Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Henry Dumas' Sweet Home

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Henry Dumas’ Sweet Home
(from A Faithful Existence)

Why you would go there?
Because in some ways, Henry Dumas, that extraordinary writer and charismatic activist, never left. This is the same wooly landscape he rendered to its eyeteeth in the hilarious, awful, brilliant stories and poems he wrote after he moved east.

I guess I am flooded with good memories of the waters which flowed over me and
helped to form me, shape me as the river shapes the land around it…
(from Prologue to “Jonah and the Green Stone”)

But how would you get there from the city?
Turn left on Roosevelt. Follow it to Confederate Boulevard where you turn right. Confederate runs through the outskirts like a bayonet. On either side, hypnotic length after length of swag-bellied telephone cable stretches from the city of Little Rock to the town called Sweet Home, Arkansas.

Cruising into Sweet Home, if you’ll look between your roasting forearm and the side view mirror, you’ll see The Rescue Mission and its sign: “SAVING THE LEAST THE LOST AND THE LAST FOR JESUS.” A little beyond, the billboard for Evan Williams, aged bottled whiskey, and you might want to know that Evan is pronounced locally as Yvonne. You are traveling from yards eared with satellite dishes and ringed with ricks of wood towards those featuring wash-on-the-line and plywood dog houses whose barked-out occupants lie unmoving, like old mop heads, in the dusty shade.

Sweet Home 1

“Look here, Willie,” Blake said, scooping up a handful of snow, “you see that dog over there,”
and we looked at the dog. “Well, man, I believe in what I can see and what I can feel.” He patted the snow into a round ball. “I can feel this snow and I can see that dog. I believe in both
of them.” And he threw the ball. It thudded off the side of the dog. The dog jerked up and
turned around, sniffing the snow and the air, but it didn’t yelp.
(from “The Voice”)

By now you are passing Springer’s Bar-B-Q and clusters of liquor stores. Closing in. You draw near a church, the letters of its shingle drafted by a shaky hand: VOICE OF THE LIVING RISEN WORD/ TUES-THURS-SAT EVE 7:30/ THE LORD WILL ARRIVE WITH HEALING IN HIS WING’S. Across the street, the roofless charred posts and beams of a three-room house. This is Sweet Home.

Railroad tracks encincture this little town, first geography of the poet and fiction writer Henry Dumas. Between the road and train tracks up on the levee, a nasty ditch clotted with drink cans, paper bags and tadpoles perimeterizes the precinct. Black hairpicks are sunning in the road like strange fossils. At all times of day, roosters go off randomly in backyards to small houses that have no more architecture in common than their general position facing the street. Compositions of necessity, clapboard and brick, paintless or faded or kept up, but each of them displaying flowers, flowers in halved tire planters or in pots suspended from chains on the porch or lining the walkway; mimosas in bloom; Edenic, half-hidden gardens.

Under a canopy a man is sweeping. His neighbors, a woman and two men in undershirts, occupy the Sampsonite chairs and table set up between their trailer and the road. They eyeball your car suspiciously but nod casually toward the vehicle behind you, a pickup carrying upon its back like a maligned terrapin a shack of plywood signs promulgating Biblical prophecies all but indecipherable.

Regarding the driver of that oracular truck, Adela Hale says, “A man pulled him over once, gave him twenty dollars. He said for carrying around the Savior’s word like that. He’s a preacher. Got a car too with all that reading and paper on it the same way. Wanted to shake his hand is all, the man said.”

She goes on to muse, observing from the window of her living room, “That preacher might remember Henry. Henry’d a been, let’s see. Born in 34, he’d be 56. The preacher’s sixty. Though he had a stroke last year. Can’t talk too well. I used to ride around with him.” She smiles, reminiscing. A bead of sweat starting from under her white hat, tracking her temple, cheek, jaw.

Mrs. Hale, who describes herself as one of Henry Dumas’s surrogate mothers, is sister to his birth mother who “was away during that time,” the first decade of Henry Dumas’s life. Most of Henry’s childhood friends have moved, there being no local economy since the farming community dissolved and the bauxite company pulled out. Outside, playing Texas Hold-em in the shade of three bitternut hickories, a group of local men remember when Henry Dumas would come back to town from “down south,” meaning from civil rights activities. Melvin Collins comes over to speak to us. Melvin was his nephew. He whistles and calls “Fireball! Fireball!” and another man lays down his hand and gets up from his chair to stroll over.

* * *
The mineral richness below the surface has transformed the once cotton and tobacco
lands into little pocket mining communities, sticking like hardened sores beneath the white dust.
(from “Goodbye Sweetwater”)

In the title story to his fiction collection Goodbye, Sweetwater, Henry Dumas goes on to describe the bauxite dust as a symbol for the exploitation of his rural community. Most of the adults and children living in Sweet Home in the thirties, when Henry was born, worked for white farmers. Later some would take jobs at the bauxite companies. Their quarries are now abandoned, blind sockets in the green landscape, excavations and mounds of gray sand in which not even a weed takes root. A fine powder sifts over downwind trees and roofs.

Physically, the town hasn’t much changed. There are more houses and strangers. “There are drugs everywhere,” Melvin Collins bemoans outside the post office. Fireball nods in commiseration. Mrs. Hale’s son, nicknamed Fireball, was raised in the same house as Henry. But he was just a few years old when Henry took his journey east. He remembers Henry the revenant and the fuss made over him; Henry feted like the Prodigal Son.

In her sitting room, Henry’s aunt points through the wall. “Up there by the peanut house, that’s the bauxite hole where two of Henry’s first cousins and two other boys drowned in August 1960. We used to live up there in a different house. Everybody knew each other. 1940 the bauxite company bought it. I tell everybody I only moved three times in my life. That first one, then the house next door.” She indicated an open window behind the fan in the adjacent room where her retarded brother, a man in his sixties, is patiently waiting, naked, for her to give him his clothes. (She takes them periodically, when she is otherwise engaged, so that he won’t wander). “Then this one,” she finishes. “This house here.”

