Black Death: The Long Riotous 60's, Henry Dumas, and Resurrection.

Author:Rocheteau, Casey

Her thesis is entitled "the first panthers: the black panther parties in new york city 1966-1971" and addresses the work and repression of the two black panther parties in new york during that era.

"sooner or late, eventually everybody gets destroyed, so the whole thing, the whole goal of humanity is to be destroyed"--sun ra, the ark and the ankh, 1966

In 1966, the visionary poet henry dumas interviewed futuristic jazz musician sun ra at slug's saloon in new york city's lower east side. A recording was produced from that session called "the ark and the ankh" in which the two men discuss the similarities of music and poetry, the direction of humanity, and rap about some of sun ra's philosophical equations. The title of the record references two symbols representing the two men: sun ra was the ankh, the ancient egyptian symbol of life eternal, and dumas was the ark, the ship of salvage and salvation in a time of chaos and peril. The interview track is also mixed over with screeching horns, sporadic percussion and other ambient sounds. Early on in the conversation, sun ra states that the goal of humanity is to be destroyed; this propensity for destruction refuses the promise of the ankh. When dumas asks ra how he knows this is true, sun ra replies "cuz that's what ends up in the cemetery" (1), alluding perhaps to the funerary practices as a remembrance of a finite life, which venerates the body in death as opposed to the immortal life of the soul. Dumas later asks "what do you think is the problem with the black man" to which ra replies "he can't see me yet" (2). While it may not be possible to fully comprehend sun ra's meaning, he implies that the black man is so mired in death he cannot fully understand the extent of sun ra's message of creation over destruction. Both the ark and the ankh are symbolic of refuge from the violence and mayhem that marked the mid 1960's, and ended henry dumas' life in may of 1968. While dumas died young, his writings were compiled and preserved by eugene redmond and widely published and prefaced with the assistance of toni morrison, amiri baraka, poet jay wright and others.

In this way, dumas became a kind of osiris figure; his body of works was re-membered by those who knew him in life and those who came to recognize the importance of his writings in the wake of his murder. Stephen e. Henderson invoked osiris' name in regard to dumas in 1988 (3), while ishmael reed called him "the poet of resurrection" (4). Indeed, in this arc of mythology, eugene redmond became isis, but the progeny of this resurrection was not a child, but the publication of dumas' oeuvre. Dumas' aesthetic defies classification. His prose can read like sheet music, though often the musical notes are hieroglyphs, where the pauses are ghosts that strike and fade. His short story "fon" in ark of bones is an excellent example of this. The narrative transitions are smooth, and yet fon, the character for whom the story is titled, is a mysterious sorcerer intent who escapes a lynch mob with a kind of unspoken conjuring and kinship with some unseen archer. At other times dumas' prose borders on non-fiction, as james de jongh has pointed out about the short stories "the marchers" and "harlem" from dumas' rope of wind (5). While his work defies the ability to rigidly categorize it, dumas exemplified larry neal's idea of the black aesthetic. Neal wrote that "the black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas, and white ways of looking at the world." Dumas, did that with his own writing, and wrote about that aesthetic itself in stories like "will the circle be unbroken?" Wherein the sound of african horn kills a white musicologist who has demanded entrance into a jazz club in order to hear it. It is in this way that dumas' work is unapologetic/black/magic. In order to fully appreciate dumas' significance, it is crucial to contextualize his work and his death historically.

Sun ra's interpretation of man's binary choice between life and death in the ark and the ankh reflects something intrinsic to cold war culture: humanity had invented a sure fire way to destroy itself, and which had a polarizing effect on the prevailing cultural paradigm: with destruction and the partisan enmity of war at one end of the spectrum, and the spirit of creativity and re-birth at the other. Ra's postulation is also situated in the context of black death: be it black political leaders throughout the diaspora being targeted for assassination by american spy agencies or four young girls at church on a sunday being...

To continue reading