Despite his literary brilliance, Dumas became a tragic symbol of young black men slain by police.
This is The Blacklist, a monthly column by Michael Gonzales exploring out-of-print books by African-American authors.
In the spring of 1968, the Rascals tune “A Beautiful Morning” was one of the most popular songs in the country, but for black Americans, things weren’t quite so sweet. While the decade began with Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights protests, sit-ins, and marches against segregation and other racial inequalities, by the mid-60s the roar of black power began to drown out the passive voices. Although King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 was inspiring, it wasn’t strong enough to hold back the turbulent riots and flowing blood, sometimes courtesy of trigger-happy cops. The “summer of love” had come and gone, replaced, as poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron later sang, by “Winter in America,” and the entire nation was on edge.
Fifty years ago, thirty-three-year-old southern expat Henry Dumas, a young black writer, was killed. In a mysterious case, he was slain by a rookie cop named Peter Bienkowski at the 125th Street and Lenox Avenue subway station in 1968. Like an American version of Rashomon, there are different sides of Dumas’ death scene, one involving him flashing a supposed knife, while another claimed he was acting erratic and had gotten into an argument with another transit customer. In the end, besides Bienkowski, there were no witnesses and the official records have since been destroyed.
As a writer, Dumas had published mostly in several collections and journals, the highest circulation publication being Black World (formerly Negro Digest), a Chicago-based Johnson Publishing magazine on black aesthetics, African studies, art, and literature. Dumas died weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the furious, fiery riots that followed. Dumas had moved with his family to Illinois, where he was teaching, and was only visiting New York City for a wedding when he was killed.
After he was slipped into a body bag, taken to the morgue, and buried in Long Island National Cemetery in Suffolk County, New York, it was through the continuous efforts of literary executor Eugene B. Redmond that his work did not die too.