Henry Dumas was able to penetrate, almost like an archeologist, those areas that comprise the extraordinary, varied experiences of black people of all ages. He was brilliant. He was magnetic and he was an incredible artist

Echo Tree CMYK
Henry Dumas, Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas, Coffee House Press, 2003.

Henry Dumas’s fiction is a masterful synthesis of myth and religion, culture and nature, mask and identity. From the Deep South to the simmering streets of Harlem, his characters embark on surreal and mythic quests armed with only their wit, words, and wisdom. With an astonishing ear for language, Dumas creates a mythology of the psychological, spiritual, and political development of African American culture by interweaving elements of Christian metaphor, African tradition, southern folklore, American music and America’s history of slavery and endemic racism. Although championed by many great writers of his generation, Dumas’s books have long been out of print. For the first time and on the 35th anniversary of Henry Dumas’s death, all of his short fiction is collected here, including several previously unpublished stories.

“[Henry Dumas] had completed work, the quality and quantity of which are almost never achieved in several lifetimes... He was brilliant. He was magnetic and he was an incredible artist….[Dumas] was able to penetrate, almost like an archeologist, those areas that comprise the extraordinary, varied experiences of black people of all ages. I don’t know too many young men or young people who could write about old people the way he does, or write about love the way he does, or write about very young black boys the way he does. It’s extraordinary.”—Toni Morrison

