Henry L. Dumas

Born Henry Dumas
July 20, 1934
Sweet Home, Arkansas, USA
Died May 23, 1968 (aged 33)
Harlem, New York City, New York, USA
Occupation poet, short fiction writer, teacher
Ethnicity African-American
Literary movement Black Aesthetic
Spouse Loretta Ponton
Children 2

Henry Dumas (July 20, 1934 – May 23, 1968) was an African-American writer and poet. He has been called "an absolute genius" by Toni Morrison,[1] who as a commissioning editor at Random House published collections both of his poetry, Play Ebony, Play Ivory,[2] and his short stories, Ark of Bones.[3]


Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, in 1934 and lived there until the age of ten, when he moved to New York City; however, he always kept with him the religious and folk traditions of his hometown. In Harlem, he attended public school and graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After graduating, he enrolled in the Air Forceand was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he met future wife, Loretta Ponton. The couple married in 1955 and had two sons, David in 1958 and Michael in 1962. Dumas was in the military until 1957, at which time he enrolled at Rutgers University but never attained a degree. In 1967 Dumas began work atSouthern Illinois University as a teacher, counselor, and director of its "Experiment in Higher Education" program. It was here that he met fellow teacher and poet Eugene Redmond, forming a close collaborative relationship that would prove so integral to Dumas's posthumous career.

During his life, Dumas was active in civil rights and humanitarian efforts, including transporting food and clothing to protesters in Mississippi and Tennessee. While serving in the military, he spent eighteen months at Dhahran Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia, where he developed an interest in the language, culture, religion, and mythology of theArab world.

He was shot to death at the age of 33 by a white New York City Transit Authority police officer at 135th Street Station, in a case of "mistaken identity" on May 23, 1968.[4] The tragic incident exemplified the position of blacks in America in the 1960s. His death is mentioned in the poem "An Alphabet of My Dead," by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.


Dumas's first collection of short stories was Ark of Bones and Other Stories, published in 1974, posthumously edited by his friend, poet Eugene Redmond, who also edited other volumes of his work, including his poetry collection, Play Ebony, Play Ivory0 (1974). Subsequent books include an unfinished novel, Jonah and the Green Stone (1976), Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979), Goodbye, Sweetwater: New and Selected Stories (1988) and Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas.[5]

His short story "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" was included in the 2004 Dark Matter: Reading The Bones anthology edited by Sheree Thomas.


Dumas was influenced by jazz, studying with Sun Ra during the mid-1960s, and in turn influenced jazz musicians. For example, his poem "Black Paladins" became the title track for a recording by Joseph Jarman andFamoudou Don Moye.

Dumas claimed some of his earliest influences to be Moms Mabley and gospel music. His experiences as a black child growing up in the south during the 1930s and '40s were frequent themes in his writings. His time spent on the Arabian Peninsula influenced him as well, and he eventually drew not only on black Christianity and Islam, but on Sufi mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American and African myths and religions. In the 1960s Dumas became increasingly involved with both the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement, immersing himself in music: gospel, spirituals, jazz, and blues. Writer Margaret Walker and musicians James Brown and John Coltrane proved to be major influences on his writing at this time.

Both his fiction and his poetry developed themes of the Black Aesthetic movement, in addition to themes of nature and the natural world.

Further reading

  • Eugene B. Redmond, introduction to Ark of Bones' and Other Stories, 1974.
  • Carolyn A. Mitchell, “Henry Dumas”, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 89–99.
  • Eugene B. Redmond, “The Ancient and Recent Voices within Henry Dumas”, introduction to Goodbye Sweetwater, 1988.
  • Eugene B. Redmond, “Poet Henry Dumas: Distance Runner, Stabilizer, Distiller", introduction to Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas, 1989.
  • Dana A. Williams, “Making the Bones Live Again: A Look at the ‘Bones People’ in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Henry Dumas’ Ark of Bones", College Language Association Journal 42: 3 (March 1999): 309–19.
  • Jeffrey B. Leak, Visible Man The Life of Henry Dumas, Univ of Georgia Press (2014) ISBN 978-0-8203-2870-6


  1. Jump up^

    Toni Morrison, "On Behalf of Henry Dumas", Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No. 2, Henry Dumas Issue (Summer, 1988), pp. 310-312.

  2. Jump up^

    Henry Dumas, Play Ebony, Play Ivory: Poetry. Edited by Eugene B. Redmond. New York: Random House, 1974.

  3. Jump up^

    Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Edited by Eugene B. Redmond. New York: Random House, 1974.

  4. Jump up^

    Scott Saul, "The Devil and Henry Dumas - A lost voice of the Black Arts Movement", Boston Review, October/November 2004.

  5. Jump up^

    Trudier Harris, "Henry Dumas". The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001, 2002. Retrieved from Answers.com.

External links