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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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 Dumas's authentic voice is heard most clearly when he writes from within what seems

 to have been his subject: Africa and Nature. He is the first Afro-American

poet to speak convincingly in the voice of an African.



Books by Eugene Redmond

Sides of the River (1969)  /  Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars (1970) / River of Bones and Flesh and Blood (1971) / Songs from an Afro/Phone (1972)

 In a Time of Rain & Desire (1973) / Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (2003) / Drumvoices

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Books by Henry Dumas


Ark of Bones (1970) / Poetry for My People (1971) /   Play Ebony  Play Ivory   (1974)  / Jonah and the Green Stone (1976)

 Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979)  / Goodbye, Sweetwater (1988) / Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (1989)

 Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas

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Play Ebony Play Ivory

By Henry Dumas

Edited by Eugene B. Redmond


134 pp. New York / Random House. / Cloth $5.95 Paper $2.95

Reviewed By Julius Lester


Henry Dumas was 34 when he was killed by a white policeman in 1968. Fortunately, his creative potential had matured enough so that his poetry can be read without one's judgments being influenced by the reverberating echoes of the bullets that ended his life.

Dumas's poetic range was wide, and in an older, more accomplished poet, this would have indicated versatility. Dumas was still the poet-in-search-of-his-subject, however, exploring moods, themes and forms with uneven results. Many of his short poems read like fragments that might have found their form, if there had been time. Other poems suffer from excessive imagery, coyness and manufactured black rage. A section of blues lyrics is embarrassingly bad and a poem called "Cuttin Down to Size" is an unfortunate excursion into anti-Semitism.

Dumas's talent asserts itself more effectively when he writes from within an experience rather than above it. In the autobiographical "Son of Msippi," there are overtones of Jean Toomer ("Bare walk and can stalk / Make a hungry belly talk"), and an intentional Whitmanesque image:

out of the loins

        of the leveed lands

muscling its American vein

the great Father of Waters . . .

A few lines later, however, he shatters this perception of the river with an image that could have been written only by a black poet: "the  bone-filled Mississippi."

Dumas's authentic voice is heard most clearly when he writes from within what seems to have been his subject: Africa and Nature. He is the first Afro-American poet to speak convincingly in the voice of an African.

Once when I was tree

flesh came and worshipped

       at my roots.

My ancestors slept

       in my outstretched

limbs and listened to flesh

praying and entreating

       on his knees.

Dumas does not personify nature; he becomes it. Nature is not an object of beauty, but a living, articulate organism.

"Love Song of a Lamb" is an erotic poem by a lamb.

 i speak to you

     ram of strength

     ram of beauty

     why do you come

     toward me leaning

     behind my honed shadow?


In the sparse lines of "Hunt," the poet speaks as a dog. The majestic "Ngoma" effectively creates and melds the sound of "ngoma" (Swahili for drum) with the heartbeat of the unborn child in the stomach of the woman narrator of the poem. It is a stunning achievement.

Besides the African voice, Dumas also had a lyric one which was beginning to approach the purity of haiku

The lights gathering

on the night lake

sing a thousand songs

of the sleeping sun

At his best, Henry Dumas was the most original Afro-American poet of the sixties, and this book is the portrait of a poet in the budding time. Thanks to a white policeman, there will be no flowering.

Source: New York Times Book Review (9/19/75)

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About the Editor (in 1975)

Eugene B. Redmond, poet, essayist and playwright, is professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at California State University, Sacramento. He has taught at several United States colleges and universities, including Southern Illinois University, where he was a colleague of Henry Dumas. Redmond's books of poetry are Sides of the River (1969,) Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars (1970), River of Bones and Flesh and Blood (1971), Songs from an Afro/Phone (1972), Consider Loneliness As These Things, and In a Time of Rain & Desire 1973); his LP recording of poetry, Bloodlinks and Sacred Places, was released by Black River Writers in 1973. He edited Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History (1976) and Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (2003)

During the sixties, Redmond edited Midwestern community newspapers and served for two years as senior consultant to Katherine Dunham at the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis. His writings have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Black World, Journal of Black Poetry, The Black Scholar, Open Poetry, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Black Orpheus, American Dialog, Discourses on Poetry and The New Black Poetry.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 25 March 2012




Home  Eugene B. Redmond Table Black Arts and Black Power Figures

Related files:  Introduction Play Ebony  Henry Dumas Bio  Play Ebony Review