Henry Dumas: Poet, Seer...

Henry Dumas

Poet, Seer and Short Story Writer

enry Dumas was a brilliant African American poet, seer and short story writer. Henry was born on July 29, 1934, in Sweet Home, Arkansas. During the 1950s, he served in the Air Force and was stationed in Texas and the Middle East. Writing poetry and short stories consumed him during the 1960s. He studied at City College and Rutgers University, and participated in the civil rights and Black Power movements of his time.

He found inspiration in the African and African American experiences. Some of his fiction employs a style of magic realism, innovative for tis time but quite common nowadays. In 1976, James Baldwin selected his story "Thalia" for the Black Scholar literary prize. Dumas was closely associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, which championed an aesthetic grounded in the black cultural nationalism. But, in the words of Amiri Baraka, Dumas produced a "a true art form, not twenty 'hate whiteys' and a benediction of sweaty artificial flame, but actual art, real, man, and stunning." All that ended when he was killed in April 1968, at the age of 33, at Manhattan's 125th street station by a New York Transit Authority policeman in a case of "mistaken" identity. Dumas had already completed several manuscripts of poetry and prose, the quality and quantity of which are seldom achieved in one short lifetime.

Henry Dumas the Storyteller

Excerpts from his Ark of Bones and Other Stories
Hale Chatfield and Eugene Redmond. (1970).
Southern Illinois University Press


he word was out. Cool it. We on the street, see. Me and Big Skin. We watch the cops. They watch us. People going and coming. That fire truck still wrecked up side the buildin. Papers say we riot, but we didnt riot. We like the VC, the Viet Cong. We strike and fade. Me and Big Skin, we scoutin the street the next day to see how much we put down on them. Big Skin, he walkin ahead of me. He walkin light, easy, pawin. It daylight but you still got to walk easy on the street. Anytime the Mowhites might hit the block on rubber, then what we do? We be up tight for space, so we all eyes, all feet and easy. You got to do it.

We make it to Bone's place. Bone, he the only blood on the block got a business. Mowhite own the cleaners, the supermarket, the laundry, the tavern, the drugstore, and all the rest. Yeah. But after we burn out half them places, Mowhite he close down his stores for a week.

Our block occupied with cops and National Guard, but the Guard left yesterday. Man, they more cops on the street now than rats. We figure the best thing to do is to kill the cops first so we can get back to killin rats. They watch us. But they got nothin on Big Skin and me. Naw. We clean. They got Sammy, Momo, Walter and his sister too, Doris, Edie, and they even got Mr. Tomkins. He a school teacher. I had him once. He was a nice stud. Me and Big Skin make it to Bone's place. There a lot of guys inside.

We hang around. Listen to talk. I buy a coke. Big Skin take half. I hold my coke. Police cars pass outside. They like wolves, cruisin. We inside. Nobody mess with us. A cat name Duke, he talkin.

"You cats got to get more together with this thang. Look at the cats in Brooklyn, Chicago. Birmingham and Cleveland. Look at the cats in Oakland!"

A cat named Mace, he talkin. Mace just got out the Army. "Don't worry, man. It's comin." He point out the window. "This is raw oppression, baby. Look at them mf's. Raw oppression." Mace, he like to use them two words so he sayin them over and over again. He say them words all the time. It aint funny cause they true. We all look out the window at the cops.

Bone, he behind the counter makin hamburgers. When he get too many orders he can't handle, then one of the cats come behind the counter and give him a hand. Me and Big Skin light up cigarettes. Big Skin pass them around. I take the last one. I squeeze the pack up so tight, my fingernails cut my hand. I like to make it tight. I throw that pack at the trash can. It bounce in and bounce back. But Duke, he catch it. He throw it in. Not too hard. It stay. He talkin.

"I mean, if every black man in this goddamn country would dedicate one half of a day next week to a boycott. Just don't go to work! Not a black pushin a thing for Charley. Hell, man we tie it up. We still the backbone, man. We still got this white mf on our backs. What the hell we totin him around for?"

