Reading Henry Dumas After Trayvon Martin
On the Genius of a Black Writer Killed by NYC Police in 1968
Whenever I see a new account of this or that police department going to the shooting range with targets made from the mug shots of black men and women, I think of this odd passage of Tolstoy,
I learnt to ride a bicycle in a hall large enough to drill a division of soldiers. At the other end of the hall a lady was learning. I thought I must be careful to avoid getting into her way, and began looking at her. And as I looked at her I began unconsciously getting nearer and nearer to her, and in spite of the fact that, noticing the danger, she hastened to retreat, I rode down upon her and knocked her down—that is, I did the very opposite of what I wanted to do, simply because I concentrated my attention upon her.
Tolstoy was trying to explain Chekhov’s odd, brief story, “The Darling,” but no matter. The great Russian landed where he needed to, exploring his own deep and human capacity for error.
Henry Dumas, a writer who never published a book within his own short lifetime who was nonetheless praised and published by no less than Toni Morrison outside it, was shot and killed by New York City Transit Police Officer in 1968. For those who need the tangible to prove that we lose something when people die, the fiction of Henry Dumas works well.
Dumas was, among other things, a writer of that inarguable feature of African-American life: the encounter with white people. Dumas returned to this theme again and again, trying it on for size, playing it left-handed or right, for horror, for drama, in long form or in short, but always looping back round to uncover what fresh hell, that intersection meant for his characters. Reading his work, noting all his themes, its still hard not to feel that his preoccupation with it bordered on obsession.
And why not? It’s one of the most American of all themes. And, unlike the conflict between man and nature, the encounter between black and white is borne out day after day after day in numbers that literature cannot try to equal and should not. For all the tragedies we have read about and talked about in this time of increased awareness that began, perhaps, with that encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, share in common the fact that—for every African-American in question—nothing was sought at all. Going on their particular path, but there was someone in the way. Dumas is already apart from these people, for he saw that encounter as inescapable. Dumas, if he knew them, would’ve heard the portent in Thoreau’s words to Emerson,
What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.
I grew up in Mississippi, never fully realizing that that meant I grew up alongside more people for whom this was a reality—day to day—that many other whites growing up in other parts of the county will know in a lifetime. One quick anecdote of the kind of encounter that never rises to headlines, but for a number of our citizens is simply routine: that is, they may be called to account at any time by individuals with no particular authority. How they answer—even whether they answer—is something they must weigh with imperfect knowledge.
When I was in line at age 18 to register for the selective service, a friend from school fell in behind me. Although we’d never been at each other’s birthday parties growing up, I knew his birthday was very close to mine. We nodded and noted that we were both there for the same reason, to sign a piece of paper that gave the government peculiar powers over our futures. We both expressed some discomfort with that. There were other people in line and we were speaking freely in conversational tones.
I cannot say for certain when he arrived, but no sooner had this conversation ended than the old, old man behind us in line asked my friend a question in a way that made it absolutely clear he expected an answer. I thought we were both caught off guard, my friend and I. But my friend, of course, was black—and had lived all his life in a world where if an old white man asked a question, it was best to quickly come up with an answer.
“Don’t you want to serve your country?” This man asked. He was old enough at the time that he had likely lived his 1960s in open defiance of the federal government.
My friend answered without hesitation, “Yessir, but I don’t trust my country to send me where I need to go.”
The old man hung his head, “You’ve got that right, I guess.”
I’ve often marveled at this quick and perfect answer, how it defused the white man’s superior claim of patriotism with a shared distrust of government in an era still colored by Vietnam. The old white man had never even acknowledged me, but now he and my friend shared their odd agreement like fellowship. I was stupefied then, and have never really stopped being stupefied by the peculiar tones and overtones of that encounter.
Henry Dumas would’ve been right at home in it.
I first learned of Henry Dumas reading Hilton Als’s essay collection, White Girls. In a passing aside, he mentions the best story Dumas ever wrote, “Ark of Bones,” a story I’ll come back to later. But in the moment when I first googled Henry Dumas, I was sure I’d landed on something you could draw a very bright line from or to. Here was the writer for these things, I thought, and I wonder why no one has brought him up. He was a writer shot dead by a policeman, right? But as I went on, things became more complicated rather than less, and what you have before you now is the result.
As a slow writer, I often fret over whether I can bring this or that rumination to completion while it still bears that one-to-one relevance editors seem to prize so much. One of the ugliest thoughts I’ve ever had as a writer—and writing is a practice owing much to ugly thoughts—was that a piece on white people killing black people offered me as much room as I could possibly need. I had a rolling deadline, with a nod to the original, prisoner-of-war parlance from which that term springs. Relevance would be renewed.