It is hard to think about Henry Dumas without being haunted by the mystery of his early death. On May 23, 1968, Dumas was seated in a Harlem subway station awaiting his train, fresh from a rehearsal of Sun Ra’s Arkestra (Sun Ra was a good friend, and his experimental jazz was a strong influence on Dumas’s own version of Afro-surrealism). Then, after some sort of confrontation—perhaps involving a case of mistaken identity—a New York Transit Authority policeman shot and killed the 33-year-old Dumas. The circumstances remain murky and probably always will, since there was little investigation into the incident at the time. There had been much civil unrest and many confrontations between the police and black people since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. seven weeks earlier, and Dumas was just a minor writer whose work had appeared in journals off the radar of the mainstream population—small, civil rights–friendly magazines like Freedomways, Negro Digest, and Umbra.
There’s something sobering, even chilling, in the way that Dumas’s work—which patiently diagnosed the violence of everyday life in America and imaginatively searched for a way out of old cycles of revenge and retribution—could not keep him from becoming a casualty of the very forces he diagnosed. That he died so soon after King was a brutal but fitting coincidence—and, in another twist of fate, was part of the wrenching pressures that led many black radicals to reconsider their commitment to nonviolent protest in the mid-to-late ’60s.
Now, with the publication of Dumas’s collected short stories in Echo Tree, readers can take some measure of the loss, and also of the legacy. Dumas was a movement writer, and his fiction underscores the wide range of energies unloosed by the civil-rights and Black Power movements. A vital member of the writers’ groups that were at the core of the Black Arts movement, the cultural wing of Black Power, Dumas was inspired by the call to “speak black truth to white power”; he steeped himself in African-American and African folklore to get a deeper sense of his cultural inheritance and pass it on. Yet to appreciate Dumas as a Black Arts figure means also, as John S. Wright suggests in Echo Tree’s perceptive introduction, to reappraise that cultural movement; we need to clear a space free of the familiar images of righteous militancy (Huey on his throne with a rifle to his right and a spear to his left, Angela with her fist in the air) that have become shorthand for the black radicalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Dumas’s truth came in riddles—fiction that was at once elusive and persuasive. Dumas’s stories are parables by and large, and they reveal the wildly speculative and broodingly contemplative aspects of the Black Arts movement. By turns droll, poignant, surreal, and unflinching in their examination of the rituals and ordeals of black life, the stories are united mostly by their refusal to revel in anything except the richness of the imagination. Dumas’s preference for open-ended tales may help explain how he has attracted a crowd of admirers—Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Maya Angelou, Melvin Van Peebles, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Arnold Rampersad—who agree on little beyond their enthusiasm for his work. Dumas’s writing can be a point of origin for any number of journeys.
Take “Devil Bird,” which, like many of Echo Tree’s tales, revolves around a scene of puzzling initiation and works by teasing the reader into a state of ethical uncertainty. At the beginning of the story, a young boy is interrupted while reading a comic book—an illustrated version of the David and Goliath tale—by a knock on the door. His father opens it without asking who’s there, as if he were expecting someone, and Satan walks in. He wears iridescent formal clothes, prances around with a tapering rod that ignites anything it touches, and trails a gust of hot air. The Devil has come, as it happens, to play a game of whist, whose outcome seems to bear on the fate of the boy’s grandfather, a minister who is bedridden and groaning with pain in the next room.
At this point the story becomes truly curious—more than a morality tale with sparkling costumes and inventive props. There is another knock on the door, and God arrives in the person of Satan’s whist partner, a tall man with dimmed eyes, hunched posture, and shabby clothes. After much consultation with a rulebook that occupies pride of place in the front room, God and the Devil join together in their card game against the boy’s parents and, as might be expected, start routing them. The grandfather rises from his bed and takes over for the mother at the table, but he is so weak that he can barely hold his cards, and anyway, he prefers to cry out for God to forgive and bless the Negro people than to play the game. But the game must be played: the Devil conjures up a crow with his rod and, as the grandfather appeals for God’s mercy, the bird hops about on the tabletop, picking out cards from the grandfather’s hand with his beak and playing them, all the while bowing like a vaudeville performer trying to milk his audience for applause. Soon the game is lost; God and the Devil escort the grandfather away to his fate. Frustrated and angry, the boy seizes the Devil’s rod and chases the bird, which disappears in a puff of foul smoke when the boy jabs it. But the boy is haunted by the bird’s final protest—“You must remember that I am a prophet, and not a bird”—and by the mystery of the bird’s voice. It sounds like someone he knows, but who?
“Devil Bird” has all the hallmarks of Dumas’s short fiction: it avoids the register of conventional realism and works in a realm of fantasy that can be ridiculous, terrifying, or both at once; the motivations of its characters are at times intricately drawn and at others subsumed into the broad humor of the folk tale; it is supremely concerned with ethics but delivers its ethical lesson in the form of an unresolved and provocative parable; and it is narrated by someone young and unprepared for the strange knowledge coming his way yet who has no choice but to be initiated into it. The young boy here wishes to believe in the story of David and Goliath, a parable of the underdog’s triumph, but instead has to grapple with a moral universe in which God and the Devil are business partners, in which even the most upright souls have struck a Faustian bargain, and in which fate is bound up with the luck of the draw. To move from the comic book to the rulebook is to move from childhood to adulthood—but an adulthood haunted by the teasing spirit of the blues, here embodied in a trickster crow that performs the devil’s bidding and wants credit for doing it with style. The bird may be the voice of the devil, but it is not the devil’s only voice. We as readers are sad to see the farcical bird disappear in a cloud of sulfurous smoke, perhaps even sadder than we are to see the ever-pious grandfather make his forced exit. Our allegiances, like the boy’s, are everywhere and nowhere at once.
“Devil Bird” may be typical Dumas, but none of the 31 stories in Echo Tree can stand fully for the rest. Echo Tree is a grab bag of forms, and its range reveals a writer given to experimentation. Eugene B. Redmond must be commended for his dogged 35-year dedication to the manuscripts that Dumas left behind at his death, which have now resulted in two collections of short stories (Ark of Bones, Rope of Wind), a pieced-together novel (Jonoah and the Green Stone), a collection of poetry (Play Ebony Play Ivory), and one omnibus collection (Goodbye, Sweetwater). Given that the Dumas archive has already been so deeply mined, it is surprising to discover here a vein that was waiting to be tapped—seven previously unpublished stories, at least one of which (“Scout”) is among Dumas’s finest.
Unfortunately, what Redmond has not given us, perhaps since Dumas had no chance to organize his papers and reveal such things, is a historical account of Dumas’s trajectory as a writer. The stories are organized along chains of thematic resonance—a set of Arkansas stories is grouped together, for example—but not in any kind of chronological order; there are no notes to document where a story first appeared in print, no notes to explain which tales were written in the early ’60s and which were written later (although most of the stories set in New York City feel very much post–Watts riots). And the stories themselves, running the gamut from visionary science fiction to well-wrought tales that end in Joycean anticlimax, do not offer up a clear sense of before and after. A sympathetic reader might say that the organization of Echo Tree reveals the open-ended nature of Dumas’s quest rather than any particular sequence of his solutions. But reading Echo Tree cover to cover is a disorienting experience; one is tossed from genre to genre without much sense of direction.