Mace, he talkie.

"Wait. No sooner we make another move, whitey be down on us like rats on warm cheese. It be raw oppression double over. Gestapo. Man, they forget about Hitler after the man come down on us."

Big Skin he talkin.

"They say that the cats in Harlem is gettin together so tight that the Muslims and Martin Luther King got their heads together."

Nobody say nothin. Couple cats laugh. We heard it before. Word been spreadin for all black men to get ready for war. Nobody believe it. But everybody want to. But it the same in Harlem as anywhere else. Duke he talkin.

"An organized revolution is what the man can't stand. They say it's comin? Man, when it do I be the first to join. If I got to go I take some Chalk Whitey with me and mark him all over hell."

We listen a while. The cats all talkin. We just want to get what's happenin. We split the scene. Duke, he split too.

We move down the block. It gettin evenin. We meet some cats comin. We stop and talk. We meet them later on 33rd Street. They pawin like us.

Duke talkin. "You cats see Tyro yet?"

We say naw. We heard he back in town, but we aint seen him yet. Tyro was a Green Beret in Viet Nam. But he back. He got no legs and one arm. All the cats been makin it to his pad. They say he got a message for all the cats on the block.

Duke say he makin it to Tyro's now. We walk on. I kick some glass. We see a store that is burnt out. A cop is watchin us. We stalkin easy, all eyes, all feet. A patrol car stop along side us. The gestapo's leap out. I see a shotgun. We all freeze.

The Man is talkin.

"You niggers got one hour to get off the street." Then he change his mind. "Against the wall!" There is three of them. Down the street is more. They frisk us. We all clean. One jab the butt of the gun hard on my leg. It give me a cramp in the ball.

They cuss us and tell us to get off the street. We move on. Around the block. Down the street.

I'm limpin. I dont say nothin. I dont curse or nothin. Duke and Big Skin, they mad, cursin and sayin what they gonna do. Me, I'm hurtin too much. I'm lettin my heat go down into my soul. When it come up again, I wont be limpin.
We see some more cats pawin along the block. About fifty. We join. They headin to 33rd. Some cats got heats, some got molotov's. One cat got a sword.

Tyro on 30th Street. We go up. Three other cats come with us. We run up the steps. We pass an old man goin up. He grunt out our way. We say excuse. I'm the last up. The old man scared. We hear a siren outside. The shit done started already.

Tyro's sister open the door. I know her before I dropped out of school. She know me, but she iggin. All the cats move in. I close the door. "We come to see Tyro," I say. She chewin some food, and she wave with her hand. It mean, go on up front. I watch her walk. "You Tina?" She swallow her food. "Yeah. You come to see Tyro, he in there." She turned and went into a door and closed it. I followed the other cats up front. My ball still hurt.

There were six cats already in the room. Six more come in. Somebody pass around a butt. I scoot in a corner. So I am meetin Tyro. He known on the block for years. He used to be the leader of the old Black Unicorns. They broke up by the cops and social workers.

I look at Tyro. He a black stud with a long beard. He sittin in a wheel chair. He wearin fatigues like Fidel Castro. When we paw into the pad, Tyro he talkin.

". . . the Cong are masters at ambush. Learn this about them. When we fell back under fire, we fell into a pincher. They cross-fired us so fast that we didn't know what hit us. Out of sixty men, I was left. I believe they spared me so that I could come back and tell you. The cat that found me was hit himself, but he didn't seem to care. He looked me in my eye . . . for a long time. My legs were busted up from a grenade. This VC stood over my blood. I could tell he was thinkin about somethin. He raised the rifle. I kept lookin him in the eye. It was one of the few times my prayers been answered. The cat suddenly turned and ran off. He had shot several of my buddies already, but he let me go.