And it has been. I began thinking about this piece living in Maitland, Florida, driving my Subaru up to Sanford past the assembled media village presiding over Zimmerman’s exoneration. I bought my copy of Goodbye, Sweetwater in Jacksonville’s miraculous Chamblin Bookmine, while it was the city of Michael Dunn shooting Jordan Davis, where Marissa Alexander was hounded by the same Angela Corey who seemed unable to convict white for black under any set of circumstances.
I moved north to Massachusetts. Struggled through winter, thinking, writing, shoveling. Every month offered new footage, a new name. Still I dithered. The topic waited and grew, terribly, as anyone paying any attention knew that it would.
I’m not going to go over Dumas’s life story laboriously here, that’s not much I can hope to better than Jeffrey B. Leak in his recent biography, Visible Man, but I do want to throw out a few passages by Henry Dumas, because I think he is one of the writers we need now. To remind us that, for a huge portion of our citizenry, every potential encounter or trip to the grocery story or traffic ticket or conversation is a fraught thing. Potentially a very fraught thing.
Dumas is the great writer of an idea that it’s hard to be white and recognize: for a black person, historically, every white person has been a hole in the universe through which they may fall, vanish, cease to be. Many still live this way today, but all can be brought back, awoken to the fact of it by luck so malevolent we wouldn’t believe it without footage.
In a story called “Rope of Wind,” a deputy and vigilantes come upon a boy, Johnny B. Though they are looking for Reverend Eastland to lynch him, they are astonished that the Johnny B. is so instantly fearful. That he regards them with absolute dread.
“I’m gonna run,” he said to the man. He was surprised at how calm the words sounded. Maybe he wasnt afraid. “I’m gonna run.”
“Dont run, boy, I’m not going to hurt you. My name’s Jackson, I’m Asa Jackson’s new deputy, beside being his nephew. Now, you…”
The other man was coming. “Ask him if he knows ‘em, and come on! We aint got all nite!”
“Looky here, boy, where bouts is the house of an old colored man by the name of Eastland? You know, boy? Now, where does he live?”
Johnny B leaped forward and was gone into the nite. It was like he was thinking. They’re after somebody…Eastland? Johnny B didn’t know him. The man was hollering at him. Johnny B. looked back. He thought he saw one of the men aiming a gun at him…he dropped to the ground, still running on all fours…They ain’t coming, he thought, they aint running after me, might send a bullet, dont hear no dogs, might send a bullet.
Johnny B. warns Eastland, but the lynching transpires just the same. Yet that highest register of this encounter by itself would only represent the occasional, and Dumas is an artist of the constant, for it is the constant and the unfailing out of which the most damning incarceration is constructed: lynchings always only underscored a much larger point. The workaday encounter is somehow worse, then, because it is so unremarkable.
Here, then are four men, having finished a job on a road gang, traveling home. They find themselves at a farmhouse with nobody home. They help themselves to water from a well, only to encounter the homeowner farther along the road. He suspects them of everything, of nothing, of drinking his water, an old and existential sin, it appears,
Then he got up a shotgun.
“You niggers come long this road a far piece?”
Fish stood straight now and came towards us. I though he was gonna say something, but Grease beat him to it.
“Naw, sir, we just come off that hill.” He pointed it. “We tryin to get to the creek, but I tole ‘em we passed the creek and best keep on, since…”
“How come yall comin this away?”
“We thought we knowed the way crossed these hills, but I reckon we just got lost.”
“How long yall come along this road?”
“We just got on it bout the time we hear a truck coming round the bend, and then it was you,” said Grease.
“If I find you niggers lyin, and been in my house, I’m gonna come back here and make buzzard meat outa your asses.”
–from “Double Nigger”
So, we have the great danger of trying to move between A & B in unfriendly country, read: nearly everywhere. Traveling while black.
In the fragments from his unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone, Dumas eggs the cake within an inch of what fiction will take—an old problem for African-American novelists with the reality of race in this country seeming more like science fiction until proven by specific incident. Here a family floating in a boat on the surface of a terrible Mississippi River flood, have rescued the narrator and now rescue a white man. They take him off a dwindling sliver of land where he was stranded with his white horse. And the newly rescued man has no deference for what has been done for him. None whatsoever.
…When the man climbed into the boat, dripping the Mississippi all over everything, shivering and cursing, when he came in and snatched up a blanket and threw it around himself, a mood—like death—began to hover over the boat as it sailed under the grey sky in a vast sea of mud, defeated earth. [. . .] “What’s the matter with you, nigger?” he suddenly boomed at Papa Lem, “You got nough room on here fro two horses like that.”