The great dividing line in Dumas’s work may be between those fictions that admit the supernatural and those that do not. Dumas considered himself one of Sun Ra’s coreligionists, and the supernatural side of his work can be seen as the literary equivalent of Sun Ra’s music, motivated as it is by the desire to re-enchant the world by offering up an alternative cosmology. For Sun Ra, re-enchantment meant taking his Arkestra and his audience on a sonic journey to Saturn, a theosophical paradise realized through the Afro-futurist ritual of his concerts; Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) claimed that he was gifted with this vision of an alternate reality by being born on Saturn, and he never stepped out of character, never became Mr. Blount for a day.
Likewise, in Dumas’s tales of the supernatural, the magic is meant to be believed; we get little of the narrative undecidability of the modernist ghost story, in which the reader is torn between rational and supernatural explanations for the trembling of the floorboards and the whistling of the wind (think The Turn of the Screw). In fact, we are led to believe that we doubt this magic at our own risk. In “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” three white fans of the jazz saxophonist Probe think they can withstand the higher vibrations of his enchanted saxophone but find themselves lulled into the sleep of death when he lets loose with his music. And in “Echo Tree” a boy who refuses to believe that his dead brother Leo still has a spirit life is threatened with being turned into a “bino”—a fate so horrible that it can only be named, not described. As these two examples suggest, in Dumas’s short stories soullessness is identified with whiteness, which in turn is linked to a skepticism about the world of the occult.
Magic offers a way of giving power to the powerless, and certainly this is one function of magic in the stories—to exact a kind of decisive justice, as when, in “Fon,” flaming arrows whiz from the sky and dispatch a group of would-be lynchers. At the same time, most of Dumas’s supernatural tales do not give easy comfort to the afflicted: in “Devil Bird,” the rulebook is able to be rewritten, its injunctions tailored to the occasion, and the implication is that the power of magic, like the power of writing, is morally ambiguous. In “The Bewitching Bag, or How the Man Escaped from Hell,” a man must learn to use the Devil’s own magic bag to break out of his clutches. And even the most benevolent magic in Dumas has a kind of unsettling force, since it is connected to a traumatic and repressed history. In “Ark of Bones,” perhaps Dumas’s most famous tale, the young narrator is visited along the Mississippi’s edge by a huge “soulboat,” a vessel whose lower chambers are full of human bones, scrupulously stacked and organized; he then watches spellbound as the boatmen pull more bones from the river. The tale brings the horror of the Middle Passage into the present, connecting the human losses of the slave trade with the brutalities of the Jim Crow south, and its ending seems to underline the difficulty of living out the obligations of that vision: the narrator’s friend Headeye is called to join the boat and is never heard from or seen again. While the story does not rue Headeye’s disappearance, it is built on the irony that Headeye’s urge to commemorate the past turns him, in effect, into another ghost. By communing with the dead, Headeye steps out of time—and out of the world of the living.
Most of Dumas’s supernatural tales are set in the South, anticipating the regionalist turn of black writers in the 1970s, when many novelists took up Alice Walker’s advice to go “in search of our mothers’ gardens” and began setting their work in a vividly imagined South full of neighborliness, folk wisdom, and unfinished spiritual business. Toni Morrison in particular was a key booster of Dumas’s legacy during her tenure as an editor at Random House (she published Dumas’s first two books), and Echo Tree makes clear the affinity between the two writers: both set their fiction in closed, village-like worlds, where kids travel in packs, neighbors are neighbors, and the mass media is nowhere in evidence; and both are interested in bringing together in their characters the wisdom of practical “good sense” and of superstition. Yet Dumas’s village is also quite different from Morrison’s, and not simply because Dumas tends to put the plight of young men at the center of his fictions. Dumas’s stories often end with an intimation of pained wisdom, as if making a concerted effort to avoid an inspiring cadence, rather than with the promise of transcendence or the discovery of a beloved community. In “Fon,” for instance, the character who is saved from a lynching marches off into the night, kicking the earth; in “Thrust Counter Thrust” the young man at its center ponders how he has lost his brother to the army and observes that “the stars were out like frozen tears.” The magic-realist strain in Dumas injects impossible events into the narrative, since it is through the impossible event that the wrenching paradoxes of history are revealed; but the magic is not so powerful that it procures an uplifting ending.
What does it say, then, that Dumas’s Northern tales, which make up a third of the collection, rarely have recourse to magic? In these stories, the violence is more diffuse and the villains harder to locate, but the overall mood tends to be bleaker than in the Southern tales. Here Dumas seems to have been interested in the poetics of insurrection—what brings a group of people to question their allegiance to the state, how they act on that disaffection, and how those actions are then subsumed into a narrative of the past. (As one of his newly discovered stories asks in its title, “Riot or Revolt?”) Several of these fictions feel less finished than the others—fragments that clutch at an atmosphere but have a negligible narrative arc. “Strike and Fade,” for instance, is a characteristic Dumas tale of initiation, here told from the point of view of a young man looking for instruction from a Vietnam veteran on the art of guerrilla resistance, but its brevity (five pages) speaks to the thinness of its description: the veteran’s advice—“If you don’t organize you ain’t nothin but a rioter, a looter”—is absorbed and then acted upon, as if self-organization were a simple matter of will. While magic spirits work as forces of unity in the Southern tales, here the higher consciousness of shared struggle does the heavy lifting, and it is heavy indeed. Perhaps Dumas, as a committed political activist, turned to realism in these Northern tales because he wished to offer up a blueprint for revolution, but the problem with a blueprint from a reader’s perspective is precisely its schematic quality. Dumas’s tales of the fantastic are, in their own way, more believable than some of these Northern fictions.
We will never know how Dumas would have responded to the twists of late-’60s and early-’70s culture—the proliferation of groups aspiring to leadership of the black community, the emergence of a radical black feminist movement, the surprising popularity of soul music and blaxploitation film—but Echo Tree suggests that he was at his best when he allowed himself to be less than fully serious, when he explored the dialogue between pleasure and pain. The story “Scout” turns that dialogue into a bit of sparkling repartee: it pivots on a tale told by a scoutmaster to a scout, wherein the scoutmaster—as a young boy of the narrator’s age—finds himself repeatedly humiliated on the day of a Juneteenth parade. Given money by his parents, the scoutmaster hopes to go and buy “scouting equipment” but is instead lured up to an apartment, where a young woman engages him in a cat-and-mouse game of seduction, teasing him for his naivete and eventually ejecting him; then, in the streets of the city, he is attacked and robbed by another scout, who has the amazing sense to know that he is carrying his money in his shoe.
The story ends with a mystery: did the scoutmaster, after being robbed, return to the apartment and the woman, and is that why he recounts the story with private bemusement? Or is it because he has the distance to see the initiation in all its rough-and-tumble comedy? The narrator cannot say, but he has also just heard a Juneteenth sermon on the street that gives its own parabolic answer: “If a man knows where he’s going, and he’s guidin’ himself, then he’s a free man. If a man is free, he is alone, yet among free men, loneliness is a bond.” The scoutmaster and his scout tramp off through the city, together and alone at once, under a “strange flame” of moonlight that suggests Dumas’s unique mode of illumination. - Scott Saul

