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.
depending on the audience. In their view, he was, at his core, neither a hatemonger nor separatist, but he was comfortable articulating a kind of pragmatic black nationalism and separatism, if that was necessary to secure black folks certain economic opportunities. Indeed, Malcolm had done just that a year earlier, when he secretly met with the Ku Klux Klan to discuss the purchase of parcels of land in Georgia to establish a self-contained black community.20 Moreover, as black students at
reason to procrastinate. In so many ways, Wright enjoyed the artistic life Henry came to desire, which was characterized by continual, not just ephemeral, freedom. [ CHAPTER FIVE Progress, Setbacks, and Romance Beloved, I have to adore the earth: The wind must have heard Your voice once. It echoes and sings like you. —HENRY DUMAS, from “Love Song” Deeply moved by the Freedom Movement in the South, Henry was considering the merits of the two competing but complementary approaches to black
racial and cultural backgrounds, which suggests that both felt they were following a feeling that transcended racial definitions. Nonetheless, they found themselves in a world where concerns about race and ethnicity were part of the social DNA. As an interracial couple in America, that reality surely had an impact on their relationship. When Henry referred to their “future path,” as “utterly glorious,” and “utterly tragic and filled with pain,” he was alluding to a future with Lois based on
took the advice of King’s friends and ended their relationship on amicable but painful terms.”24 Henry, like King years earlier, held a core optimism about his relationship with Lois, and encouraged her to embrace the possibilities of what they could share together. Race, to Henry, was a factor, though not the most important one. “You entered my world through a mossy tunnel,” Henry wrote, “in the woods where no foot had ever tread. And no matter what we both said, no matter what we think, I have
just how naive Loretta was about Henry’s activities. She assumes her husband is working and not typing a letter to his lover. Loretta’s efforts reflected her support of Henry, but the larger problem involved options. She knew their marriage was in trouble, but she did not feel comfortable confiding in family, and she had been raised to believe in “’til death do us part.” In time, she would adjust her thinking, but for now she would make the best of a troubling situation. For Lois, as the other