Papa Lem stopped pulling in the line, his head held down facing the island where the horse seemed to sense the situation. It was struggling to its feet, whinnying a bit, and looking at the boat. Jubal was twirling a rope to lasso it.
“Don’t you niggers know who I am?” He began to grin his Southern white man’s grin at Mamada, who was holding her oar in the mud. Aunt Lili let loose a load groan. “Cant lose any more to this damn rise. This is worse’n the rise in in twenty-seven; I been wiped out. Only thing I got left me is that horse.”
“Sir,” said Mamada, pointing to the horse, “if we take that horse on here, we’ll all drown.”
“Thas right, sir,” said Papa Lem. He stood with the rope still dripping in his big black hands, running down his sleeve. “We reelin too much in the current. She gonna git worse.”
I don’t but doubt that Jonoah and the Green Stone would’ve been a helluva book. More aware than Faulkner in “Old Man” of the River’s appetite or capacity for all the evil it swept through as it swept through everything else. Maybe as aware as Melville’s The Confidence Man. But in “Ark of Bones” Dumas did something Melville could not, bound as the older artist was to found archetypes and a catalogues of extant spirits, demons, and con men.
If “Ark of Bones” is arguably Dumas’s greatest work of narrative art, it is because here—almost alone—he found a way to transform that confrontation into something we have never seen anywhere else. Almost so that the idea that every white encounter was a hole through which he could fall became that Orphic journey to somewhere else, and not oblivion. But let me defer “Ark” one last time, even though that’s where Dumas’s limitless appetite for rehearsing and reimagining and reliving those moments stepped beyond itself. I wonder how many more times he would’ve done that?
But he was shot.
I not only lack the knowledge to parse the death of Henry Dumas, I lack the wisdom. The biography presents me, in the main, with the exhaustion of all who were present in his life at that moment, who were orbiting the shooting, near and far, knowing Dumas and not knowing him. I do not hold him up as a martyr so much as a jumping off point. He wrote some things and he died. Some of those things seem more relevant to me than they have ever been. Or perhaps they have always been as relevant as they are now. In which case only noticing now is its own squinting moral difficulty.
I collect old photographs. Most are a kind of discard that occurs when certain relatives are entrusted with cleaning out a house. They get rid of what another relative—if there is another relative—might regard as sacred. Some of those sacred objects come to me. Some of them I own in an uncomplicated way. Others I hold onto with discomfort, but wondering what would happen if I let them slip back into the stream? Not that I don’t want them. But I’m not sure I’m allowed to want them.
For a change, I’m going to show you the back of this photograph first, because the words that are upon it tell you quite a bit:
(Nellie, Robert, Sweets, & Mother
We’re into a special kind of photograph from an era we have to remind ourselves ever existed: the this-is-everything photograph. All my world, gathered together, caught here and named.
This is my world. This is what I have. This is what is dear to me. In Stonewall, Mississippi. Some time in the mid-20th century.
I include this photograph here because unlike many photos I’ve seen or even own, there is a cultural tragedy ready to trump the otherwise universal evanescing of time.
There’s not a thing in the photo that couldn’t be taken from the photographer with impunity. Not the farm in back. Not the car, Nellie, or Sweets. Not even—not especially—Robert or Mother.
Robert, as you may have noticed, is wearing a good suit, likely his best or even only suit, which he’s wearing for the photograph. Not likely that would be his normal, non-portrait, mule-wrangling attire.
But it’s important that you remember that that suit doesn’t matter a damn. Wouldn’t stop a thing that might one day come for Robert or Mother.
It’s important that you remember that’s what some of us live with or try to live with or avoid remembering every day. And what others of us won’t even acknowledge. That mid-20th century Stonewall, Mississippi is not so very far from the here and now. Not in the practical terms of what happens to you if you drive through a small Texas town with out-of-state plates, while black, and fail to signal, trying to hope that the U-turn wasn’t meant only for you, just you, and you can’t get of the way no matter what you do, because there is nothing between you and that hole in the world that just looks like a white man in a uniform. And you’re falling.
But where? Dumas found a stranger answer, once. Here, at last, is “Ark of Bones,” albeit briefly. It’s his most famous, arguably greatest, story. Fishhound and Headeye, fishing on the Mississippi River, vanish through a hole in the world, but not because of some terrible encounter with whites.