Henry Dumas, Goodbye Sweetwater: New & Selected Stories, Thunder's Mouth Press,  1988.                          

These excellent short stories will introduce the late Dumas, who was killed in 1968 at the age of 33 by a New York City transit police officer, to a wider audience as a profoundly gifted and intelligent author. His settings range from the small towns of the rural South to the explosive streets of Harlem in the late 1960s. The civil rights activist imbues his stories with myth and folklore, rightful anger and delineations of the inequities that exist for blacks in America. The author's invocation of the ethos of his people lends an honesty to the writings on racial tensions, yet never lapses into narrow-mindedness, and his trenchant rendering of pain, love, religious and family life is universally appealing. His rhythmic, eloquent style is both arresting and unique in its capacity to drive home the prophetic messages that inform his prose. From the young Southern boy named Fish-hound in the eerie "Ark of Bones"who is told by an old Noah-like man, "Son, you are in the house of generations. Every African who lives in America has a part of his soul in this ark"to the teenage narrator of "Strike and Fade"a powerfully sketched glimpse of inner-city turmoil, who proclaims, "I'm hurtin too much. I'm lettin my heat go down into my soul. When it comes up again, I won't be limpin"Dumas never fails to capture the spirit and collective consciousness of his beloved people. Portions of this book were previously published in Ark of Bones, Rope of Wind and Jonoah and the Green Stone.

Dumas, a novelist and short story writer, was "accidentally" shot and killed by a policeman in 1968. This collection, bringing together previously published and unpublished pieces, represents the variety, quality, and texture of his prose. Dumas richly depicts the lives of rural and urban black Americans , giving equal consideration and depth to the complexity of Sixties political activism and the truths of folk knowledge. His attention to language is a sustained exploration of how different forms of English can convey diverse versions of lived experience and knowledge, unsettling conventional categories of value. - Mollie Brodsky

Henry Dumas, The Knees of a Natural Man: Collected PoetryThunder's Mouth Press, 1989.

This substantial volume of poems is a cultural revelation that unfolds a history: "I was a mist in the caverns/ of your mind/ I was without shape, without sound,/ without color, without depth,/ without voice,/and then I heard distant voices/ moaning in the night,/ and I felt my people calling me." Here the singing language as well as the motifs clearly bring to mind thepoetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. How well Dumas's mystic quality reels in the mind, how highly controlled his lines: "With a line of blood,/ a thread of weeping and moaning,/ a strain of song." This book belongs in every serious literature collection. - Lenard D. Moore

Poems by Henry Dumas

Jeffrey B. Leak, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, University of Georgia Press, 2014

Henry Dumas (1934–1968) was a writer who did not live to see most of his fiction and poetry in print. A son of Sweet Home, Arkansas, and Harlem, he devoted himself to the creation of a black literary cosmos, one in which black literature and culture were windows into the human condition. While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s—Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights—his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions.
Dumas was shot and killed in 1968 in Harlem months before his thirty-fourth birthday by a white transit policeman under circumstances never fully explained. After his death he became a kind of literary legend, but one whose full story was unknown. A devoted cadre of friends and later admirers from the 1970s to the present pushed for the publication of his work. Toni Morrison championed him as “an absolute genius.” Amiri Baraka, a writer not quick to praise others, claimed that Dumas produced “actual art, real, man, and stunning.” Eugene Redmond and Quincy Troupe heralded Dumas’s poetry, short stories, and work as an editor of “little” magazines.
With Visible Man, Jeffrey B. Leak offers a full examination of both Dumas’s life and his creative development. Given unprecedented access to the Dumas archival materials and numerous interviews with family, friends, and writers who knew him in various contexts, Leak opens the door to Dumas’s rich and at times frustrating life, giving us a layered portrait of an African American writer and his coming of age during one of the most volatile and transformative decades in American history.

