Introduction Play Ebony Play Ivory by Jay Wright

Introduction Play Ebony Play Ivory by Jay Wright


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Play Ebony Play Ivory

By Henry Dumas

Edited by Eugene B. Redmond


134 pp. New York Random House. Cloth $5.95 Paper $2.95




Books by Eugene Redmond

Sides of the River (1969)  /  Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars (1970) / River of Bones and Flesh and Blood (1971) / Songs from an Afro/Phone (1972)

 In a Time of Rain & Desire (1973) / Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (2003) / Drumvoices

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Books by Henry Dumas


Ark of Bones (1970) / Poetry for My People (1971) /   Play Ebony  Play Ivory   (1974)  / Jonah and the Green Stone (1976)


 Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979)  / Goodbye, Sweetwater (1988) / Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (1989)


 Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas

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Introduction by Jay Wright

Henry Dumas lived very rapidly, and very slowly. We could never seem to keep up with him, or catch him, or hold him when we did. It wasn’t that Dumas avoided any of us. There was simply so very much to do. And he had so many friends, in whose work and persons he took a deep interest, that it seemed as if he didn’t want to disappoint any of us, as if he had each day to come to each of us and prod and cajole and reaffirm his belief in whatever tasks we were about.

During the time that he was an on-again-off-again student at Rutgers University, he spent a great deal of time trying to organize informal readings, or starting or promoting small publications, or persuading one or another of his friends to go to a gospel concert. It was very hard to figure just when he had time to write. But he did write, and quite a bit. Whenever he appeared, he had stacks of new poems, pages of a novel, articles, prose poems, sketches for a play. To conclude that he lived in an absurd swiftness would be a mistake. For Dumas had heavy roots, in his people, in the land, that balanced the intensity of his day-today push toward a coherent, artistic system that could express and even, in a sense, redeem those values he cared about.

In the letter that Dumas wrote to accompany his contribution to Black Fire, the anthology edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, he said, “I am very much concerned about what is happening to my people and what we are doing with out precious tradition.” Dumas was the poet of the dispossessed. But it must be clear that his assumption is that we are dispossessed of something, and, for Dumas, that is land, absolute participation in the natural processes, mythic and humane gesture, spirit. Images of land, animals, birds, plants, pervade this book. There are few poems that deal with city here, and in those few the city is portrayed as a  cage, closed, antagonistic, a corrupter of the spirit.

Dumas was not by any means naive. There is certainly no simple opposition between the joys of the open and the deadness of the cities. He knew that life in the open is dangerous, that death is just as real there, and he shows it to be that way. What, to his mind, makes the dispossession of Black people so acute is that “the spirits are displeased,” cowardly men have severed the vital connection with the very rhythm and processes that Dumas felt were their particular and unique possession. In “Son of Msippi,” he writes,


from Sappy I grew


from the river of pain


beside the fox and the crow,

beside the melons and the maize,

beside the hound dog,

beside the pink hog,




dog pissing

in the Mississippi

rolling on and on

ignoring the colored coat I spun

of cotton fibers.

Nothing is left out. The picture of the struggle of life is all the more compelling because it is so simply stated and accepted. But the condemned are the bringers of death who ignore “the colored coat I spun,” and who cannot participate with the same depth and intensity in the natural processes, or be as totally committed to and part of the land.

This sense of place, this sense of life style are very important in understanding Dumas’ poetry. Dumas is almost never an observer, standing outside the poem, making comments about the action that goes on in it. All you have to do to affirm this is to look at the poems in the section “Play Ebony Play Ivory.” Not that this way of working is limited to that section. But take, for example, “Hunt,”


antelope falls

i watch

jakqula cut

i watch

titio cut

i watch

yakub lift

i watch

all carry

i leg beneath

i tongue

falling blood

i am butang


Dumas is there. the rhythm is the perception. The language is participation in the act. or consider “Rite.” Dumas is in that rite. Shango is not talked about, used. Shango is part of Dumas’ very consciousness, a god in his imagination, alive and active in the bones of an Afro-American from Arkansas. or go to “I laugh Talk Joke,” which is verbal play that Dumas took, in part directly from the streets and to which he added lines of his own.

None of this is perverse, intellectual play. It is indicative of Dumas’ sense of history. In “Emoyeni, Place of the Winds,” he writes, “I see with my skin and hear with my tongue.” Taking that line out of context may be to diminish it, but the force of the line seems to warrant looking at it apart from its context. The line, I suggest, asserts some elementary truths about Dumas’, and not alone Dumas’, poetic techniques. This book, Poetry for My People , is grounded in that line. The skin is present, living, but it is also history.

