ancient guardians while Fish-Hound stays behind on the banks of the Mississippi to testify to the ark's existence. Strange and beautiful, the story's vision of the black dead is not that they are lost, but rather that they are eternal, and must be protected and treated with reverence, always. The same way that Noah's Ark preserved life in the wake of the great flood, Dumas's ark is a vessel for the cultural heritage, the bones if you will, beneath the skin of black life.
Part of the Black Arts movement, Dumas upheld rituals and traumas as evidence of the connections between all the descendants of African slaves in the West. That the boy called to join the mission of the ark is called "Headeye" emphasizes that the act of witnessing is, in fact, a radicalizing force that propels further action. We saw examples of this radical witnessing in Ferguson last summer and more recently in Baltimore, when crowds of protesters aimed their cellphones at rows of police outfitted in riot gear. And while video footage of the murders of Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and Walter Scott, among others, grants the #BlackLivesMatter movement the moral consensus it needs and deserves, work like Dumas's gives us a powerful metaphorical framework for comprehending this social justice moment.
Social movements aim to rescue those the ship of state has thrown overboard: the oppressed. Paradoxically, as is the case with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the bodies witnesses and activists pull from the current are already dead. Quite literally an "ark of bones," #BlackLivesMatter aims to protect Black life by keeping constant vigil for the dead. Forty-seven years ago this month Henry Dumas was cut down before his time. The only justice possible for him now is that his work is read. Of course black lives matter. That includes our voices from the past.