Every article about Henry Dumas starts with May 23, 1968, the day he was shot and killed by a policeman on a New York City subway platform. The articles, essays and introductions written about him have given us a sense of what was lost on that day, lauding his posthumously published writings – collected in works like Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (compiled by his friend and literary executor Eugene Redmond), the story collection Goodbye, Sweetwater, and the poetry collection Play Ebony, Play Ivory. Henry Dumas’s death is inextricably linked to his work, but with recent political developments there’s now an opportunity to move beyond it, revisit his writing, and introduce him to a new generation of readers, writers and activists. One of these days, we’ll be able to talk about Henry Dumas without starting with his tragic death. One of these days, he will be familiar enough to us that we won’t need to recite the circumstances of his killing every time we write about him. But we’re not there yet.
The work of recovering a writer like Henry Dumas from the oblivion of white supremacy’s history is part of the longer game of a #BlackLivesMatter movement, and an extension of a black intellectual tradition that has always operated on the margins of the mainstream academy with its generational reproduction of anti-black thought. Jeffrey Leak’s new biography, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, from the University of Georgia Press last year, fills a hole in black literary history, showing us a brilliant, complex man who evolved in his artistry over his short life and left us with a lively, engaging body of work. This biography of Dumas has arrived like a gift from the past for a moment of protests and conversations about police brutality and the value of black life in America. The roll call of unarmed black people killed by police during arrest, or while in custody, is painful and numerous, and extends long before the most recent publicized events in the past two years. But while police brutality was the catalyst, #BlackLivesMatter has never been just about the police. It’s a movement that addresses all the ways that black lives are devalued and destroyed by white supremacy, even from within.
Jeffrey Leak doesn’t shy away from the unsavory details of Dumas’s life. He was no stranger to the demons of self-destruction, particularly in his later years when alcoholism and drug use began to corrode some of his closest relationships. He struggled with artistic insecurities, and had difficulty balancing his artistic ambitions with his family life. Dumas put that pain into his work, showing characters fighting against the stranglehold of white supremacy on their bodies, spirits and minds. But in his work there’s also a celebration of all the glories and contradictions of black culture, religions and politics. There’s a record of the black struggle over the course of the 20th century, a tension between the South and the promises and setbacks of life in the North. And there’s a supernatural and futuristic vision of a world beyond the mundane, a cosmic spiritual sensibility.
In bursts of insight recorded in short stories – some only a few pages long, others reading like sketches of novellas – and in lyrical poems that borrow from a broad range of African-American poetics, from the modernism of the Harlem Renaissance, to the defiantly free-form poetry of the Black Arts Movement, Henry Dumas’s work encapsulates all of the major themes of 20th century black literature, and even anticipates future tropes of 21st century urban life, computer technology and space exploration.
His story “Rope of Wind” is an evocative lynching tale about a young boy who witnesses the murder of a local black man. The gruesome details of the killing are reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane and its presentation of the quotidian ugliness of Southern racial violence. It’s a story about the terrorism of the South and the lost innocence of black youth. “A Boll of Roses” depicts the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the South, with Northern activists coming down to Southern cotton fields to interview and organize people, and black Southerners struggling to make sense of what the presence and activities of these “outsiders” would mean for them. I am struck by how “the North” exists as a constant presence in these Dumas stories set in the South, the way its glittering cities occupied the imagination of black Southerners as they pondered how city life changed those who moved away, and how it might change them if they decided to follow. For young Southerners coming of age in the early 20th century, the idea of moving up North was imbued with a sense of promise, excitement, fear and wariness all at once.
Dumas’s family moved to Harlem when he was ten, and he returned to live in New York after his time in the Air Force and several years as an on-and-off student at Rutgers. His stories of urban life are just as compelling as the ones set in the South. “Harlem” is among the eeriest of these urban stories, given his infamous death. It begins on a subway train with a young intellectual named Harold Kane, who steps out onto the vibrant Harlem streets and is enchanted by the legendary sidewalk orators of 125th Street, including one Elder Dawud. There he hears exhortations about black knowledge and self-determination, and is swept up in Harlem’s lively and challenging intellectual milieu. Like in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Dumas depicts Harlem as a passionate, lyrical place full of the promise of the future, yet haunted by the ghosts of the past. The story ends on an ominous note with a police shooting of a black youth, followed by the beginnings of a riot, a sequence of events repeated in Harlem and other chocolate cities of America.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” first appeared in Negro Digest, in a 1966 issue focused on the “meaning and measure of black power.” In this story, an avant-garde jazz musician named Probe plays his ancient Afro-Horn, an instrument with mystical powers, at the Sound Barrier Club. On that particular night, three white hipsters who claimed to be friends with Probe manage to maneuver their way into the black-only club to hear him play. In the end, the instrument’s power proves to be deadly for the white patrons, and they collapse and die from hearing the music. Leak suggests the story is “signifying” on Norman Mailer’s argument in “The White Negro” about how the white hipster lives vicariously through the black experience. Leak also reads into the story Dumas’s own ambivalence about his extra-marital relationship with Lois Silber, a white woman he met at Rutgers who encouraged his writing, and his ambivalence toward the white bohemians with whom he occasionally associated. The story certainly brings to mind some of the conversations about white privilege and white alliance that have circulated within and around the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Like other Dumas stories it also bears an intellectual history of Afrocentric thought developing in his time, as black scholars and artists explored the idea of the African past and African “survivals” in contemporary black culture.
For me, some of the most moving and perceptive of Henry Dumas’s writings are his poems, most recently collected in Play Ebony, Play Ivory—“play ebony, play ivory/all my people who are keys and chords.” They include a series of Langston Hughes-esque blues poems, including “Outer Space Blues,” a poem dedicated to and inspired by Sun Ra, and “Machines Can Do It Too (IBM Blues),” a blues inspired by his stint working as a Multilith operator for IBM in Dayton, New Jersey. The latter poem articulates the anxieties of human labor being replaced by automation in the industrial age, and seems to anticipate some of the anxieties of our own time, when machines are taking over cognitive and affective labor as well. It ends with lines that call to mind the creepy Spike Jones artificial intelligence film Her, “Let me tell you people, tell you what I have to do/Let me tell it like it is people/ tell you what I have to do / If I find a machine in bed with me/ that’s the time I’m through.”
This (Afro)futuristic vision of Dumas’s writing has something to offer to the bibliography of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It was through Sun Ra that I first encountered the name Henry Dumas, on the syllabus for Ra’s “Black Man in the Cosmos,” a course he taught as an artist-in-residence in 1971 at UC BerkeleyThe syllabus is recreated in John Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.. Among the books of literature, history and esoteric philosophy on that syllabus were Dumas’s Ark of Bones (a story collection) and Poetry for My People, the only two books of his writing available at the time. Dumas himself met Sun Ra sometime around 1965. He attended the Arkestra’s shows at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village, and eventually befriended the cosmic bandleader. They collaborated on a 1966 recorded interview at Slug’s called watch it here “The Ark and the Ankh.” Dumas was already working in the same Afro-Baptist tradition that Ra came from, had already tapped into the black nationalism of the 1960s, and was already exploring spiritual alternatives to his Christian upbringing. In the biography Jeffrey Leak analyzes an unpublished essay that Dumas wrote while stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1954 where he observed Muslim religious practices and revised some of his own prejudices informed by derogatory depictions of Arabs in American pop culture. Eventually Sun Ra’s philosophy led him even further along the path toward cosmic consciousness. Though his years with Sun Ra were brief, Dumas’s most mature work in short stories and poems show a distinct engagement with an Afrofuturistic thought, as he took up an interest in the African languages and spiritual practices and melded them with Sun Ra’s unique brand of black futurism.
Ytasha L. Womack, in the anthology Afrofuturism, describes this movement as one which “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.” Afrofuturism seems to be in its maturity as an artistic movement with museum shows, film festivals, a plethora of blogs and other digital media, university sponsored panels, and a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. The Sun Ra Arkestra itself, now led by the 91 year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, keeps plugging along with an impressive tour schedule that has the band regularly circling the globe. Parliament Funkadelic, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, DJ Spooky, and many others have been clustered together in this critical field.
But there are skeptics. In his own time, Sun Ra’s burlesque was dismissed by some black folks as frivolous, escapist nonsense. I’ve also heard similar grumblings about Afrofuturism among black intellectuals. I recall a conversation with a black writer at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair who insisted that the popularity of Afrofuturism is a sign that the black left is “out of ideas,” that young black artists retreat into this spiritual mumbo-jumbo because they have no answers for the stifling structural inequalities that entrap black people in poverty and incarceration. Her challenge has been buzzing in my ear ever since. Certainly a movement like this, with its visions of outer space and alternate realities, hazards becoming a newer, hipper version of the same pie-in-the-sky theology of the black church, with Heaven being replaced by The Mothership.
But I don’t think Henry Dumas, Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic or Octavia Butler were ever out of ideas, nor are the artists being inspired by them today. In fact, it seems the #BlackLivesMatter movement is directly drawing on Afrofuturism’s theories of black mythmaking, on the importance of creating alternatives to the iconography, culture and thought of white supremacy. Accusations of escapism have been lobbied against nearly all forms of artistic expression when faced with the material realities of injustice and oppression. (“Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” goes the mangled aphorism attributed to Theodor Adorno.)
In the refrain of #BlackLivesMatter, I hear what Sun Ra referred to as The Alter-Destiny, a new way of thinking and being that diverges from the destructiveness of life as it exists on the planet now. In the film Space is the Place he asks the people who come to his OuterSpaceways Incorporated, “are you ready to alter your destiny?” And in one of my favorite tunes he says that the way to alter your destiny is to “find fate when fate is in a pleasant mood.”
Though this movement is driven by the brutal murders of black people at the hands of the police, by mass incarceration and by ongoing structural inequality, Fate seems to be in a pleasant mood for a movement that is syncing up the energy of youth activism with new communications technologies. At its best this movement is seeking alternatives to the relentless incarceration of the prison industrial complex, and the over-criminalization of black and brown people. This is a movement that is challenging some of the orthodoxies of the black old guard as well, revising their sexism and homophobia, taking the concerns of black feminist and queer activism seriously, and rejecting black pathology discourses that hinge on respectability for inclusion.
One Dumas story perfectly connects Afrofuturism and #BlackLivesMatter in this way—his “Ark of Bones,” a posthumously recovered story that speaks to the trajectory of his own writing. Narrated by a young black boy named Fish-Hound, and featuring his close friend Headeye, who seems to have a gift for the supernatural, the two young boys encounter a mysterious boat drifting down the Mississippi River. They board the ghost ship and find that it is staffed by strange people gathering up the bones of the black dead, from the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. The story contains elements of Dumas’s own theological background (at one point he was on track to become a minister), directly referencing the biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones. It also contains elements of his Afrocentric cosmology, as one of the elders on the boat tells them, “Every African who lives in America has a part of his soul in this ark.”
The story dramatizes what the archivist Arturo Schomburg wrote about in “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” that the recovery of black history is a vital, necessary political act for a people who have been told they have no meaningful history. Toni Morrison deserves credit for her role in bringing Dumas’s work into print as an editor at Random House, publishing the first story and poetry collections. And now Jeffrey Leak has performed an important recovery of Dumas’s biography, gathering up the bones of his work in letters, interviews and manuscripts to recreate a narrative of a life lost too soon.
Recovering that history is an important part of the Alter-Destiny, building a future based upon a past different from the one catalogued in white supremacy’s history books. The enterprise of black literature has always been one of building a creative and intellectual tradition around the works of writers whose lives and works have been heretofore ignored and lost. The way Henry Dumas died matters, for too many familiar reasons. But hopefully we will also come to appreciate the fullness of his life, and the luminous writing that he left for us to light our path toward the future. -

