As civil servants in heavily militarized gear keep the Ferguson community under surveillance and the rest of us glued to the Internet for increasingly shocking reports of brutality and awe, we need another good story this week. Enter the Coffee House Press Black Arts Movement Series. The series is dedicated to giving new life to lost writings from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s—the artists, intellectuals, speakers, and musicians who ran the game in spite of the white backlash against rising Black Power—think Aretha, James, Malcolm, Ray. Also, think Henry Dumas.
Have you heard of him? No? Here’s why:
As best we know from circumstances that still remain unclear, on May 23, 1968, while seated unarmed in a Harlem subway station, a thirty-three year old father, husband, teacher, and emerging writer named Henry Dumas was confronted by a New York City Transit Authority policeman who, in what may have been a case of mistaken identity or imagined provocation, summarily shot him dead.
This comes from John S. Wright’s introduction to Dumas’ Coffee House printed Echo Tree, a 380+ page posthumous collection of most of the fabulist short fiction the Dumas gave the world before that ill-fated day on the subway. The book contains three short story collections, impressive to have written in a full lifetime, much less in only 33 years. And that’s not all. He also gave us three collections of poetry. Who knows what else might have been? But what there is, as Toni Morrison and Angela Davis have told it, sounds like pure gold.
Before you make your trip to the bookstore or the library or to Coffee House Press’ website to get your own Echo Tree, try a sample from the National Humanities Center, his story “Ark of Bones,” and a teaser here:
There was a lot of signs, but they weren’t nothin too special. If you’re sharp- eyed you always seein somethin along the Mississippi… Then I sees it. I’m gettin ready to chunk another stick out at him, when I see this big thing movin in the far off, movin slow, down river, naw it was up river. Naw, it was just movin and standin still at the same time. The damndest thing I ever seed. It just about a damn boat, the biggest boat in the whole world. I looked up and what I took for clouds was sails. The wind was whippin up a sermon on them.
Probably when you read the story of Headeye, nothing will ever be the same again.
If you can, pick up a copy of the September 2014 issue of Harper’s. The story in this issue, “They Were Awake” by Rebecca Evanhoe, chronicles a high-style dinner party with guests whose conversations keep veering into troubling, violent meditations, only to be pulled back to civility by the pouring of wine or the washing of dishes. The dinner guests, or ladies as they’re referred to in the story, talk troubling dreams all through the evening, a move that feels like a direct confrontation to the old writing advice that dreams don’t work in fiction. Somehow though, Evanhoe writes a story of dreams that succeeds. Is it because the dreams so closely mirror the reality of our own violent culture and the aggression and threats that many women encounter in the world daily? Or is it because Evanhoe deploys them in the conversation with the pacing and deadpan humor we’d expect from a Coen sister who was really into psychoanalysis? (If, that is, the brothers had a sister, which the Internet suggests they don’t). Watch:
‘I had this wonderful dream last year, when I divorced John,’ Becca said, ‘that I had killed this man with my bare hands, just wrestled him to the ground and wrapped my hands around his neck, strangling him, and as I was doing it, I felt capable of anything, I could do anything I wanted.’
The ladies smiled politely. Amy said, ‘You certainly can do anything—just look at this salade niçoise.’ The ladies tittered now, grateful for Amy.
Whatever the answer, the four-page result with its troubling climax and ending is certainly worth a read (or two, and a share). Also, it’d be good to keep an eye out for Evanhoe who’s been releasing an arsenal of stories over the last several years. Do some digging and you can read her “Snake,” another quiet, troubling short short at Harper’s, “Tandy and Bo” at Parcel, and a few online stories as well, including “Sort by Kind” at Vice, and “Be It a Knife” at Everyday Genius.