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Poetry For My People by Henry Dumas. Carbondale. 1970. Southern Illinois University Press. hardcover. 184 pages.  Preface by Imamu Ameer Baraka Leroi Jones. Introduction by Jay Wright. Edited by Hale Chatfield & Eugene Redmond. keywords: Literature America Black African American. 0809304430.

 

FROM THE PUBLISHER -

 

   The poems of Henry Dumas demonstrate concisely what an African heritage can mean to an American writer. The poems in this collection of Dumas’s poetry, published and unpublished at the time of his death in 1968 at the age of thirty-four,. represent a diversity of themes and techniques. Even amid this considerable variety, however, we can distinguish themes and devices which occur with sufficient regularity to become characteristic. Naturally, the plight of the black man in America is first among Dumas’s thematic concerns. In this regard, the poet’s chief metaphor involves a living entity (a tree, for example) transplanted from African to American soil, which fails to nourish it properly and even threatens to poison it to death—a fate from which it is able to defend itself by relying upon the African heritage (spirits, gods, ancestors) it recalls within its very cells. To provide the appropriate tone and atmosphere for such poems as these, Dumas makes frequent use of African place names and often employs Swahili or even Arabic words. To protest, as some readers are inclined to do, that such names and words often appear in unlikely or fantastic contexts is to miss the essential point: namely, that the fundamental ‘truth’ in these poems is a strong attachment not merely to the African past itself but also to the emotions, attitudes, and predispositions which it continually engenders and enriches. It is true, of course, that black Americans have for years been giving careful and scholarly attention to the matter of their African heritage. Dumas’s poetry may be viewed, in part, as an assertion of that heritage and an exploration of its effects.

 

  HENRY DUMAS, a prize-winning writer, was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, on July 20, 1934, and moved to New York City when he was ten years old. His life was ended abruptly on May 23, 1968, by bullets from the gun of a New York Transit policeman in the subway. Reasons for the killing have remained vague and unsatisfactory. Before his death Dumas had been active on the ‘little’ magazine circuit as well as in the initial opening scene of the Black Arts Movement, publishing his stories and poems in Negro Digest/Black World, Rutgers’ Anthologist, the Hiram Poetry Review, Umbra and Black Fire. Since his death his reputation and writings have attracted a large and international community of readers. On the heels of the publication of ARK OF BONES AND OTHER STORIES and PLAY EBONY PLAY IVORY, writers, artists and students gathered in several largely Black areas of the country to read from the works and proclaim the genius of Dumas. Among the anthologies and periodicals which have printed his work since his death are: Black Scholar, Essence, Brothers and Sisters, Confrontation, Galaxy of Black Writing, You Better Believe it, Open Poetry and Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings. Just before his death, Dumas was employed by Southern Illinois University’s Experiment in Higher Education in East St. Louis.

 

Imamu Ameer Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who has provided a Preface to this volume, is one of America’s most esteemed black writers. His best known books are Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note; Blues People; and The Dead Lecturer. In 1964 he won the Obie Award for his play Dutchman, which was made into a motion picture in 1967. Recently he has been giving readings and lectures on college and university campuses throughout the United States.

 

Jay Wright, who has written an Introduction to this volume, has studied at the University of California (Berkeley), Union Theological Seminary, and Rutgers University. He is a widely published poet and playwright and has held several fellowships. Recently he has served as a reader in the Academy of American Poets Schools Program in New York City and as poet in-residence at Tougaloo College and Talladega College.

 

Hale Chatfield, coeditor of this volume with Eugene Redmond, is a member of the English faculty at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. He is founder and editor of the Hiram Poetry Review, and the author of two book-length collections of poetry. His work appears regularly in literary periodicals. In July 1968 he was named chairman of the Poetry Advisory Panel to the Ohio Arts Council.

 

Eugene Redmond, currently Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, has won several prizes for poetry. He holds the B.A. degree in English Literature from Southern Illinois University and the M.A. degree from Washington University. This year October House will publish his first book-length collection of poems, THE EYE IN THE CEILING.

 

 

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