Whenever I see a new account of this or that police department going to the shooting range with targets made from the mug shots of black men and women, I think of this odd passage of Tolstoy,
I learnt to ride a bicycle in a hall large enough to drill a division of soldiers. At the other end of the hall a lady was learning. I thought I must be careful to avoid getting into her way, and began looking at her. And as I looked at her I began unconsciously getting nearer and nearer to her, and in spite of the fact that, noticing the danger, she hastened to retreat, I rode down upon her and knocked her down—that is, I did the very opposite of what I wanted to do, simply because I concentrated my attention upon her.
Tolstoy was trying to explain Chekhov’s odd, brief story, “The Darling,” but no matter. The great Russian landed where he needed to, exploring his own deep and human capacity for error.
Henry Dumas, a writer who never published a book within his own short lifetime who was nonetheless praised and published by no less than Toni Morrison outside it, was shot and killed by New York City Transit Police Officer in 1968. For those who need the tangible to prove that we lose something when people die, the fiction of Henry Dumas works well.
Dumas was, among other things, a writer of that inarguable feature of African-American life: the encounter with white people. Dumas returned to this theme again and again, trying it on for size, playing it left-handed or right, for horror, for drama, in long form or in short, but always looping back round to uncover what fresh hell, that intersection meant for his characters. Reading his work, noting all his themes, its still hard not to feel that his preoccupation with it bordered on obsession.
And why not? It’s one of the most American of all themes. And, unlike the conflict between man and nature, the encounter between black and white is borne out day after day after day in numbers that literature cannot try to equal and should not. For all the tragedies we have read about and talked about in this time of increased awareness that began, perhaps, with that encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, share in common the fact that—for every African-American in question—nothing was sought at all. Going on their particular path, but there was someone in the way. Dumas is already apart from these people, for he saw that encounter as inescapable. Dumas, if he knew them, would’ve heard the portent in Thoreau’s words to Emerson,
What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.
I grew up in Mississippi, never fully realizing that that meant I grew up alongside more people for whom this was a reality—day to day—that many other whites growing up in other parts of the county will know in a lifetime. One quick anecdote of the kind of encounter that never rises to headlines, but for a number of our citizens is simply routine: that is, they may be called to account at any time by individuals with no particular authority. How they answer—even whether they answer—is something they must weigh with imperfect knowledge.
When I was in line at age 18 to register for the selective service, a friend from school fell in behind me. Although we’d never been at each other’s birthday parties growing up, I knew his birthday was very close to mine. We nodded and noted that we were both there for the same reason, to sign a piece of paper that gave the government peculiar powers over our futures. We both expressed some discomfort with that. There were other people in line and we were speaking freely in conversational tones.
I cannot say for certain when he arrived, but no sooner had this conversation ended than the old, old man behind us in line asked my friend a question in a way that made it absolutely clear he expected an answer. I thought we were both caught off guard, my friend and I. But my friend, of course, was black—and had lived all his life in a world where if an old white man asked a question, it was best to quickly come up with an answer.
“Don’t you want to serve your country?” This man asked. He was old enough at the time that he had likely lived his 1960s in open defiance of the federal government.
My friend answered without hesitation, “Yessir, but I don’t trust my country to send me where I need to go.”
The old man hung his head, “You’ve got that right, I guess.”
I’ve often marveled at this quick and perfect answer, how it defused the white man’s superior claim of patriotism with a shared distrust of government in an era still colored by Vietnam. The old white man had never even acknowledged me, but now he and my friend shared their odd agreement like fellowship. I was stupefied then, and have never really stopped being stupefied by the peculiar tones and overtones of that encounter.
Henry Dumas would’ve been right at home in it.
I first learned of Henry Dumas reading Hilton Als’s essay collection, White Girls. In a passing aside, he mentions the best story Dumas ever wrote, “Ark of Bones,” a story I’ll come back to later. But in the moment when I first googled Henry Dumas, I was sure I’d landed on something you could draw a very bright line from or to. Here was the writer for these things, I thought, and I wonder why no one has brought him up. He was a writer shot dead by a policeman, right? But as I went on, things became more complicated rather than less, and what you have before you now is the result.
As a slow writer, I often fret over whether I can bring this or that rumination to completion while it still bears that one-to-one relevance editors seem to prize so much. One of the ugliest thoughts I’ve ever had as a writer—and writing is a practice owing much to ugly thoughts—was that a piece on white people killing black people offered me as much room as I could possibly need. I had a rolling deadline, with a nod to the original, prisoner-of-war parlance from which that term springs. Relevance would be renewed.
And it has been. I began thinking about this piece living in Maitland, Florida, driving my Subaru up to Sanford past the assembled media village presiding over Zimmerman’s exoneration. I bought my copy of Goodbye, Sweetwater in Jacksonville’s miraculous Chamblin Bookmine, while it was the city of Michael Dunn shooting Jordan Davis, where Marissa Alexander was hounded by the same Angela Corey who seemed unable to convict white for black under any set of circumstances.
I moved north to Massachusetts. Struggled through winter, thinking, writing, shoveling. Every month offered new footage, a new name. Still I dithered. The topic waited and grew, terribly, as anyone paying any attention knew that it would.
I’m not going to go over Dumas’s life story laboriously here, that’s not much I can hope to better than Jeffrey B. Leak in his recent biography, Visible Man, but I do want to throw out a few passages by Henry Dumas, because I think he is one of the writers we need now. To remind us that, for a huge portion of our citizenry, every potential encounter or trip to the grocery story or traffic ticket or conversation is a fraught thing. Potentially a very fraught thing.
Dumas is the great writer of an idea that it’s hard to be white and recognize: for a black person, historically, every white person has been a hole in the universe through which they may fall, vanish, cease to be. Many still live this way today, but all can be brought back, awoken to the fact of it by luck so malevolent we wouldn’t believe it without footage.
In a story called “Rope of Wind,” a deputy and vigilantes come upon a boy, Johnny B. Though they are looking for Reverend Eastland to lynch him, they are astonished that the Johnny B. is so instantly fearful. That he regards them with absolute dread.
“I’m gonna run,” he said to the man. He was surprised at how calm the words sounded. Maybe he wasnt afraid. “I’m gonna run.”
“Dont run, boy, I’m not going to hurt you. My name’s Jackson, I’m Asa Jackson’s new deputy, beside being his nephew. Now, you…”
The other man was coming. “Ask him if he knows ‘em, and come on! We aint got all nite!”
“Looky here, boy, where bouts is the house of an old colored man by the name of Eastland? You know, boy? Now, where does he live?”
Johnny B leaped forward and was gone into the nite. It was like he was thinking. They’re after somebody…Eastland? Johnny B didn’t know him. The man was hollering at him. Johnny B. looked back. He thought he saw one of the men aiming a gun at him…he dropped to the ground, still running on all fours…They ain’t coming, he thought, they aint running after me, might send a bullet, dont hear no dogs, might send a bullet.
Johnny B. warns Eastland, but the lynching transpires just the same. Yet that highest register of this encounter by itself would only represent the occasional, and Dumas is an artist of the constant, for it is the constant and the unfailing out of which the most damning incarceration is constructed: lynchings always only underscored a much larger point. The workaday encounter is somehow worse, then, because it is so unremarkable. 
Here, then are four men, having finished a job on a road gang, traveling home. They find themselves at a farmhouse with nobody home. They help themselves to water from a well, only to encounter the homeowner farther along the road. He suspects them of everything, of nothing, of drinking his water, an old and existential sin, it appears,
