The great God Shango in the African sea
reached down with palm oil and oozed out me.
-- Knees of a Natural Man by Henry L. Dumas
Eugene B. Redmond, professor emeritus of English and literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and poet laureate of East St. Louis, Ill., is keeping the works and memory of Arkansas native Henry L. Dumas alive across the globe as literary executor for Dumas' estate and editor of his published collections of poems and short stories. It's a role he's played for 50 years.
During a phone interview, Redmond ticks off the numerous cities, countries and universities in which the Dumas name is well established. "People are still part of the cult, the Henry Dumas movement."
Redmond met Dumas in August 1967 when they went to East St. Louis to work for Southern Illinois University as teachers-counselors in the Experiment in Higher Education, funded by the state of Illinois and federal Office of Economic Opportunity. He, Dumas and others "took on the mantle of revolution, liberation of our people, African liberation" and other causes of the day, Redmond recalls. The two men bonded quickly during the 10 months they worked together, traveling to Black Power, Black Arts and black-education conferences.
"Henry was so advanced in his thinking about black people and the world," Redmond says. "He was so far out there -- like [late jazz musicians] Sun Ra. Like Miles Davis. Like John Coltrane. The bizarre nature of the way he died, in the middle of the night, underneath the streets of Harlem was almost as bizarre as some of the things he would say and some of the things he would write." Redmond tells of Dumas taking his nickname, Hank, and rearranging the letters to "Ankh." "What a brilliant stroke -- ankh, the pre-Christian, Coptic, Egyptian cross." Dumas also rearranged his last name, spelling it backward to come up with the name Ankh Samud.
Redmond still remembers arriving on campus the morning of May 23, 1968. "People were crying ... weeping openly," he says. What had happened? "Hank is dead," they told him. Only 33, Dumas was shot and killed by a New York City Transit police officer who claimed Dumas was threatening another man with a knife and then attacked the officer.
Redmond recalls his selection to travel to New York for Dumas' funeral as a representative of the university. "I carried with me a briefcase full of money that had been donated by the community" inside and outside the university, and delivered it to Dumas' family. People in the community knew Dumas because they'd seen him reading in the jazz clubs, outdoor theaters, festivals.
"I took him to every place, soul food restaurants and all that," Redmond says.
After Dumas' passing, Redmond -- initially working with the late Hale Chatfield, founder and editor of the Hiram Poetry Review -- worked to get Dumas' works published.
Noted author and Dumas fan Toni Morrison, then a senior editor for the book publisher Random House, also played a role.
The first compilation, Poetry for My People, was released in 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press. In 1974 came Play Ebony, Play Ivory (a reprint of Poetry for My People) and Ark of Bones and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction works. In 1976 Jonoah & the Green Stone and Rope of Wind and Other Stories were published. "Thalia," a short story by Dumas, won a 1976 Black Scholar's literary award given by James Baldwin.
Redmond helped renew interest in Dumas in 1988 with the publication of Goodbye Sweetwater, an anthology containing unpublished and previously published material by Dumas. Redmond followed with the anthology Knees of a Natural Man in 1989. Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas was released in 2003. A biography, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas by Jeffrey Leak, was published in 2014.
Online articles describe Dumas' works as bearing notes of black history, Christianity, jazz, gospel, Islam, African mythology, Arabic culture and mythology. "Nature, revolutionary politics, and music are especially frequent subjects of his poetry, which is noted for its faithfulness to the language and cadence of African-American speech," according to his biography at Britannica.com.
Redmond touches on Dumas' notable works, among them Jonoah and the Green Stone, his only novel. In it, a watermelon turns into a giant ship -- an escape from slavery.
Ark of Bones is "a repository of all the bones of all the ancestors, all the African ancestors." "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" is a short story; its centerpiece is the Afro-horn, of which there are only three -- "one in Egypt, one in Mexico and one in the hand of the man who plays it in Harlem."
Along with editing the Dumas collections, Redmond promoted book parties, celebrations, galas, readings and celebrations. "Those kinds of things came under what Morrison called 'The cult of Henry Dumas,'" he says, as well as "The Henry Dumas Movement" -- names given to Dumas aficionados and efforts on his behalf. Poets, artists, painters, actors, sculptors and musicians helped pack performances of Dumas' work around the world.
The late Arkansas-bred poet Maya Angelou was also among those who appreciated Dumas' work.
Redmond continues to work to keep Dumas' memories alive to those "from preschool to graduate level" via such events as Da-Dum-Dun, an annual festival in East St. Louis in honor of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, dancer, educator and author Katherine Dunham and Dumas. Actor Avery Brooks, whom Redmond taught at Oberlin College, has a one-man show on Dumas.
As executor for Dumas' estate, Redmond gives people permission to use Dumas' work. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates got Redmond to swiftly approve the use of a Dumas poem tidbit that appeared in Coates' novel Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book 3.
Redmond first connected with Dumas' Arkansas family 10 years ago through Loretta Dumas, Henry's widow. At that time his mother, Appliance Porter Watson, was still living and had moved back to the state. His adaptation of Dumas' work -- a full-length ritual drama, Music and I Have Come at Last -- was performed at Root Song: A Celebration of the Life and Works of Henry L. Dumas, a program that took place July 27 at Little Rock's Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.
Although some of Dumas' works are hard to understand, Redmond says, "there's something in him for everybody."
"He's very sensual; he's very reverent; he's very spiritual; he's very visceral."
Style on 09/16/2018
Print Headline: Professor, friend keeps alive memory of Henry L. Dumas