Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Henry Dumas, the Black Panther comic book, and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Excerpt from Henry Dumas poem "Rootsong" in Black Panther #3

Eugene B. Redmond has been advocating for and facilitating the posthumous publication of Henry Dumas's poems for nearly 50 years now. As my faculty mentor, Redmond prompted me to think about Dumas's poetry in multiple contexts. Still, I can't say I could've predicted today's Dumas sighting.  

Black Panther #3 -- written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, artwork by Brian Stelfreeze, and coloring by Laura Martin -- opens with an excerpt from Dumas's poem "Root Song,"  which reads in part:
Once when I was tree
flesh came and worshiped at my roots.
My ancestors slept in my outstretched
limbs and listened to flesh
praying and entreating on his knees.

How exciting to see the words of a somewhat underground poet whom you studied for so long show up in a comic book like Black Panther.

Today on his Atlantic blog, Coates published a short piece "Wakanda the Black Aesthetic" explaining his early readings of Dumas's poetry. He also references how Redmond and Toni Morrison helped ensure that readers might discover Dumas's work.  Coates writes that:
Dumas was killed at the age of 34 by New York city transit cop. But his legacy endures through the strivings of the poet Eugene Redmond and the great Toni Morrison. It was Redmond who posthumously edited Dumas’ poems into a book. It was Morrison, then an editor at Random House, who ultimately published them.
Dumas and Redmond were colleagues in 1968 at SIU's higher education program in East St. Louis. In May of that year, Dumas was killed in New York City by a transit police officer who alleged that Dumas had illegally jumped a turnstile. Murderous police brutality at its finest. Since his death, Redmond has work with a range of poets, scholars, editors, and Dumas's widow Loretta Dumas, to give readers access to Dumas's poems, short stories, and extended narratives (a novel). 

The appearance of Dumas's words in the opening of Black Panther #3 reveal that Coates was one of the many readers who encountered the poet's words and then found a way to re-present them in other modes. Perhaps, this appearance in a comic book is a first.

A Notebook on Black Panther
A Notebook on comic books
Ta-Nehisi Coates

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