Then he got up a shotgun.
“You niggers come long this road a far piece?”
Fish stood straight now and came towards us. I though he was gonna say something, but Grease beat him to it.
“Naw, sir, we just come off that hill.” He pointed it. “We tryin to get to the creek, but I tole ‘em we passed the creek and best keep on, since…”
“How come yall comin this away?”
“We thought we knowed the way crossed these hills, but I reckon we just got lost.”
“How long yall come along this road?”
“We just got on it bout the time we hear a truck coming round the bend, and then it was you,” said Grease.
“If I find you niggers lyin, and been in my house, I’m gonna come back here and make buzzard meat outa your asses.”                     –from “Double Nigger”
So, we have the great danger of trying to move between A & B in unfriendly country, read: nearly everywhere. Traveling while black.
In the fragments from his unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, Dumas eggs the cake within an inch of what fiction will take—an old problem for African-American novelists with the reality of race in this country seeming more like science fiction until proven by specific incident. Here a family floating in a boat on the surface of a terrible Mississippi River flood, have rescued the narrator and now rescue a white man. They take him off a dwindling sliver of land where he was stranded with his white horse. And the newly rescued man has no deference for what has been done for him. None whatsoever.
…When the man climbed into the boat, dripping the Mississippi all over everything, shivering and cursing, when he came in and snatched up a blanket and threw it around himself, a mood—like death—began to hover over the boat as it sailed under the grey sky in a vast sea of mud, defeated earth. [. . .] “What’s the matter with you, nigger?” he suddenly boomed at Papa Lem, “You got nough room on here fro two horses like that.”
Papa Lem stopped pulling in the line, his head held down facing the island where the horse seemed to sense the situation. It was struggling to its feet, whinnying a bit, and looking at the boat. Jubal was twirling a rope to lasso it.
“Don’t you niggers know who I am?” He began to grin his Southern white man’s grin at Mamada, who was holding her oar in the mud. Aunt Lili let loose a load groan. “Cant lose any more to this damn rise. This is worse’n the rise in in twenty-seven; I been wiped out. Only thing I got left me is that horse.”
“Sir,” said Mamada, pointing to the horse, “if we take that horse on here, we’ll all drown.”
“Thas right, sir,” said Papa Lem. He stood with the rope still dripping in his big black hands, running down his sleeve. “We reelin too much in the current. She gonna git worse.”
I don’t but doubt that Jonoah and the Green Stone would’ve been a helluva book. More aware than Faulkner in “Old Man” of the River’s appetite or capacity for all the evil it swept through as it swept through everything else. Maybe as aware as Melville’s The Confidence Man. But in “Ark of Bones” Dumas did something Melville could not, bound as the older artist was to found archetypes and a catalogues of extant spirits, demons, and con men.
If “Ark of Bones” is arguably Dumas’s greatest work of narrative art, it is because here—almost alone—he found a way to transform that confrontation into something we have never seen anywhere else. Almost so that the idea that every white encounter was a hole through which he could fall became that Orphic journey to somewhere else, and not oblivion. But let me defer “Ark” one last time, even though that’s where Dumas’s limitless appetite for rehearsing and reimagining and reliving those moments stepped beyond itself. I wonder how many more times he would’ve done that?
But he was shot.
I not only lack the knowledge to parse the death of Henry Dumas, I lack the wisdom. The biography presents me, in the main, with the exhaustion of all who were present in his life at that moment, who were orbiting the shooting, near and far, knowing Dumas and not knowing him. I do not hold him up as a martyr so much as a jumping off point. He wrote some things and he died. Some of those things seem more relevant to me than they have ever been. Or perhaps they have always been as relevant as they are now. In which case only noticing now is its own squinting moral difficulty.
I collect old photographs. Most are a kind of discard that occurs when certain relatives are entrusted with cleaning out a house. They get rid of what another relative—if there is another relative—might regard as sacred. Some of those sacred objects come to me. Some of them I own in an uncomplicated way. Others I hold onto with discomfort, but wondering what would happen if I let them slip back into the stream? Not that I don’t want them. But I’m not sure I’m allowed to want them.
For a change, I’m going to show you the back of this photograph first, because the words that are upon it tell you quite a bit:
back of photo Dumas
(Nellie, Robert, Sweets, & Mother
Stonewall, Miss)
We’re into a special kind of photograph from an era we have to remind ourselves ever existed: the this-is-everything photograph. All my world, gathered together, caught here and named.
front of photo Dumas
This is my world. This is what I have. This is what is dear to me. In Stonewall, Mississippi. Some time in the mid-20th century.
I include this photograph here because unlike many photos I’ve seen or even own, there is a cultural tragedy ready to trump the otherwise universal evanescing of time.
There’s not a thing in the photo that couldn’t be taken from the photographer with impunity. Not the farm in back. Not the car, Nellie, or Sweets. Not even—not especially—Robert or Mother.
Robert, as you may have noticed, is wearing a good suit, likely his best or even only suit, which he’s wearing for the photograph. Not likely that would be his normal, non-portrait, mule-wrangling attire.
But it’s important that you remember that that suit doesn’t matter a damn. Wouldn’t stop a thing that might one day come for Robert or Mother.
It’s important that you remember that’s what some of us live with or try to live with or avoid remembering every day. And what others of us won’t even acknowledge. That mid-20th century Stonewall, Mississippi is not so very far from the here and now. Not in the practical terms of what happens to you if you drive through a small Texas town with out-of-state plates, while black, and fail to signal, trying to hope that the U-turn wasn’t meant only for you, just you, and you can’t get of the way no matter what you do, because there is nothing between you and that hole in the world that just looks like a white man in a uniform. And you’re falling.
But where? Dumas found a stranger answer, once. Here, at last, is “Ark of Bones,” albeit briefly. It’s his most famous, arguably greatest, story. Fishhound and Headeye, fishing on the Mississippi River, vanish through a hole in the world, but not because of some terrible encounter with whites.
A boat comes alongside. The boat is the “Ark of Bones” which gives the story its title, but just what the Ark of Bones is, where the boys are, exactly, is never spelled out. A spirit journey into a mythology never before laid down, that’s the strange idea Dumas is invoking. I won’t put words around what the boys find on the other side of their hole in the world, but if the story feels special in this body of work, it’s because so much of his work is about capture, and this is escape.
Certainly it’s not for me to project my own nihilism on to people who simply want to live their lives, for whom the terror of that encounter is unalloyed and unwelcome. But if someone we write about is as far from us as Dumas, he must inevitably be in our own image—and even allowing and attempting to correct for that—I can’t help but feel that he felt that urge. Standing near the edge of a cliff. In plain view of the third rail.
There are other escapes, certainly, and some that even bring the bullet into play, but defy the narrative logic of that bullet. Chekhov’s gun goes off, and in white hands, but does not tell the whole tale.
So it seems almost perverse on my part, to quote Percival Everett, whose career can seem to be about different kinds of escape, in an essay that can seem reductionist of Dumas, of African-American literature, of everything. Yet—even including Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—I can think of no better first person narration of white shooting black than the end of Everett’s Western farce, God’s Country. If you don’t know it, it’s a bit like Blazing Saddles meets, well, Percival Everett.
Narrated by the truly feckless white man, Curt Marder, we hear of how he half-heartedly sets out after the outlaws who’ve kidnapped his wife. He makes a deal with the far more formidable black tracker, Bubba, to find her. Their adventures rack up a dismal, inglorious body count, but Marder is no wiser at the end than he was at the beginning. Here they are, at the end of a long road together, and Bubba is ready to leave,
“You cain’t just leave me here.”
