Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, in 1934 and lived there until the age of ten, when he moved to New York City; however, he always kept with him the religious and folk traditions of his hometown. In Harlem, he attended public school and graduated from Commerce High School in 1953. After graduating, he enrolled in the Air Force and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he met future wife, Loretta Ponton. The couple married in 1955 and had two sons, David in 1958 and Michael in 1962. Dumas was in the military until 1957, at which time he enrolled at Rutgers University but never attained a degree. In 1967 Dumas began work at Southern Illinois University as a teacher, counselor, and director of its “Experiment in Higher Education” program. It was here that he met fellow teacher and poet Eugene Redmond, forming a close collaborative relationship that would prove so integral to Dumas’s posthumous career.
During his life, Dumas was active in civil rights and humanitarian efforts, including transporting food and clothing to protesters in Mississippi and Tennessee. While serving in the military, he spent eighteen months at Dhahran Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia, where he developed an interest in the language, culture, religion, and mythology of the Arab world.
He was shot to death at the age of 33 by a white New York City Transit Authority police officer at 135th Street Station, in a case of “mistaken identity” on May 23, 1968. The tragic incident exemplified the position of blacks in America in the 1960s. His death is mentioned in the poem “An Alphabet of My Dead,” by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.
Jeffrey B. Leak is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of the New South at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. He is the editor of Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler and the author of Racial Myths and Masculinity in African American Literature.