Henry didn’t return for the funerals of his drowned cousins. But he did come back for his grandmother’s funeral that same year, in November. It was a heavy loss, since the two grandmothers had largely raised him. He had lived “backwards and forwards” between the grandparents’ houses, while he often played and read books at Mrs. Hale’s.

Like most of the town’s population during Henry’s youth, Mrs. Hale’s husband worked for a white farmer. He started milking cows at 2 a.m. and by early morning carted bottled milk into Little Rock to deliver door by door. About 10 in the morning he would make it home, leave again to work in the dairy from 2 to 6 p.m. While they were courting, Mr. Hale made six dollars a week milking cows. 8 dollars after he married. “That was good money, good times too,” Mrs. Hale says. “Henry, when he was a boy, he worked in the fields picking cotton and about.”

“How much cotton you pick today?”
“Told you once. Ninety five.”
“I beat you then. You work all day, pick ninety
five. I work from noon and pick sixty.”
(from “A Boll of Roses”)

“Oh, those days he got called Hammerheels. For all the tricks he used to do. He had a little camera and he’d take pictures of people off their guard. He was a garden boy, we farmed corn and truck patch. Henry liked taking pictures. He’d go out in the flower garden and take a curling iron. And he’d catch butterflies and grasshoppers with it.”
“He had a dog. Name of Trixie. He couldn’t get a whooping in the house. And he had his chores. Kids fetched the water. Pull the chain, there wasn’t no pulley, to get water up. Water the hog. The cows. Garden. Get wood in the evening.”

“He always went to Sunday school. Which they called BTU.” Baptist Training Union. Actually, he went to two churches, depending on which grandparents he was staying with.

“Let the father,” screamed the Devil.
“Let the son,” persuaded God.
“She will come in time.”
“I want them all.”
(from “Devil Bird”)

What is now the community center, a flat concrete building with a creaky merry-go-round swing and two kids pulling wheelies in its front yard, served as Henry’s school. At the corners of the yard are two enormous stumps cut low to the ground, oaks Henry wouldn’t have forgotten.They preceded him and thrived after him, and were cut down lately, one a victim of lightning, the other displaced by a seldom used, fenced playground for toddlers. Henry’s school went up to ninth grade whereupon those who graduated could go to high school in Little Rock, if their families could afford it. They would hoof to Bill’s shop, where the streetcar stopped, ride their token to the end of the line and walk a block to school. It wasn’t until 1957 that the locals had a real chance to go to high school, and the first school that was built burned.

“Henry was real smart. When kids were going to school, he could get his own lessons without you having to go over them with him. That was the type of child he was. Always took time for his lessons,” explains Mrs. Hale.

Sweet Home 2

When he was 10, Henry took a trip to New York to visit his aunt’s family on his dad’s side. They liked him, wrote that they wanted to keep him. And they did. By then, Mrs. Hale had her own children. She missed Henry, but continued to hear from and about him. “We were a close family,” she says quietly. “Both sides.”

“How were any of us to know then that the next few months would mold us into a family
that would someday accuse America with its blood?”
(from “Ark”)

When Henry was a toddler, his mother left Sweet Home to visit New York and stayed thirty-five years. At first she moved in with her first husband, Henry’s father (“I don’t believe they were courting again,” Mrs. Hale makes clear), her father’s sister and Henry, until she landed a job.

When I talk to Henry’s birth mother on the phone, she admits that she just didn’t know Henry very well as a child, since she was away. Got to know him when he was older. She has some pictures he took. She is on her way to a funeral. “What’s your first name again,” she asks.

I answer, “Forrest. Forrest.”
She says, “That’s as odd as mine.”
“What’s yours?”
“What do people call you?”
“Yeah, people call me Forrest.”

His dad continued to live in New York, and he passed away after Henry. His name was also Henry Dumas. When father and son were both in New York, people called the elder Big Henry. Somewhere, there is a photograph of the two of them together.

The last time Henry Dumas came through Sweet Home, he stayed overnight with Mrs. Hale. He had been doing civil rights work in Mississippi and was excited to look up his old friends. “His lifestyle was all helping people,” she says. “Some of these people still live in poverty like that he’d come from.”

Henry Dumas, the writer and activist, died on May 23, 1968, the weekend before Mother’s Day, at the age of thirty-four. Living with his wife and children in East St. Louis, he had gone to New York to be the best man in a wedding. Afterwards, he was waiting for a subway train when a transit policeman, “thinking he heard people arguing,” approached. When he came close and didn’t see anyone but Henry, they “got into it,” as Henry’s relatives put it, and the officer shot him. Hammerheels was gone.

Four or five years ago, with Michael, the surviving child of the two boys Henry had only begun to raise, his widow came down to Sweet Home. She made the trip from New Jersey for a family reunion. Family bonds. Just recently, Henry’s mother moved from New York to south Little Rock, about 15 minutes from Sweet Home, and occasionally she helps her sister, Mrs. Hale, take care of their retarded brother. At the community center where she works, an old friend of the family, the diminutive Mrs. Miller, 84, remembers Henry too. But she doesn’t have anything specific she wants to reveal. On my second day in Sweet Home, when I tell Mrs. Miller I’m leaving, she gives me a five-part handshake that ends with a backhanded slap. “Now,” she says, “we supposed to hip it. I said we supposed to hip it, but your hip come to my shoulder.”

At the same time, we both look up toward the road. There’s a car going by bandaged in paper and posterboard and holy admonition, every window thwarted but one.