"All I can figure is that one day the chips are all comin down. America is gonna have to face the yellow race. Black and yellow might have to put their hands together and bring this thang off: You cats out in the street, learn to fade fast. Learn to strike hard, but dont be around in the explosion. If you dont organize you aint nothin but a rioter, a looter. These jigs wont hesitate to shoot you.

"Naw. I aint tellin you to get off the streets. I know like you know. Uncle means you no ultimate good, brothers. Take it for what it is worth. I'm layin it down like it is. I got it from the eagle's beak. That's the way he speak. Play thangs careful. Strike and fade, then strike again, quick. Get whitey outa our neighborhood. Keep women and children off the streets. Dont riot. Rebel. You cats got this message. Do what you got to do. Stick together and listen for the word to come down. Obey it."

When Tyro finish talkin, some cats get up and shake his hand. Others leave. Out in the street sirens are going. The doorbell rings. Everybody freeze. It some more cats. We all leave.

Down on the street, it like a battlefield. A fire in a store down the block. Cops see us. We fade. I hear shots. Then I know somethin.

The word is out. Burn, baby, burn. We on the scene. The brothers. Together. Cops and people goin and comin. Some people got good loot, some just hoofin it. A police cordon comin. We shadows on the wall. Lights comin towards us. We fade. Somebody struck them. The lights go out. I hear shots. I fall. Glass get my hands. The street on fire now. We yell. 33rd Street here we come! Got to get together!

We move out. Strikin. All feet. All soul. We the VC. You got to be. You got to be.

Hardboiled to Hardcore: An Interview With Walter Mosely

Hardboiled to Hardcore: Interview with Walter Mosley

[30 January 2007]

"It's amazing how we strain to maintain our dignity and end up like Colin Powell, the only one who knows what the f**k is going on, but is unable to tell it." PopMatters talks to Walter Mosley.

By D. Scot Miller

Writer Walter Mosley calls his new book a sexistential noir. Seeing that Killing Johnny Fry mixes incest with loneliness, golden showers with ennui, and strap-ons with a longing for connection, the description fits like a latex glove.

“I think of this book as being in the tradition of Camus’ The Stranger,” Mosley tells PopMatters. “I’m talking about loneliness, the moment when existentialism and mid-life come into contact with each other, the aloneness of people in America, the deep melancholy of America and the deep feelings of sexuality in all of our lives.”

cover art

Walter Mosely

Killing Johnny Fry


When the book was released on 2 January, readers who have followed his Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones crime novels met a new kind of hero and, once again, a new side of Walter Mosley.

Killing Johnny Fry is the story of 45-year-old black translator Cordell Carmel who walks in on his longtime, non-live-in girlfriend Joelle being sodomized by Johnny Fry, a white man wearing a red condom. A disquieted and turned-on Cordell walks out without being seen, and begins an erotic journey of self-discovery that takes him beyond himself and the world he thought he knew.

Like Meursault in Camus’ book, Cordell has been numbed by the post-modern condition. “He’s been living in this apartment with this weird paranoia,” says Mosley. “He’s a translator and not even an interesting translator. He’s with this woman, but it’s not like he loves her. There’s a desperation he doesn’t recognize. The pain locates him like a light in the dark and that’s the thing that brings him through.”

Killing Johnny Fry is in the noir tradition; only where there would be violence in a hard-boiled novel, there is hardcore instead. After Cordell walks out on Joelle and Johnny Fry, his mind simmering over with thoughts of revenge, instead of going to the local pawnshop for a .38, he goes to the local porn shop for a DVD, The Myth of Sisypha (An homage to Camus). Instead of confronting his girlfriend and their mutual acquaintance, he keeps mum and uses the betrayal to stoke his passion and transform his life.

