NPR logo Henry Dumas Wrote About Black People Killed By Cops. Then He Was Killed By A Cop

Henry Dumas Wrote About Black People Killed By Cops. Then He Was Killed By A Cop

Henry Dumas, photographed in New York in the mid-1960s. Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

Henry Dumas, photographed in New York in the mid-1960s.

Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

"A young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station," reads an invitation by Toni Morrison for a posthumous book-launch party she threw for Dumas in 1974, six years after he died. "A transit cop" — who was white — "shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read."

In the nearly 50 years since Henry Dumas was killed, not much more has come to light about what happened on the night of his death. No witnesses came forward to testify. Police records were lost in a bureaucratic shuffle. Harlem, where Dumas moved as a young man after growing up in rural Arkansas, had erupted in large-scale protests over the police killings of black and brown men several times before the writer was killed. But Dumas' death hardly made the news. With so little information to draw from, it's as if the last pages of his life were torn out.

Dumas' final scene echoed a theme he turned to again and again in his writing: violent confrontations between white men and black men. The work he left behind — short stories that range from hard realism to science fiction, an almost finished novel, volumes of poetry, and even a few accompaniments to the work of the mystical jazz legend Sun Ra — contains bitingly sharp depictions of racial tension in America that, in an almost unbelievably eerie way, speak to his own fate.

It is, of course, a fate that many black men and women had and would suffer under dubious circumstances — from Robert Bandy in 1935, James Powell in 1964, 10-year-old Clifford Glover in 1973, and LaTanya Haggerty in 1999 to the more recent deaths of Michael Brown, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson and Freddie Gray, to name only a few.

"His work and, in fact, his death, investigated and illustrated the ways in which black lives were at best peripheral to most white people — especially those running and policing the country," says James Smethurst, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst professor who has written extensively about 1960s and '70s black writers.

Much of Dumas' writing is considered to be a part of the Black Arts Movement — the artistic manifestation of the Black Power struggle of the 1960s — an effort that Smethurst believes has a lot of resonance with the Black Lives Matter movement. While interest in Dumas has increased somewhat in recent years, he says, "We still have a long way to go before he gets the sort of attention he deserves."

'The People Get Tired Of Dying'

One of the only known accounts of the night Dumas was killed comes from an obituary in The Amsterdam News, a black-owned newspaper in New York City that was founded in 1909. "Police said Dumas and an unidentified man were scuffling in the subway when the officer walked up to them and attempted to stop the fracas," the obit reads. "Police said Dumas, resentful at the interference, slashed the officer who shot and killed him."

Without the benefit of photographic evidence or firsthand witnesses to accompany the official police report, it is impossible to know the full story of what happened that night. It's also impossible to take in Dumas' story without acknowledging that the track record of believability, when it comes to official accounts of black deaths at the hands of law enforcement, isn't a clean one.

Dumas wrote stories that echo cases like that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was killed seconds after a police vehicle pulled up to where he was playing. "When a Negro boy is shot and killed by policemen who do not check the situation before pulling their guns, the people get angry. It is a simple law of nature. ... The people get tired of dying," says one of Dumas' characters in a short story called "Riot or Revolt."

Published most recently in a 2003 collection of Dumas' work called Echo Tree, that story follows a young black man named Harold through the aftermath of violent public protest across Harlem:

"The police barricades squatted on the sidewalk surrounding each place where mobs had struck.

"Harold stood on the ramp in the middle of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street and surveyed the area which the night before had swarmed with police and angry Harlemites. A youth had been slain by the police in Brooklyn."

A view of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem circa 1970. Jack Garofalo/Paris Match via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jack Garofalo/Paris Match via Getty Images

Those who have studied Dumas' life and work believe the fictional LeMoor Brothers' Bookstore in that story was modeled on the real National Memorial African Bookstore, which stood a short walk from the 135th Street subway station where Dumas was killed. Owned by Lewis Michaux, a bookseller and black civil rights leader who encouraged his neighbors to read the books he stocked on African history, culture and philosophy even if they couldn't afford to buy them, the store attracted figures like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Muhammad Ali.

Not unlike Dumas' LeMoor, Michaux had a lot to say about black Americans' struggle for power. "We've been neglected for three hundred years," he told a New Yorker reporter in 1966. "As much as I hate to see what's going to happen, I believe that when the Negro knocks this time and nobody open the door, he's just going to knock it right down."

