Dark Reflections Redux

 

Back in 2007 I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections for the GC Advocate. Dark Reflections went out of print later that year when it’s publisher, Carroll & Graf, was acquired by another company and then dissolved, which turns out to be an oddly relevant development for a novel about the precarious nature of publishing and the writing life. Thankfully, Dover Books has released an updated and revised edition of Dark Reflections in 2016.  I decided to write about this new version of the novel from the perspective of race and literary awards for The New Inquiry.

if you haven’t seen it, I also recommend Matthew Cheney’s extensive review essay on Dark Reflections in LA Review of Books.

Jon-Christian Suggs (1940-2016)

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Jon-Christian Suggs, 2016. In front of Self-Portrait by Edward Hopper at the Whitney Museum of American Art

(These remarks were delivered at the memorial service for Jon-Christian Suggs held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY on Thursday, September 8, 2016.)

I wanted to share a few words, inadequate though they may be, about what Chris meant to me, because he meant so much to me and was a fixture in my life for the past 13 years, and I know that it will take the rest of my life to pay forward even a measure of the kindness and generosity that he showed to me and my colleagues and friends.

The last time I saw Chris was earlier this year, on a cool April evening at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, in a session for the Gotham Center Seminar where he was presenting on his research project about Hannah Elias, a little known black businesswoman in early 20th century New York. Chris was as knowledgeable and witty as ever in his presentation. Now that I know he was working on that unfinished research project in the last months of his life, I find it fitting that this was the last place I saw him –  in a library in New York, sharing his knowledge with others. I’ll always remember him as a scholar and a gentleman to the end.

All of us here know that Chris was a student and teacher of African-American history and literature. I emphasize student and teacher because inasmuch as he was a master teacher of literature, he also maintained an inquisitive spirit, searching out new trends in the field.  A few days ago I searched his name in my email inbox and came across an old thread from two years ago on the Africana Studies listserv where he asked us about the best African-American novels published in the 21st century thus far, and then compiled a list of the suggestions we all made. You already know that his book Whispered Consolations is an important scholarly contribution to the fields of law and literature and African-American studies. But what you must also know about Chris is that unlike some of his colleagues in this profession, for whom African-American studies is merely a “frame” or a “trope,” or a convenient subfield with which to leverage their prospects for jobs and tenure, Chris did this work because he cared deeply about the lives of black people, and he was always a supportive and encouraging mentor to his black students, recognizing the particular challenges that we face.

In a season where there’s a lot of talk about how economic insecurity and racial grievances are driving certain Americans into the arms of a certain demagogue, I just need to remind you that Chris grew up in Louisiana — in poor, white, rural Louisiana — and that he served his country in Vietnam (however conflicted he felt about that service later), and that he recognized that anyone who claims to care about liberty, and anyone who’s talking about government tyranny and repression had better be concerned about the lives of those who have actually lived with the government’s boot on their necks for ALL two hundred forty years of this nation’s existence.  Chris devoted himself to the study of African-American literature, and championed the work of little known and neglected black writers, and passed his knowledge on to the thousands of undergraduate students who he taught here at John Jay, and the dozens of scholars he mentored at the Graduate Center, ushering us into the ranks of the academy.

I hated to see the news of his passing, but I think he would appreciate the fact that I spent that very week writing about Sutton Griggs, an author who I first discovered in his African-American Legal Novel Class. I know that any scholarship that I am able to produce will always have Chris’s fingerprints on it. I’m grateful that I had him on my orals and dissertation committees. I’m grateful that he was there with me the evening of my defense celebrating with drinks at O’Reilly’s. I am grateful that I got a chance to tell him about the research that I’m working on now, and that I got a chance to thank him for helping to make it happen.

I can personally say that I owe much of my academic career to his guidance and support through the years.  During the trying months when I wasn’t sure if I’d get through the program, when I felt like giving up, he was always a steady hand of encouragement, and I know there are so many people in this room with stories just like mine.

I want to send out my sincerest condolences to Nan, and all his family and friends who knew him even better than I did and loved him.

When I heard that he had left us, I immediately thought of this short, poignant poem by Langston Hughes that resonated with the loss that I felt at that moment.

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,—
I loved my friend.*

 


Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by Jon-Christian Suggs.

Read some of Chris’s autobiographical writing, and other thoughts, on his blog With My Weight on My Elbows.

Contribute to the Jon-Christian Suggs Memorial Scholarship in Literature and Law at John Jay College:  https://jjaycuny.thankyou4caring.org/suggs.

* “Poem [2] (To FS)” by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf, 2004.

Singing Him Up: The Death and Afterlife of Henry Dumas 

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“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:

Saba

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
up

(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.