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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Henry Dumas, May 1968
Henry Dumas
Community and Memory
- Henry Dumas, "Ark of Bones," short story, 1974 (published posthumously), excerpt (PDF)

As Zora Neale Hurston's story "Spunk" illustrates (see #6: Community and the Folk), when African Americans came north in the early decades of the twentieth century and crossed into the modern world, many looked back to interpret their past from a new perspective. Although writers James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer did refer to the days of slavery, in general that backward glance overlooked the antebellum period, focusing instead on the recent past in the South and on a more distant time in an imagined Africa. A detailed exploration of the slave past had to wait for the 1960s and '70s. When it came, blacks asserted a bond with the suffering ancestors and, as "Ark of Bones" suggests, consciously embraced that painful heritage as part of an evolving identity.

Henry Dumas (1934-1968) was born in Arkansas. At the age of ten he moved to Harlem. Dropping out of college in 1953, he joined the Air Force and after his term of service attended Rutgers University but did not graduate. In the 1960s he supported himself chiefly as a teacher and counselor, yet he found time to write extensively, basing much of his work in black folk traditions. His promising career was cut short on May 23, 1968, when a New York City Transit policeman accidentally shot and killed him. His story "Ark of Bones" is set in the early twentieth century along the banks of the Mississippi, a river of mythic significance for both white and black Americans. Dreamlike, the story establishes a community of memory and shared suffering that reaches back to the past and extends into the future. The narrator thinks his other-worldly friend Headeye is following him to trespass upon a secret fishing spot. Arriving at Deadman's Landing, however, he realizes that Headeye is not following him, that he is, in fact, on an errand of his own. As the narrator fishes and Headeye wades in the water, a storm comes up, and both boys hear moaning sounds. Far off on the river they spy a great sailing ship, seemingly hovering above the waves. Two men, "about as black as anybody black wants to be," row to the boys and carry them to the ship. The steps to the deck are marked with dates—1608, 1944, 1977—and the hold is full of bones. In a flame-lit ceremony an old man with "grey and very woolly hair," dressed in skins, consecrates Headeye to the mission of setting his brothers free. (7 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What folk elements are present in "Ark of Bones"?
  2. What community does this story establish?
  3. What holds this community together?
  4. What is the significance of Headeye's name?
  5. What roles do magic and superstition play in this story?
  6. What does the "mojo bone" symbolize?
  7. What does the ship symbolize?
  8. In what sense is "Ark of Bones" an initiation story?
  9. What is Headeye called to do?
  10. What is the narrator called to do?
  11. In what ways does this story represent a long backward look into the African American past?
  12. Despite his use of vernacular expressions, how does Dumas preserve the dignity of his characters?

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

"Ark of Bones": 7 pages
Supplemental Sites
Henry Dumas, overview and resources, in Modern American Poetry, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Henry Dumas, overview from the Academy of American Poets

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Henry Dumas, May 1968, photograph by Clem Fiori. Henry Dumas Estate; permission pending. Digital image from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture; permission pending.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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