BY BEENISH AHMED
"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."
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