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W.E.B. Du Bois and the literature of upheaval

There is a moment in the George Miller film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) that has stuck with me over the two decades since I first saw it. A bedraggled Max (Mel Gibson) is escorted through the crumbling desert outpost of Bartertown. There, he visits Aunty, the nominal leader of the city, played by Tina Turner. She asks a question that presumably comes up a lot in this post-apocalyptic setting: “What did you do before all this?” He admits that he was a police officer. “How the world turns,” she says. “One day, cock of the walk. Next, a feather duster.” And then, Aunty reveals what makes this sub-genre of storytelling so seductive and so frightening. “Do you know who I was?” she asks. “Nobody. Except on the day after. I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.”

The prospect of societal upheaval has fueled post-apocalyptic stories for years, derived from fears of economic collapse, revolution, invasion, pandemic, or environmental catastrophe. It is perversely fun, perhaps more so for the most privileged among us, to be afraid of these things, at least for the duration of a film or a novel. But, as Aunty demonstrates, these stories also offer a way to critique the status quo, and to propose a new way of doing things that would be possible only through a sudden, calamitous change. I’ve always wondered: just who was Aunty “before all this”? Was she a working stiff? Was she homeless? Was she in prison? Is she claiming to have been a nobody simply to provide a narrative that demands respect?

I was pleasantly surprised some years ago when I heard that W.E.B. Du Bois explored these themes in his science fiction short story “The Comet” (1920). One of the preeminent intellectuals of his time, Du Bois is of course best known for his extensive scholarship on the African American experience, which covered topics such as the slave trade, the global Pan-African community, and race relations. But as demonstrated in “The Comet,” as well as an earlier story recently rediscovered, Du Bois saw in science fiction a genre that was ready-made for exploring the consequences, and the possibilities, of a massive and irrevocable upheaval. But his story goes beyond mere wish fulfillment, and suggests that even an apocalypse may not be powerful enough to wipe the slate clean and start over.

In “The Comet,” an African American office worker named Jim appears to be the lone survivor of a catastrophe that has wiped out the population of New York, and possibly the world. Roaming through the Financial District, Jim is confronted with a grisly spectacle, with corpses littering the streets and an eerie silence enveloping the city. But almost immediately, he recognizes how things have changed:

He knew that he must steady himself and keep calm, or he would go insane. First he must go to a restaurant. He walked up Fifth Avenue to a famous hostelry and entered its gorgeous, ghost-haunted halls. He beat back the nausea, and, seizing a tray from dead hands, hurried into the street and ate ravenously, hiding to keep out the sights. “Yesterday, they would not have served me,” he whispered, as he forced the food down.

Many post-apocalyptic books and movies, from The Stand to 28 Days Later, include a scene which shows the survivors reveling in the wealth that is left behind in the aftermath. For Du Bois, this act takes on a political significance; Jim’s first moments in this new world are spent subverting the segregationist policies with which he has lived his entire life.

Things get more complicated when he comes to the aid of a white woman named Julia, who contrasts her life of idleness and comfort to his hardscrabble existence as an office drone. Similar to Aunty, Jim admits that he, too, was a nobody, even going so far as to say that he was “not human” until the catastrophe leveled everything around him. Before long, the two form a bond that takes on religious overtones, with allusions to both Genesis and Revelation. In the surreal light of a signal flare, Julia sees Jim as “her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.” For a brief passage, it appears that the two survivors have become a new Adam and Eve.

But this moment of transcendence is cut short when Julia’s father arrives with a search party. Immediately, the men take Julia away, telling Jim that he “had no business” helping her and even threatening to lynch him for interfering. To drive the point home, it is at this point in the story that the narrator stops referring to the protagonist as Jim or “the man,” and refers to him instead as “the Negro.” Jim’s brief vision of a post-racial world vanishes in a matter of seconds. In the closing lines, he is reunited with his wife, only to discover that their child has died.

Over a decade before publishing “The Comet,” Du Bois witnessed a real-life apocalyptic scenario of sorts while living in Atlanta, where racial tension threatened to boil over in the early twentieth century. Du Bois spent years researching the city’s problem with violence, and was particularly horrified by the case of Sam Hose, a black man who was lynched in 1899. In his autobiography, Du Bois describes seeing Hose’s knuckles on display in the window of an Atlanta butcher shop, a ghastly sight that left him shaken. “Something died in me that day,” he wrote.

In 1906, local newspapers reported a string of incidents involving black men attacking white women, none of which were ever proven. In response, mobs of white men roamed the streets, destroying property and murdering at least 16 black men. Amidst the chaos, Du Bois stood guard at his home in the city, patrolling the street with a newly purchased shotgun.

The riot marked a turning point in how Du Bois viewed race relations, putting him on a path toward more radical activism. At the same time, one gets the sense from “The Comet” that Du Bois recognized how deep the roots of social injustice had sunk into American culture. The story’s brutal, unsentimental ending, with Jim’s wife carrying their dead child in her arms, leaves the reader’s mouth hanging open in shock. Much like Octavia Butler’s Kindred—in which the protagonist loses an arm as a result of her time-traveling to the antebellum South—“The Comet” does not allow its hero to escape unscathed. And no matter how tempting it is to believe that a single revolutionary event could permanently change everything, Du Bois shows that the problem lies deeper than laws or institutions, taking firm hold in the human heart.

Image Credit: “End of the World” by Alan Eng. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Oxford University Press highlights W.E.B. Du Bois and his endeavors with literature of upheaval. Du Bois saw in science fiction a genre that was ready-made for exploring the consequences, and the possibilities, of a massive and irrevocable upheaval of racist society. […]

  2. […] kinds of stories not only because of the Mad Max movies I grew up with, but because of the sense of upheaval, the reset, that comes with them. With a clean slate, people have the opportunity to start anew or […]

  3. steve dee

    Du Bois was a deeply insightful man, in a way ((minor way) just like I see Cornell West today.

    I think we should all read the Comet, insights of Mr. Du Bois might be even purer in this work of semi-fiction. Good!

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