A boat comes alongside. The boat is the “Ark of Bones” which gives the story its title, but just what the Ark of Bones is, where the boys are, exactly, is never spelled out. A spirit journey into a mythology never before laid down, that’s the strange idea Dumas is invoking. I won’t put words around what the boys find on the other side of their hole in the world, but if the story feels special in this body of work, it’s because so much of his work is about capture, and this is escape.
Certainly it’s not for me to project my own nihilism on to people who simply want to live their lives, for whom the terror of that encounter is unalloyed and unwelcome. But if someone we write about is as far from us as Dumas, he must inevitably be in our own image—and even allowing and attempting to correct for that—I can’t help but feel that he felt that urge. Standing near the edge of a cliff. In plain view of the third rail.
There are other escapes, certainly, and some that even bring the bullet into play, but defy the narrative logic of that bullet. Chekhov’s gun goes off, and in white hands, but does not tell the whole tale.
So it seems almost perverse on my part, to quote Percival Everett, whose career can seem to be about different kinds of escape, in an essay that can seem reductionist of Dumas, of African-American literature, of everything. Yet—even including Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—I can think of no better first person narration of white shooting black than the end of Everett’s Western farce, God’s Country. If you don’t know it, it’s a bit like Blazing Saddles meets, well, Percival Everett.
Narrated by the truly feckless white man, Curt Marder, we hear of how he half-heartedly sets out after the outlaws who’ve kidnapped his wife. He makes a deal with the far more formidable black tracker, Bubba, to find her. Their adventures rack up a dismal, inglorious body count, but Marder is no wiser at the end than he was at the beginning. Here they are, at the end of a long road together, and Bubba is ready to leave,
“You cain’t just leave me here.”
He turned in his saddle to look at me. “If them up there is your men, they got the position and they got the numbers. I ain’t dyin’ for you. I ain’t dyin’ for nobody exceptin’ myself. He turned away and started on.
I pulled my gun and fired into the ground in front of him, stopping him.
“Please don’t do that,” he said without looking back. He kicked his mule again.
I had a good feeling about following him out of there, but I was scared, too. I was staring at him and I don’t know what come over me, but it was like some kind of blind historical urge and that black man in front of me weren’t no kind of real human being, just a thing. I raised my gun and put a bullet in his back.
Bubba fell off onto the dusty, red earth. Then he got up. And like nothing had happened, he climbed back atop his mule. I shot him again. Again he fell. Red dust floated all around him. His shirt was red with blood.
He got up and looked at me with hawk’s eyes, not the eyes of a man with two bullets in his back. I was into something frightening and my heart was standing still. He moved like he was taking a step toward me, but he stopped. He went back to his mule, grabbed the animal’s back and pulled himself up. He hugged the mule’s neck, reaching for the reins. I watched my finger, not the black man, as I squeezed off another round.
He didn’t look at me this time. He struggled back onto his beast. I emptied my gun into him, the bullets producing little red clouds as they struck his dusty clothes. Finally, he was on his mule and turned to face me. I just sat there, my pistol empty. I thought I was a dead man.
He sat straight and fought with a deep breath. He looked at the sky and then at my eyes. A chill run over me and it seemed to me like a wind blowed through me. He pointed behind him out of the canyon and said—
“I’m going out there to make a life for myself somewhere. You done cheated me, lied to me and killed my brothers. I ain’t got enough interest in you to kill you. But I’m goin’ down there, like I said. And you or somebody what looks like you or thinks like you or is you will find me and you’ll burn me out, shoot me or maybe lynch me. But you know something? You cain’t kill me.
I watched him ride away.
Much as I love this ending, I think Everett is perhaps guilty of some of the things for which other writers might take him to task. His Bubba is as inexorable and unstoppable as Darren Wilson ever believed Michael Brown to be. Does Everett slip that moral knot? I think so, but I’m not sure how.
Welty didn’t have to try. After all, her fictional Evers drops under the weight of his own blood, in a gorgeous, awful line to that effect. Whereas the real Evers, as tough as you would imagine the embattled NAACP man in Mississippi would have to be—staggered to his front door and collapsed there. When they lifted him up onto the gurney, according to Taylor Branch, he said, “Set me up,” then, “Turn me loose.” Last words that don’t belong in Welty’s story but leave an impression of completion de la Beckwith must have possessed.
Aside from Welty’s story and this end of Everett’s novel, no other great first person accounts of white shooting black spring to mind. That’s ahistorical, certainly.
There’s something in Everett’s account—and in all the accounts from the news of late—that reminds me of something I read once about the Vikings. A superstitious people, whenever they encountered strangers from other lands, they would take the first available opportunity to cut one down with their swords. To ensure that regular old unmagical swords could kill these possibly magical beings.