“All of these terrible things that we feel, that have happened to us, that we do and there’s no way out of it,” says Mosley. “Joelle has that experience. How she was so severely molested that she needed it in some way, and Cordell is even worse because he isn’t connected to anything. He sees her on the weekend, they have sex once or twice, and she says, ‘You can’t come over on weekdays,’ and he just accepts that. He accepts the life that he has and it’s a completely interchangeable life. The truth is that most of us have to live that way. It’s a hard thing to get out of in our own minds, we might not be able to get out of it at all in our own lives, in our own culture, but in our minds; to see ourselves as something special, something different, someone who has an idea which is itself original.”

Mosley is no stranger to re-invention. The once computer programmer turned best-selling, award-winning novelist and essayist has written over 25 books over the last 15 years in genres ranging from science fiction to social commentary. “If you’re a writer in America,” says Mosley, “you write one book, about one guy, again and again and again, until people get tired of it and then you retire. I write a lot of different things and a lot of those things have become real. Like I’ve become a political activist through my writing. This book reflects a part of my life. I wanted to know more about my own sexuality, especially for men.”

His subtle prolific rise has made him more than a crime novelist in the tradition of Dashiell Hammet and more an international man of letters, in the tradition of Chester Himes. And like his character, Mosley knows what it’s like to be trapped in a world of expectations. As he speaks of Cordell, the lines blur between sex and writing, writer and written.

“Everything is based on capitalism and capitalism is based on specialization. And that’s based on ending freedoms for individuals instead of making it possible. You have to struggle with that. As I’m writing the book, I realize that Cordell is not going back to work,” a still astonished Mosley says. “I keep trying to fit it in, but he’s just not going back. He never went again. This is a moment of realization. Something has to change.”

During his week-long journey into the soul, Cordell rekindles passionate and public sex with pathological Joelle, sodomizes a young photographer, has strap-on and then phone-sex-three-way with his upstairs neighbor, Sasha Bennett, who is also having an incestuous affair with her brother, seduces young Monica Wells a single mother he meets on the subway, meets Sisypha, the star of the porno he purchased and goes with her to the underground Sex Games, where he is fucked senseless and sodomized in an aria of depravity before his confrontation with Johnny Fry.

Whether or not readers will grasp the philosophical implications of Cordell rimming the photographer or lapping up a prostitute’s mother’s milk in a sex club is open for speculation, but it’s clear that the author’s motives are far more than writing a good one-handed novel.

“A lot of people who’ve read this book just see sex, sex, sex. I have to ask, what book are you reading? Even though all of the elements that are in my other books are there, maybe even more blatantly, the reviews say sex, sex, and sex. I’m writing this book to say this is the modern world. This lonely, melancholy, alienated, middle-aged man represents a great deal of America and a lot of where America is going.”

In spite of being the drab and frumpish milquetoast initially drawn by Mosley, Cordell Carmel is a classic hero, while being one of the first of his kind.

“I write about black male heroes. Black men have been forced into silence by American culture. We don’t exist. We don’t fucking exist.” Mosley said. “I realized as I was writing this book that there are very few first person, black heterosexual sex books written, a man actually talking about how sex feels. “

From Jim in Huckleberry Finn to Mister in The Color Purple, the heterosexual black male is more sidekick, prop, or foil than hero. In an age when black male sexuality is most often a secondary character as seen through the eyes and bodies of non-black-males, Cordell Carmel is given the one element that is most denied heroes of his class, vulnerability.

“Here was Cordell with Joelle, a woman he didn’t truly know, and then here comes Johnny Fry who just meets her at a party and gets all the way to the depths of her that day. Something that Cordell was incapable of reaching. And he feels bad about himself because of it.”

“It was as if I was set adrift, but not yet dying, on a lone raft in the middle of tranquil and treacherous sea,” Cordell says at the beginning of his journey, and it is from this feeling of inadequacy, raw and untainted with ego or bluster, which Cordell Carmel shines. As he encounters these people and situations, he approaches each with a greater lust for understanding and connection.

