Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas
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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.
with a deep sense of togetherness. “Those years,” Canales recalled, “were like a scene out of the artist Norman Rockwell. Only we were black. Uncle Jack was the first black driver at Blanche Motors in lower Manhattan, and Aunt Mary took care of home.”12 Henry never lived in a traditional home with both of his biological parents, but the Harlem home of Aunt Mary and Uncle Jack was a stable substitute. And Henry accepted both the village approach in Sweet Home and the two-heterosexual-parents
understood. The very traditional family structure that Loretta grew up in, including a model of women deferring to men, assured stability, even if it did not allow transformation. Henry seemed to her to possess the same values. Although Deacon Ponton was skeptical about Henry at first, Henry’s immersion into the church on his return to Texas allayed, for a time at least, some of his concerns. Henry may have been making the case for himself as Loretta’s future husband, but the other aspect of his
when, as Thomas recollected, “we went in to identify Henry’s body, the detective said to me, ‘whatever possessed a guy of his background to do this?’ Somebody knew that Henry was not your average street person or somebody from the neighborhood.”6 It is not clear what prompted the detective to comment on Henry’s background. Was Henry carrying his notebook or other literary materials with him? Or was he dressed in a way that signaled a certain level of accomplishment and refinement that ran counter
After reading an article about him, Halsey, a poet, decided to call Officer Bienkowski. “I was surprised,” wrote Halsey, “that he was willing to talk and [I] took quick note of the quietness in his voice. He remembered the incident. I found out later that he killed Henry Dumas as a rookie with the police and that it was the only incident of deadly force on his record of seventeen years.” Not the rogue cop that Halsey, Redmond, and others had imagined, Bienkowski “confided that he knew nothing
York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Bachu, Amara. “Timing of First Births: 1930–34 to 1990–94.” Working Paper No. 25, Population Division, U.S. Bureau of the Census, presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Chicago, Ill., April 1998. Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Dial, 2000. Baraka, Amiri. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. New York: Totem/Corinth, 1961. ———. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Edited by William J. Harris. New