Knees of a Natural Man by Henry Dumas
"A young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station," reads an invitation by Toni Morrison for a posthumous book-launch party she threw fo
r Dumas in 1974, six years after he died. "A transit cop" — who was white — "shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read." (https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/10/01/433229181/henry-dumas-wrote-about-black-people-killed-by-cops-then-he-was-killed-by-a-cop)
It is more than fitting and oddly coincidental that I'd choose this book of poems to review this week, of all weeks. If you have not read Henry Dumas, you should. He's one of those often overlooked, deeply underrated, talented artists whose life was sadly cut short, but he left the gift of his literary expression behind as part of his legacy. This book in particular covers a lot of ground subject-wise, but is deeply relatable and does an excellent job of giving voice to the Black experience. #nationalpoetrymonth
Once when I was free
African sun woke me up green at dawn.
African wind combed the branches of my hair.
African rain washed my limbs.
African soil nourished my spirit.
African moon watched over me at night.
I have to adore the earth:
The wind must have heard
your voice once.
It echoes and sings like you.
The soil must have tasted
It is laden with your scent.
The trees honor you
and blush when you pass.
I know why the north country
It has been trying to preserve
I know why the desert
burns with fever.
It has wept too long without you.
On hands and knees,
the ocean begs up the beach,
and falls at your feet.
I have to adore
the mirror of the earth.
You have taught her well
how to be beautiful.
"Love Song" from Knees of a Natural Man by Henry Dumas
The forward of Knees of a Natural Man describes Henry Dumas as a "cultural stabilizer. Cultural modulator. Funkadelic verb-gymnast. With a perpetual creative edginess and a thirst for sacred-secret knowledge." Reading his poetry captures all of these dimensions but also his uncompromising commitment to Black people.
Using his life experiences as the foundation, combined with his knowledge of literature, religion, and culture, Dumas sought to be a unifier in the Black existence. He not only set out to educate but edify by exposing his audience to African traditions and uniquely Black narratives.
His work is funny but serious, sacred and sensual. It is not forced. In many ways it is even easy. But it is loaded with knowledge, wisdom, spirituality, incredible self-awareness and love. Love for self. Love for his community. And ultimately love for the written word.