In "Riot or Revolt," city officials stop in to speak to the owners of LeMoor Brothers' Bookstore, which had been left untouched by the looters who ravaged nearly every other store on the street. The officers want to know what made his shop so exceptional, but its owner, Micheval LeMoor, takes issue with the fact that city officials seemed to visit Harlem only when its frustrated residents reached a breaking point:

"You want to come visit here and get the notions about things being better, while right now some disrespectful guardian of the citizens beats a black man's head in. It doesn't matter if he's guilty or not anymore. Your honor, what you are facing is the full anger of a man who has been under attack for years. Unless you call off the attackers, be they merchants, disrespectful policemen, or the American majority, then the black minority is going to tear your house down."

While "Riot or Revolt" may have been closely inspired by actual people if not actual events, other Dumas stories are imaginative forays into allegorical fables and otherworldly realms. Dumas' vast range captivated many of his fellow writers, before and after his death. The poet and civil rights activist Haki R. Madhubati called him "a poet of complex melodies," and Amiri Baraka called him an "Afro-surreal expressionist" who delivered "a new blackness."

Three of the published works of Dumas. Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

"I was impressed with his boldness of language and his boldness of breadth," Maya Angelou said in a 1988 interview published in an issue of the Black American Literature Forum dedicated entirely to Dumas' work. "Dumas continued to set us up for the loneliness, aloneness, and desperation, sometimes even desolation. But he never leaves us there. With him as our guide, we're always brought through to a better place."

'Part Invitation, Part Consolation'

By the time Dumas died, just a few of his poems and short stories had been published in small literary journals, geared toward a black audience. Writers and critics who knew him say he would have followed the uphill trajectory of his friends — including Robert Pinsky and Baraka — had he lived.

"I think he would've been a lot more famous in some respects if he had been able to live and write for 50 more years," says Smethurst, the University of Massachusetts professor. "What if Toni Morrison had died after she wrote The Bluest Eye and only had a few stories?"

In fact, Morrison played a role in inspiring what Smethurst calls the "cult" of Dumas. She first encountered Dumas in the form of a slim collection published posthumously by Southern Illinois University, where he taught an experimental program during the last year of his life. Then an editor at Random House and the author of The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison was struck by the circumstances of Dumas' death and wanted to publish more of his writing.

Random House had recently committed itself to publishing more minority writers. Through her position there, Morrison would shepherd through the work of several of the era's most notable black writers and activists, from Toni Cade Bambara and Gayle Jones to Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton.

Dumas, when he was a high school student in New York. Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

But she knew that generating attention for Dumas, a writer who was not only practically unknown but also deceased, would not be easy. To create hype for the collections she wanted to release — a book of poetry titled Play Ebony Play Ivory and a short story collection called Ark of Bones — Morrison organized a release event with a glamorous guest list comprising the most renowned black writers of the time.

"He was thirty-three years old when he was killed," Morrison wrote in the announcement for the party, a note that was described as "part invitation, part consolation" in a recent New York Times profile of Morrison. "But in those thirty-three years he had completed work the quality and quantity of which are almost never achieved in several lifetimes."

'Creative Writing Slave'

In 1934, Dumas was born to Appliance Porter, a 19-year-old housekeeper in Sweet Home, Ark., a small town just outside Little Rock. His father, Henry Dumas Sr., or "Big Henry" as he was called, was largely absent from the life of his son, and his mother worked long hours. With his parents often away, Dumas spent much of his time in the fields where his aunts and uncles picked cotton, milked cows and shared stories.

While his cousins were busy playing sports, Dumas' family recalled to Dumas biographer Jeffrey B. Leak, he preferred to spend his time examining insects or developing skits in which he played all the roles. When Dumas was 10, he and his family followed the course taken by thousands of other black families during the first part of the 20th century by moving north. Dumas brought with him to Harlem an intellectual curiosity that impressed his teachers at his integrated Manhattan high school.

Dumas and his wife, Loretta Dumas (Ponton), on their wedding day. Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

It may have been there that Dumas' individual struggles became part of a more complex struggle: one in which black people searched for belonging in spaces where they were neither warmly welcomed nor explicitly barred. It's unclear when he began to take up writing seriously, but his move to a more racially diverse environment may have had something to do with it. Beneath his senior photo in the 1953 High School of Commerce yearbook someone — perhaps even Dumas himself — chose to inscribe this description of him: "Creative writing slave."

After a brief stint at the City University of New York that ended with what Leak notes might have been "a crisis of confidence," Dumas joined the U.S. Air Force within a year of his high school graduation. Tours of Saudi Arabia and Mexico deepened his interest in sketching worlds that blurred black-and-white interpretations of race.