Of course Everett’s Bubba is more than just a man after all. In such an irreal book, he is—among other things—an inexorable debt unpaid. Smarter than the narrator, yet constantly subjected to the narrator’s venality. He lives as something that can’t be got rid of so easily. Which of course both sides of this discourse perpetually find to be the case. Not to enter into false equivalence: Chris Rock’s recent great line about race relations,
“There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”
But I don’t want to leave things there. I don’t want to only tap the spot on the x-ray, without saying, here’s something with a way out, or at least a way you may not have considered. So one reading further. I’ve never described it in this context without unsettling the hearer. I hope it unsettles you. I believe it does that by being true.
I read the Australian poet Les Murray’s book-length poem, Fredy Neptune as soon as I could get hold of it. The NY Times review of Fredy Neptune squeamishly condemned a moral twist at the end of the book, but, reading that squeam, I knew instantly that the moral insight made it a book I had to read.
Suffice it to say that Fredy Neptune, traveling the world as a dockhand, witnesses a group of Armenian women immolated by Turks. The horror of what he sees and hears causes him to lose all sense of touch, of feeling, with the slightly fantastic result that he becomes a strong man, a wonder, a freak. His adventures continue, but eventually he longs to be healed. Here, at the end, he prays,
You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me,
and you haven’t got one. Can I get one?
Forgive the Aborigines. What have I got to forgive?
They never hurt me! For being on our conscience.
I shook my head, and did. Forgiving feels like starting to.
That I spose I feel uneasy round you, I thought to them, and shook my head
and started understanding. Hans served, and the ball came bounding back
like a happy pup. Forgive the Jews, my self said.
That one felt miles steep, stone-blocked and black as iron.
That’s really not mine, the Hitler madness—No it’s not, said my self.
It isn’t on your head. But it’s in your languages.
So I started that forgiveness, wincing, asking it as I gave it.
When I stopped asking it, cities stopped burning in my mind.
My efforts faded and went inwards. I was let rest
and come back to Hans searching under the building for his ball.
Then my self said Forgive women. Those burning? All women, it said.
Something tore on me, like bandage coming off scab and hair,
the white tearing off me like linen. And I knew what was coming.
Forgive God, my self said.
I shuddered at that one. Judging Him and sensing life eternal,
Said my self, are different hearts. You want a single heart, to pray.
Choose one and drop one. I looked inside them both
and only one of them allowed prayer, so I chose it,
and my prayer was prayed and sent, already as I chose it.
The next morning he can feel the weight of the sheets on top of him.
Les Murray is more than a bit of a right-winger in his native Australia, but at his best he is a great poet. And I think this is his very best. Like Kipling, and like Orwell says of Kipling, Murray can go places we won’t or can’t or would never think to, and here he’s brought back something I think truer than true. So much of hatred is resentment of a just debt held against us. So much of letting that go is forgiving someone for holding the note.
It’s an interesting idea. I don’t know what to do with it, exactly. To me, measured against what I could discern of the psychology of all the angry whites I knew growing up. Of even the less angry whites. Of writers and creators who never seem to find their work encompassing the minorities around them—and always for perfectly plausible reasons. Even of myself. The anger to legitimately owe anyone anything, especially when you feel—no matter how you have benefitted—you were never consulted about whether to take on that debt.
What’s more I think you can hear it—once you know to listen for it—in voices. In the voices of the cops who always demand respect inversely to the degree to which they deserve it. That necessity of establishing position in the face of a deep, instinctive knowledge that something is or should be required of you. Listen for that tone of voice in the next dash or body cam footage, that not-quite-adolescent legalese.
The Lord’s Prayer—as we Methodists had it, in my childhood—forgave debts, forgave trespass against us, but never had the moral insight that Murray has here. That deep wellsprings of hate come from suspicion and fear that one might be in the wrong.
Forgive, rather than ask forgiveness. For what? Forgive them for being on your conscience.
Yet how that rankles! There is something ugly in it. Forgiveness is the power Christians wield and jealously husband, after all. And the idea that forgiveness could be dispensed, even as acknowledgement of guilt, is an ugly, discomfiting idea. That seems to lend stature to those who have done wrong. That seems to give grace to the simple act of saying what one ought to have been able to say, to admit what it always seemed insanity to deny.
Chris Rock would also say that you’re supposed to say you’re wrong when you’re wrong. But I think it’s the pivot I’ve been looking for all my life, without which all my love’s in vain. I don’t want to go so far as to say I’m its prey, but neither can I go back to sleep.
And here—or there—is where I leave you.