“Henry Dumas was killed by police in a case of ‘mistaken identity’.” So goes the explanation that has been reproduced in essays and sketches about him, and even in the blurbs on the back of his posthumously published books. It’s not clear how the “mistaken identity” explanation came about, but it is inaccurate. The actual circumstances of Dumas’s death remain murky, and it is likely that the case will never be completely solved. However, Jeffrey Leak’s biography of Dumas gives us the most lucid account of that night so far.
Henry Dumas was shot and killed in Harlem by a New York City Transit Policeman on the platform of the 125th street station at Lenox Avenue on the evening of May 23, 1968, just seven weeks after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Leak, the only public police account of the incident came from an article in the Amsterdam News which includes a statement by the officer who shot Dumas. In that account, the officer says that he was breaking up an altercation between another man and Dumas, when Dumas became belligerent and attacked him. Dumas’s friend Lois Silber later stated in an interview that when she went to identify his body at the morgue, a police officer told her that Dumas was carrying a knife. The New York City Transit Police Department merged with the NYPD in 1995, and with that organizational merger many of the transit police records were destroyed. With the loss of those records, and no other witness accounts of the incident, there is no way to know if any weapon was actually recovered. According to Leak, Dumas had begun carrying a pistol for protection, particularly in the wake of King’s murder in April, but he had left it home that night. In 1984 a SUNY student writing a thesis on Dumas contacted the officer, and was surprised that he was willing to speak about the incident. As with so many police shootings of unarmed citizens, the explanation seems to be that “mistakes were made.” The officer felt he was a rookie caught in a volatile situation that he was not prepared for. But even if we accept his “innocence,” the fact that such mistakes always seem to happen to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to black and brown people in ghettos, speaks to the systemic problems with policing that transcend individual morality. (For more on the incident see pages 145-153 in Visible Man)
As more people discover Dumas’s work, there will certainly be interest in the circumstances of his death. Perhaps the investigation that Leak has done will lead to an even clearer narrative of what happened that night. But hopefully this interest in Dumas will also lead to more engagement with his writing as well.
In Play Ebony Play Ivory, a collection of Dumas poems compiled and edited by Eugene Redmond, the last section is titled “Saba (Selections),” a series of poems all titled Saba, some with subtitles added such as “Saba: Shadow and Act” and “Saba: Black Paladins” and “Saba of the Sun and Snow.”
The title “Saba” might refer to the Caribbean Island colonized by the Dutch, or to the source of that island’s name, the biblical Queen of Sheba, or both. In either case the poems are another example of Dumas’s engagement with Afrocentric history, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and African-centered spiritual practices, and their influence on his art. An excerpt from one of the poems titled “Shaba” reads:
She was a fighter with shreds of flesh
beneath her nails
light would break upon her face
and call her smile a song of war
She was a lone island
The following poem is one of the most powerful in the Saba sequence, a poem that seems to speak directly to the current resurgence of interest in Dumas’s work:
we weep that our heroes have died in our memories
our historians and preachers
remind us that we had warriors
who fought the boot of the devils
who came in Jesus ships from Europe
we weep that our forefathers kneeled
and let the knife take our tongues
we weep that no one weeps for us
what is this?
are we what we are?
listen! we are not what we will be
what is this weeping and screaming?
a people cannot create the real hero
until they create the real hero
not by mirrors or masks or muscles
but by men the soil is nourished
and one day
we will not weep but sing him
(For more on Dumas see “Dry Bones Breathe” in The New Inquiry.)
Dumas, Henry. Play Ebony Play Ivory. New York: Random House, 1974.
Leak, Jeffery. Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.