“When I went to Karen Rinaldi (Bloomsbury Publisher/Editor) with this book, she said, ‘This character Cordell is really sweet.’ And that’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t want readers to be all upset, or to think the sex is too much or it’s all so intense. Cordell Carmel is sweet. He doesn’t quite get it. He lost. He’s confused. He’s trying to make it and he needs people, especially women, to give him some kind of support in the world.”

Cordell’s heroic battle is with malaise, or Sartre’s nausea, and the void created by post-modern existence. His antagonist, more than Johnny Fry or Joelle, is the machine that has allowed his disconnection from the world, and the world from him, to flourish.

“This book is not about love, it’s about obsession and compulsion and the need to connect. Cordell is adrift and there’s nothing he can do.” Mosley says. “He can’t find himself, he’s trying to and this compulsion is helping him. With Sasha we have a person who can’t remove herself from this relationship with her mother. She can’t talk to her mother, but she fucks her brother as a way to connect. Sasha teaches Cordell about pain. I love their sex, but the primary scene is when she’s squeezing his bandaged hand, she knows she’s hurting him and she asks him, ‘Why don’t you ask me to stop?’ There’s a real connection there. You see the connection between them. He’s unable to say stop. It’s a form of understanding that he is a victim of life. He hasn’t been aware of it. She intuits that. She takes his hand, at first it’s a generous gesture, but then she squeezes to see how he reacts. The moment of connection becomes deeper”.

As with all great heroes, his journey begins at the tip of his sword, but does not end there.

“Part of the problem with modern culture is that people don’t want you to change,” Mosley says, again blurring the lines. “They don’t want you to wander out one day, forgetting to go to work and never going back. They need you to work everyday and in order for that to happen they need to regularize the world. So you have a television with all kinds of channels: sports, music, food, and you’re supposed to look at that and go to sleep and go back to work. Your world is reinforced that way so you’ll live that life. So when someone asks you about the world you’ll say the world is like this and like that. Racism comes out of that. Sexism comes out of that. What I’m doing is trying to create a whole new world that exists underneath the world we’re living in. In doing that, I’m saying there’s all kind of options for you. You don’t have to stay where you are. You can be somewhere else. You can be someone else. That’s especially true for black men, because we’re actually nowhere. It’s amazing what happens to us. It’s amazing how we strain to maintain our dignity and end up like Colin Powell, the only one who knows what the fuck is going on, but is unable to tell it.”

Killing Johnny Fry is Mosley’s most daring book to date. At a time in his career where he could churn out box-office ready mysteries, he writes a pornographic meditation on mid-life and rebellion. The only drawback is that the plot meanders at times, losing itself in its many turgid prods and thrusts. This can be explained by Mosley’s writing technique, which he will be outlining in This Year You Write Your Novel, due out in April 2007, where he likens writing to steering a rudderless rowboat:

“Writing a novel is not like you’re riding on highway to a destination, it’s like a journey by boat. You have to continually check your course so don’t miss your destination. What matters to me as a writer writing a book is the destination.”

At the end of The Stranger, Meursault realizes that life is worth living, and even though he’s in a prison condemned to death, he will fight until the last minute to enjoy, and feel, and embrace life itself. Killing Johnny Fry ends with the same open-ended uncertainty of Cordell’s fate, and the same ambiguous challenge to the reader.

“Our potential in this country as a people and as a nation is almost limitless and our vision is just a few degrees short of 360. We’re the most locked-down and locked-up people in history with the most potential in history. That’s the contradiction. The book is about that.” Mosley says. “You can find out amazing things if you’re willing to open your eyes and look out in the world. Cordell sees that getting sex is not all that difficult, a lot of people are willing, desiring it, but he changes his career and learns to trust. He becomes able to have new experiences and realizes that he can change his direction.

That’s the notion of mid-life. It feels like you’re falling, but you’re not. Find out who you are and take that path. Address your own pain. Like they ask at the doctor’s office, “what hurts?”