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.