On July 20, 1934, Henry Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas. At the age of ten, he moved to Harlem. Dumas attended City College in New York before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1953. He was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; he also spent a year stationed on the Arabian Peninsula. While in the Air Force, Dumas won creative-writing awards for his contributions to Air Force periodicals. In 1955, he married Loretta Ponton. The couple had two children, David and Michael. After returning from his tour with the Air Force in 1957, Dumas attended Rutgers University.
In the early 1960s, Dumas transported food and clothing to protesters in Tennessee and Mississippi. Dumas remained active in the civil rights and Black Power movements for the remainder of his life. In 1967, he taught at Hiram College in Ohio and later that year became the director of language workshops at Southern Illinois University's Experiment in Higher Education Program. While living in East St. Louis, he became friends with Eugene Redmond, a fellow teacher. Dumas also served as the editor and publisher for a number of "little" magazines, such as Anthologist, Untitled, Camel, Hiram Poetry Review, and Collection. In April of 1968, at the age of thirty-three, Dumas was shot and killed by a New York Transit Authority Policeman at 125th Street Station in a case of "mistaken identity." At the time of his death, he had already finished several manuscripts of poetry and short stories.
Dumas' poetry, short fiction, and novels have been published posthumously in large part due to the efforts of Eugene Redmond, Toni Morrison, and Quincy Troupe. Poetry for My People first appeared in 1970 and was later published as Play Ebony, Play Ivory. When Play Ebony, Play Ivory appeared in 1974, Julius Lester in the New York Times Book Review called Dumas "the most original Afro-American poet of the sixties." Dumas' first collection of short fiction, "Arks of Bones" and Other Stories, was first published in 1974. Redmond has also helped to bring out an unfinished novel, Jonah and the Green Stone (1976), as well as the collections Rope of Wind and Other Stories (1979), Goodbye, Sweetwater (1988), and Knees of a Natural Man: The Selected Poetry of Henry Dumas (1989). Authors including James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou have celebrated his writing for its mixture of natural and supernatural phenomena, music, beauty, and revolutionary politics.