By Angelina Murdasova
Jeffrey B. Leak’s newly published book, Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas, has won praise from a noted national writer for “shining a piercing light” on the elusive Dumas, who has remained a mystery even to fans of his work.
Through interviews with friends, family and writers who knew Dumas, along with unprecedented access to materials from the Dumas archives, Leak fully examines the author’s life and his writing. Leak is an associate professor of English and the director of the Center for the Study of the New South at UNC Charlotte.
“Visible Man enacts a straightforward deconstruction of the life and time of the poet and writer,” said Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitizer Prize-winning author of books, poetry and other works, including Testimony, A Tribute to Charlie Parker.
“Leak shines a piercing light on the mystery of the artist who possessed ‘moments of brilliance’; the names and cities, the spiritual and intellectual quests, the poems and short stories, the facts, it all adds up, page by page,” Komunyakaa said. “The reader, who journeys all the crooked paths side by side with Dumas, isn’t surprised by his violent death. But still we are left saddened and disheartened by the man’s downfall and anguish, his inability to master promise, his demise on that subway platform in New York City, mainly because Leak’s blunt clarity has transported us to a place of reckoning where we are also left gazing into the collective mirror.”
The book’s publisher, The University of Georgia Press, describes Dumas as one who “devoted himself to the creation of a black literacy cosmos, one in which black literature and culture were windows into the human condition.” It wasn’t until after his tragic death, however, that Dumas’ fiction and poetry become well known with the help of his friends and admirers.
From the publisher: Dumas (1934–1968) was a writer who did not live to see most of his fiction and poetry in print. A son of Sweet Home, Arkansas, and Harlem, his poetry was influenced by African American history, jazz and gospel music, as well as Arabic culture, in which he took an interest while stationed in the Arabian Peninsula while in the Air Force. He married Loretta Ponton, and had two children.
In the early 1960s, Dumas transported clothing and food to protesters in Mississippi and Tennessee. In 1967 Dumas taught in Ohio at Hiram College, and shortly after became the director of language workshops for the Experiment in Higher Education program at Southern Illinois University. While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s—Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights—his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions.
Dumas was shot and killed in 1968 in Harlem months before his 34th birthday by a white transit policeman under circumstances never fully explained. After his death he became a kind of literary legend, but one whose full story was unknown. A devoted cadre of friends and later admirers from the 1970s to the present pushed for the publication of his work. Toni Morrison championed him as “an absolute genius.” Amiri Baraka, a writer not quick to praise others, claimed that Dumas produced “actual art, real, man, and stunning.” Eugene Redmond and Quincy Troupe heralded Dumas’s poetry, short stories, and work as an editor of “little” magazines.
Some of Leak’s research interests include 20th and 21st Century African American Novel, Gender and Cultural Studies, and Biography. Stemming from his interests, he has also written the book Racial Myths and Masculinity in African American Literature, and is the editor of Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler. A native Charlottean, Leak earned his Ph.D. at Emory University. He also serves on the Deacons Council at Friendship Baptist Missionary Church in Charlotte and on the board of the Community Building Initiative.