He turned in his saddle to look at me. “If them up there is your men, they got the position and they got the numbers. I ain’t dyin’ for you. I ain’t dyin’ for nobody exceptin’ myself. He turned away and started on.
I pulled my gun and fired into the ground in front of him, stopping him.
“Please don’t do that,” he said without looking back. He kicked his mule again.
I had a good feeling about following him out of there, but I was scared, too. I was staring at him and I don’t know what come over me, but it was like some kind of blind historical urge and that black man in front of me weren’t no kind of real human being, just a thing. I raised my gun and put a bullet in his back.
Bubba fell off onto the dusty, red earth. Then he got up. And like nothing had happened, he climbed back atop his mule. I shot him again. Again he fell. Red dust floated all around him. His shirt was red with blood.
He got up and looked at me with hawk’s eyes, not the eyes of a man with two bullets in his back. I was into something frightening and my heart was standing still. He moved like he was taking a step toward me, but he stopped. He went back to his mule, grabbed the animal’s back and pulled himself up. He hugged the mule’s neck, reaching for the reins. I watched my finger, not the black man, as I squeezed off another round.
He didn’t look at me this time. He struggled back onto his beast. I emptied my gun into him, the bullets producing little red clouds as they struck his dusty clothes. Finally, he was on his mule and turned to face me. I just sat there, my pistol empty. I thought I was a dead man.
He sat straight and fought with a deep breath. He looked at the sky and then at my eyes. A chill run over me and it seemed to me like a wind blowed through me. He pointed behind him out of the canyon and said—
“I’m going out there to make a life for myself somewhere. You done cheated me, lied to me and killed my brothers. I ain’t got enough interest in you to kill you. But I’m goin’ down there, like I said. And you or somebody what looks like you or thinks like you or is you will find me and you’ll burn me out, shoot me or maybe lynch me. But you know something? You cain’t kill me.
I watched him ride away.
Much as I love this ending, I think Everett is perhaps guilty of some of the things for which other writers might take him to task. His Bubba is as inexorable and unstoppable as Darren Wilson ever believed Michael Brown to be. Does Everett slip that moral knot? I think so, but I’m not sure how.
Welty didn’t have to try. After all, her fictional Evers drops under the weight of his own blood, in a gorgeous, awful line to that effect. Whereas the real Evers, as tough as you would imagine the embattled NAACP man in Mississippi would have to be—staggered to his front door and collapsed there. When they lifted him up onto the gurney, according to Taylor Branch, he said, “Set me up,” then, “Turn me loose.” Last words that don’t belong in Welty’s story but leave an impression of completion de la Beckwith must have possessed.
Aside from Welty’s story and this end of Everett’s novel, no other great first person accounts of white shooting black spring to mind. That’s ahistorical, certainly.
There’s something in Everett’s account—and in all the accounts from the news of late—that reminds me of something I read once about the Vikings. A superstitious people, whenever they encountered strangers from other lands, they would take the first available opportunity to cut one down with their swords. To ensure that regular old unmagical swords could kill these possibly magical beings.
Of course Everett’s Bubba is more than just a man after all. In such an irreal book, he is—among other things—an inexorable debt unpaid. Smarter than the narrator, yet constantly subjected to the narrator’s venality. He lives as something that can’t be got rid of so easily. Which of course both sides of this discourse perpetually find to be the case. Not to enter into false equivalence: Chris Rock’s recent great line about race relations,
“There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”
But I don’t want to leave things there. I don’t want to only tap the spot on the x-ray, without saying, here’s something with a way out, or at least a way you may not have considered. So one reading further. I’ve never described it in this context without unsettling the hearer. I hope it unsettles you. I believe it does that by being true.
I read the Australian poet Les Murray’s book-length poem, Fredy Neptune as soon as I could get hold of it. The NY Times review of Fredy Neptune squeamishly condemned a moral twist at the end of the book, but, reading that squeam, I knew instantly that the moral insight made it a book I had to read.
Suffice it to say that Fredy Neptune, traveling the world as a dockhand, witnesses a group of Armenian women immolated by Turks. The horror of what he sees and hears causes him to lose all sense of touch, of feeling, with the slightly fantastic result that he becomes a strong man, a wonder, a freak. His adventures continue, but eventually he longs to be healed. Here, at the end, he prays,
You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me,
and you haven’t got one. Can I get one?
Forgive the Aborigines. What have I got to forgive?
They never hurt me! For being on our conscience.
I shook my head, and did. Forgiving feels like starting to.
That I spose I feel uneasy round you, I thought to them, and shook my head
and started understanding. Hans served, and the ball came bounding back
like a happy pup. Forgive the Jews, my self said.
That one felt miles steep, stone-blocked and black as iron.
That’s really not mine, the Hitler madness—No it’s not, said my self.
It isn’t on your head. But it’s in your languages.
So I started that forgiveness, wincing, asking it as I gave it.
When I stopped asking it, cities stopped burning in my mind.
My efforts faded and went inwards. I was let rest
and come back to Hans searching under the building for his ball.
Then my self said Forgive women. Those burning? All women, it said.
Something tore on me, like bandage coming off scab and hair,
the white tearing off me like linen. And I knew what was coming.
Forgive God, my self said.
I shuddered at that one. Judging Him and sensing life eternal,
Said my self, are different hearts. You want a single heart, to pray.
Choose one and drop one. I looked inside them both
and only one of them allowed prayer, so I chose it,
and my prayer was prayed and sent, already as I chose it.
The next morning he can feel the weight of the sheets on top of him.
Les Murray is more than a bit of a right-winger in his native Australia, but at his best he is a great poet. And I think this is his very best. Like Kipling, and like Orwell says of Kipling, Murray can go places we won’t or can’t or would never think to, and here he’s brought back something I think truer than true. So much of hatred is resentment of a just debt held against us. So much of letting that go is forgiving someone for holding the note.
It’s an interesting idea. I don’t know what to do with it, exactly. To me, measured against what I could discern of the psychology of all the angry whites I knew growing up. Of even the less angry whites. Of writers and creators who never seem to find their work encompassing the minorities around them—and always for perfectly plausible reasons. Even of myself. The anger to legitimately owe anyone anything, especially when you feel—no matter how you have benefitted—you were never consulted about whether to take on that debt.
What’s more I think you can hear it—once you know to listen for it—in voices. In the voices of the cops who always demand respect inversely to the degree to which they deserve it. That necessity of establishing position in the face of a deep, instinctive knowledge that something is or should be required of you. Listen for that tone of voice in the next dash or body cam footage, that not-quite-adolescent legalese.
The Lord’s Prayer—as we Methodists had it, in my childhood—forgave debts, forgave trespass against us, but never had the moral insight that Murray has here. That deep wellsprings of hate come from suspicion and fear that one might be in the wrong.
Forgive, rather than ask forgiveness. For what? Forgive them for being on your conscience.
Yet how that rankles! There is something ugly in it. Forgiveness is the power Christians wield and jealously husband, after all. And the idea that forgiveness could be dispensed, even as acknowledgement of guilt, is an ugly, discomfiting idea. That seems to lend stature to those who have done wrong. That seems to give grace to the simple act of saying what one ought to have been able to say, to admit what it always seemed insanity to deny.
Chris Rock would also say that you’re supposed to say you’re wrong when you’re wrong. But I think it’s the pivot I’ve been looking for all my life, without which all my love’s in vain. I don’t want to go so far as to say I’m its prey, but neither can I go back to sleep.
And here—or there—is where I leave you. - Drew Johnson

Henry Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, moved to Harlem, joined the Air Force, attended Rutgers, worked for IBM, and taught at Hiram College in Ohio and Southern Illinois University. In 1968, at the age of thirty-three, he was shot and killed by a New York Transit Authority -policeman.