At the age of 21, Dumas returned to the U.S., in 1955, and married Loretta Ponton, a beautiful young secretary he had met by chance on a snowy evening on the street in New York just before enlisting. The daughter of a Baptist deacon, Loretta held strong Christian values and a traditional sense of familial responsibility. While Dumas shared her beliefs during the early years of their marriage, he would veer from them in coming years.

One of just a few black students at Rutgers University, where Dumas studied from 1958 to 1965 and where the couple's two sons were born, Dumas' commitment to his writing, curiosities about the Nation of Islam, engagement with the civil rights movement, plus alcohol and drug use began to drive a wedge between him and Loretta.

He also had several affairs with white women. Lois Wright (nee Silber), with whom he had an affair that lasted three years, recalled in a letter to Dumas' friend and fellow poet Jay Wright (whom she would later marry) that the two could only venture out to select spots in New York; the jazz clubs Dumas frequented weren't welcoming to Wright, and she resented Dumas' friends for referring to her as "the white chick."

"For Dumas, crossing racial divides represented possibility and opportunity for both himself as a black man, but also from an imaginative standpoint," Leak, whose biography of Dumas, Visible Man, came out last year, said in an interview. "I think he thought that if you can cross boundaries in the social realm, then you can cross other boundaries in the literary realm. In both spaces, he found it to be even more complicated than he had anticipated."

Dumas explores those complexities in "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?," a short story in which three white musicians and critics want to enter a black jazz club, arguing they should be let in because they know a lot about the genre. The black patrons finally agree to let them in, but warn that use of an ancient, rare horn may be too intense for their "uninitiated" ears. The music "vibrated the freedom of freedom" for its black listeners, but when the set ends, consternation rises when the three white people are found dead. They had been slain by music that wasn't meant for them.

Henry Dumas (from left), William G. Davis and Eugene B. Redmond in 1967, during their tenure as teacher-counselors at the Experiment in Higher Education at Southern Illinois University. Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Eugene B. Redmond

For many, the story offers a look at some of the central questions of the civil rights movement: What did it mean to be black? How could black identity adapt to an integrated world? What racial boundaries should remain unbroken?

In an essay on the story for a 1988 issue of the Black American Literary Forum dedicated to Dumas' work, an acquaintance of Dumas' put it this way: "Black people had a feeling of always being on stage for white folks." Dumas' story on the jazz club held that the work of black artists should be guarded and protected, a notion that still resonates in a world where it's been said many times that black cultural products are valued while black lives are not.

Jazz And Honey

On no one, perhaps, has Dumas made a greater impression than Eugene Redmond. An accomplished poet in his own right, Redmond has spent the past four decades editing and promoting the work of Dumas, even though the two men knew one another for only just under a year. Redmond met Dumas when the older writer came to teach English at an experimental college at the University of Southern Illinois in Redmond's hometown of East St. Louis in 1967. "We bonded quickly," Redmond told me in a phone interview from the house of Loretta, Dumas' widow.

The 77-year-old has served for decades as the literary executor of Dumas' estate and was staying with Loretta for an annual commemoration of Dumas' life and work that he helps organize every year on the anniversary of the shooting. Bringing together Dumas' friends and family over poetry readings and jazz performances, Redmond, a Pushcart Prize recipient and the author of 25 books of poetry, has carried the torch for Dumas alongside his own teaching and writing career.

"Every time I stepped into a classroom after I met him, I had a turntable," said Redmond, who said he picked up on Dumas' tradition of playing music 15 minutes before each of his classes began. "Every class that I taught, I published the students in a spiral-bound or saddle-stitched booklet. I got that from him." Redmond fondly recalls eating raw honey and listening to jazz with Dumas, to whom he attributes his love of some of the era's greatest musicians, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane. "At the time," Redmond said, "he seemed to be at the farthest most forward point of what black expression, black culture, and black people were all about."

In his day-to-day life, Dumas insisted on making space for himself — and forcing others to acknowledge his right to exist. "He would even walk around East St. Louis and other places, and ask, 'Do you see me? Feel my arm. I'm here, ain't I?'" said Leak, who conducted many interviews with those close to Dumas for his book. "His point was: We're not invisible. The idea is a direct corollary to Black Lives Matter, the idea that flesh and blood do matter, and we're going to insist on being seen and being heard."

Redmond hopes the Black Lives Matter movement will help introduce Dumas to a whole new audience and help bolster the foundation that the movement rests upon. "You gotta have someplace to come from before you know where you're going," he says.

Beenish Ahmed covers international affairs for ThinkProgress. She's also the founder of THE ALIGNIST, a new media venture aimed at bringing literature into conversation with current events. Follow her on Twitter.