Since last January, author Michael A. Gonzales has been writing a monthly column for Catapult called “The Blacklist,” in which he rescues out-of-print texts by black authors from obscurity. Gonzales so far has uncovered little-known works of satire, crime fiction, and urban realism from the middle to the end of the 20th century. In each installment, he interviews those close to the work — usually editors, friends, or the authors themselves if they’re still living — for insight into the book’s creation.
The second piece in the series was on Henry Dumas, author of several collections of poems and short stories, as well as the posthumously published novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone. Dumas was killed by a police officer in a New York City subway station in 1968 at age 33. The novel was acquired by Toni Morrison for Random House while she was an editor there. With a detailed, painterly touch, Gonzales brings color and drama to the story he tells about the book and the atmosphere that nurtured it into being:
It was poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe who introduced his friend Toni Morrison to both Dumas’ work and Redmond. Having moved to New York City in 1971 to teach, Troupe was already a well-known poet and essayist on the West Coast. “I didn’t know Dumas personally, but I loved his literary voice,” Troupe said from his home in Harlem. “His voice was different from the other young poets; it was elegant, but also as haunting as voodoo. I gave Toni the two books (Poetry for My People and Ark of Bones) published by Southern Illinois University and she freaked out. She loved them and wanted to publish them at Random House.”
In a 1975 review, the New Yorker called the prose in Ark of Bones a “collection of extraordinary short stories,” while also declaring that “Dumas was that rarity—a passionately political man with a poet’s eye and ear and tolerance of ambiguity . . . one of the saddest things about his book is that it leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that there were even better books to come.”
On the night of his murder, Dumas, who in photos was a lean, goateed man, had just left a rehearsal with jazz futurist Sun Ra and his Space Arkestra, and was headed downtown, perhaps to hear more way-out musical sounds at the Vanguard or Slugs. Although he also loved gospel and the blues, it was at Slugs where Dumas and Sun Ra met in 1966. “Everybody should try to be what they are,” Sun Ra told the young scribe, whose tapes of the interview were released posthumously as The Ark and the Ankh in 2001. According to the Redmond-penned liner notes, “The two men were very close and Sun Ra waxed alternatively angry and depressed when he received news of his protégé’s death.”
In the latest installment, Gonzales highlights Rhode Island Red, a detective novel written by Charlotte Carter. She was a Chicago-born poet who’d been inspired to write crime fiction, in part, by the work of Chester Himes. While introducing us to Carter’s novels, Gonzales also draws a lineage of black crime fiction.
According to Paula L. Woods’ seminal collection of Black crime fiction Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes, the first published Negro mystery story ever published was “Talma Gordon” by Pauline E. Hopkins in 1900 in Colored American Magazine. Still, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Black women began contributing to the genre en masse with novels by Eleanor Taylor Bland, Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Grace F. Edwards lining the bookstore shelves.
Nevertheless, it was [Charlotte] Carter’s jazz-loving, sexually liberated protagonist that resonated with me from the moment I’d bought the book at the now-closed Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Lower Broadway. “A terrific novel, from those witty, subversive opening sentences, to the edgy, melancholy and very satisfying ending,” read Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson’s blurb on the book. Tracing [protagonist] Nanette’s origins, Carter says, “I was with a man (Frank King) who I subsequently married actually, and he was writing crime fiction. One day we were on 6th Avenue in the 20s, in what used to be known as the Flower District, and we saw a young woman playing saxophone with a hat in front of her to collect tips. When we got home, Frank said, ‘You should do a book about a female saxophonist. It would be kinda funny, but you like mysteries so much, why don’t you do that?’ And, that’s how it started; I never would have done it without him.”
The Blacklist goes a long way towards highlighting the complexity and variety of literary art by people of color. This kind of excavation work often goes unnoticed and unheralded — it is in the vein of Walker’s headstone for Hurston, Nina Collins’ rescue of her mother, Kathleen’s short stories, Brigid Hughes’ recovery of the work of Bette Howland. It’s an exciting series to follow, and I anticipate that some of the work highlighted will make its way back to the marketplace.