The aesthetic "mask" throughout Dumas's work takes various forms, as pure tough-minded defiance, survival myth, or blues irony, but the poet's aim is the same: to surmount, through inner resource, the alienating circumstances of a dehumanizing situation. Whether life is trapped in the urban reality of stark misery and ghetto destitution, as in "Harlem Game"—a shabby environment of deferred dreams characterized by tense, fierce rituals of survival and spiritual atrophy, similar to the kind we find in section two of Toomer's Cane—or in rural conditions of backbreaking peasant toil, as illustrated by "Son of Msippi," the poet points to the value of the indigenous tradition of folk art as a vehicle of expression for the survival will:
Up from Msippi I grew. (Bare walk and cane stalk make a hungry belly talk.) Up from the river of death [. . .]
Cane-sweat river-boat nigger-bone floating
Up from Msippi I grew, wailing a song with every strain. (19-20)
A drama of encounter is played out here between life's inexorable energy and the forces of a grim environment permeated by forces of death. But the life-affirming, contrapuntal rhythms of the poet's creative "wailing" assures his "growth"; his survival spirit refuses to be cowed by the destructive power symbolized in the "river of pain" and the "river of death," a geographical metaphor derived out of the slave songs, as DuBois notes (270), to define the alienating forces within the American social landscape.
The folk jingle upon which the poem ends juxtaposes these counterpointing rhythms nourished by the landscape: the capacity for pain and release, death and creation. The final lines read, "Woman gone woe man too / baby cry rent-pause daddy flew." The vitality of the folk response to experience is recognized in this couplet where the poet employs not only what Redmond calls "the pain-stained-blues 'wailing'," but also the rhythmic and mnemonic rhyme effects of the folk ditty, container and conveyor of the feelings of cultural homogeneity. Here the poet seeks to invest in the strong sense of group identity or collective morale that imbues folk values with a religious quality. The troubles that haunt the individual's soul are woven into a simple song to be shared by the community so that the potential ordeal may be transcended by transforming the personal experience into the enduring accomplishment of shared community feeling.
The folk creations, valuable as affirmations of the spirit, constitute, for the artist and the community, morally and politically viable strategies of liberation from the pain of daily existence as well as the psychic terror caused by unjust domination. Important here too is the act of locating the art within the perspective of the oral tradition; this is a vital framework through which the poet invokes the values of his own history, and articulates an alternative aesthetic vision as a basis for a "resistance culture" to the angst of social and psychic alienation.