What Dumas means is that there are racial and social determinants of perception, ideas that he he was just beginning to develop. The mind articulates what the senses have selected from the field, and this articulation is, in part, determined by what the perceiver has learned to select and articulate. There is certainly no consensus among thinkers that this is what happens, but there is some evidence for believing, as Dumas did, that it does happen. In “[I] hear with my tongue,” Dumas asserts that the language you speak is a way of defining yourself within a group.

The language of the Black community, as with that of any other group, takes its form, its imagery, its vocabulary, because Black people want them that way. Language can protect, exclude, express value, as well as assert identity. That is why Dumas’ language is the  way it is. In the rhythm of it, is the act, the unique manner of perception of a Black man.

Dumas found his rhythm of perception (let’s call it0 most readily, as others have, in music. And he brooded a lot about musical structure. the blues and gospel music, particularly, were his life breath. Only Langston Hughes knew more, or at least as much, about gospel and gospel singers. Dumas haunted concerts, photographing, when he could, the singers and the action. For him, the songs and the style of the singers linked him to the land, pinpointed that sense of dispossession that he felt, living in the alien, crass and prejudiced cities, where too many people ignored what he was as a Black man, and too few cared enough to learn or honor him because of it.


dumas3.jpg (102189 bytes)

He wrote poems, not to but for the singers, even though he realized that they would probably never see them. In “Kef 25,” he celebrates his favorite group, The Swan Silvertones, and joins them, and himself, to their African past, to, in other words, their present. His singers have the wisdom of African priests. The music is more than gospel; it is the mythic gesture and indicative of a social structure. Music seemed to Dumas to be able to carry the burden of direct participation in the act of living, as no poem, that was not musically structured, could.

Dumas was searching for an analogous structure for poetry. Where music seemed capable of shifting, in rhythm and intensity, and coming at life from various points of view, within the same composition, poetry seemed to him static, too committed to working in one direction. Dumas tried to break that because he wanted the poem to be able to carry the past, as well as the present and future, and because he wanted to write longer poems that would do just that.

His long poems in this book, “Genesis on an Endless Mosaic” and “The Zebra Goes Wild,” for example, are attempts at this musical structure.

But, of course, Dumas wouldn’t be contained that easily, working along one line. he could write with a verbal intensity, in the manner of Nicolas Guillen, the Afro-Cuban poet, in “Ngoma”; with the humor of his blues songs and “My Little Boy”; with the tenderness of “Asali” and “all the letters i have written to you”; with the rage of “Cuttin Down to Size,” or the political bite of “Mosaic Harlem.” And his language is always appropriate:


his honey you gave me

has turned to tears


dripping from your fingers

a lost sweetness [,]


No power can stay the mojo

when the obi is purple

and the vodu is green

and Shango is whispering,

Bathe me in blood,

I am not clean [,]


my white mother is a whore

with the holy white plague . . .

she took what my black mother gave me

and left me half blind

. . . force is my black mother

she maintains and transforms.

There is no “tone” in Dumas, in the sense that publishers speak of tone, asking the poet to be one thing, to speak in one voice, to limit his perceptions and language so that they can be easily handled, codified, and dismissed. Dumas was more than that, and more poet. He wanted to be everything, to participate intenseley in whatever was humane and good, to preserve and express “our precious tradition,” at this time, in this place. he was very angry and very proud. he wanted, if he couldn’t get its love, the world’s respect. For he would make and present his love in Poetry for My People.

And that meant that he would try everything. he would rage against those who would not or could not see the beauty of his people. he would rage against his people when they failed him in aspiration. he would speak to them, and to himself, in love.


“Why don’t you train the stems

to bow?” I asked

“The wind is the better teacher,” he said

“Why don’t you trim their arms?”

“In due time these arms will

embrace the earth.

I will not lessen their love.”

Neither would Henry Dumas.

11 July 1969

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About the Editor (in 1975)

Eugene B. Redmond, poet, essayist and playwright, is professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at California State University, Sacramento. He has taught at several United States colleges and universities, including Southern Illinois University, where he was a colleague of Henry Dumas. Redmond’s books of poetry are Sides of the River (1969,) Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars (1970), River of Bones and Flesh and Blood (1971), Songs from an Afro/Phone (1972), Consider Loneliness As These Things, and In a Time of Rain & Desire 1973); his LP recording of poetry, Bloodlinks and Sacred Places, was released by Black River Writers in 1973. He edited Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History (1976) and Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas (2003)

During the sixties, Redmond edited Midwestern community newspapers and served for two years as senior consultant to Katherine Dunham at the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis. His writings have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Black World, Journal of Black Poetry, The Black Scholar, Open Poetry, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Black Orpheus, American Dialog, Discourses on Poetry and The New Black Poetry.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color. There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary—School Library Journal

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 14 January 2012




Home  Eugene B. Redmond Table Black Arts and Black Power Figures

Related files:  Introduction Play Ebony  Henry Dumas Bio  Play Ebony Review

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