The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained in this column’s first installment, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.
Our focus this column is on “The Comet,” a science fiction short story by W.E.B. Du Bois. Yes, as I note in the original Crash Course, that W.E.B. Du Bois: the well-known and recently misspelled critical thinker and race theorist. “The Comet” was first published in 1920 as the final chapter of his autobiographical collection of poems and essays Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. Though nowhere near as influential as Du Bois’ monumental The Souls of Black Folks, Darkwater was popular and well-received. But by the time, almost a century later, that author and editor and Sheree Renee Thomas was compiling her own groundbreaking book, the anthology Dark Matter 1, she found this early and prominent work of science fiction languishing in completely undeserved obscurity.

In early twentieth century Manhattan, bank employee Jim Davis is sent to retrieve documents from a deep vault. (It’s made clear that this is a low-priority, high-risk errand, and that it has been assigned to Davis because he’s black.) Accidentally locking himself in a secret chamber at the vault’s back, Davis emerges after a struggle to find the entire city dead–except for a wealthy white woman who spent those same crucial moments in her photographic darkroom. Everyone else has been poisoned by the gases of a comet’s tail through which the Earth has just passed. Moving confrontations with widespread mortality give way to the woman Julia’s realization that the racial separation she’s accustomed to means nothing. Her climactic vision of Davis as Adam to her Eve is then swiftly banished by the return of her daytripping suitor: the comet’s swathe of death has not been global but merely citywide.

“The Comet” is a prime example of speculative thinking from a man on the forefront of major intellectual developments. A pioneer in the field of sociology and the author of texts foundational to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other civil rights actions, Du Bois imagined the apocalyptic disruption of daily life as the background necessary for his depiction of true racial equality. Like many Afrodiasporic authors who’ve come after him, he deprivileged the racism inherent in the status quo by smashing that status quo to tragic smithereens. Though the dream of Utopic ages to come is conveyed only in a few paragraphs toward the story’s end and experienced by its characters in a nearly wordless communion, this dream, this communion, is “The Comet’s” crux. That a mind such as Du Bois’ used science fiction as the method to clothe his ideas in lifelikeness stands as a good precedent for those of us who do the same. If only knowledge of that precedent had not been buried and forgotten.

Darkwater is an intensely personal book. Most chapters other than “The Comet” relate scenes from the author’s life. Each ends in a poem full of metaphor and allegory, and these metaphors and allegories draw on Dubois’ own experiences, reflections, and longings. Born in Massachusetts a scant two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Du Bois lived a relatively privileged life for a black man of that period. He attended a school–integrated–and was recognized as the scion of a family with extensive local roots.

And yet, a century ago he could write with heartfelt weariness of daily microaggressions chillingly identical to those experienced by African Americans today. In the chapter just preceding “The Comet” he fends off an imagined interlocutor’s accusations of being “too sensitive” with an account of his milkman’s neglect, his neighbor’s glare, the jeers of passing children. He praises the world’s myriad beauties but then gives a harrowing account of the dangers and inconveniences of traveling to see these beauties under the baleful eye of Jim Crow.

These are the phenomena forming the original backdrop to the telling of “The Comet.”

Of course we also bring modern sensibilities to our reading of Du Bois’ story; by recognizing them as such we avoid confusing and corrupting a purely historical take on it. It’s easy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century to make comparisons to Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out” or to Joanna Russ’s short novel We Who Are About To or to another of the many hundreds of stories dealing with the racial and gender issues “The Comet” brings up.

These are the phenomena forming the story’s contemporary backdrop.

To see these backdrops, change your focus. Examine the author’s assumptions: that a black man found in the exclusive company of a white woman is regarded with suspicion, for instance. Examine how they contrast with yours and your friends’: for example, that women are more than decorative childbearing organisms. Assumptions like these aren’t on the page; they are the page.

Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the term “Becky,” slang for the sort of privileged young white woman who’s offended by being labeled as such. For me there’s the added connotation of strong physical attractiveness combining with racial cluelessness to make the Becky dangerous–and especially dangerous to any black boys or men in her vicinity. “The Comet’s” heroine Julia is a Becky. That Davis survives their encounter is an outcome resonant with the author’s unusually positive and neutral experiences of whiteness in childhood.
The Becky Julia’s presence underscores Du Bois’ dichotomous perception of the world: she is white and female in complement and contrast to hero Davis’s black maleness. Her deadliness is at first superseded by the comet’s, but when the comet’s deadliness is finally shown to be less than universal, the Becky’s returns–though not in full force, because the threats and epithets it renders Davis susceptible to remain purely verbal through the story’s end.

It’s at the level of verbal virtuosity that “The Comet” is most enjoyable. Today Du Bois’ writing may seem flowery, but rather than shrinking from its apparent excesses I advise embracing them. “Behind and all around, the heavens glowed in dim, weird radiance that suffused the darkening world and made almost a minor music,” he writes, approaching the height of his rhetorical effervescence. Like Lovecraft but less turgid and more forward-thinking, Du Bois’ prose–which I confess to imitating somewhat in this essay–is a largely neglected source of exhilarating pleasure.


Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained in this column’s first installment, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

I don’t want to inflict vertigo on you, but in this installment of a deeper dive into my Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction we fly from the far past of 1887 and “The Goophered Grapevine,” to a novel of the nearly now.


Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett could be categorized as the hardest of hardcore science fiction: aliens, spaceships, supercomputers–it has them all. Yet the lasting impression left by this brief but monumental 2014 novel is one of ethereality. Empires fall, towers melt into the air, and in the end only the most beautiful of ephemera abide: love and stories.

In a series of vignettes separated by ones and zeros and DOS-looking command strings, a protagonist named variously Adrian and Adrianne, of shifting gender and age, loses and finds and loses again the person they love. This loved one, whose name and gender and age also change, is sometimes Adrianne’s brother or father, sometimes Adrian’s pregnant wife or AIDS-stricken husband. And sometimes they’re someone else: Adrian/Adrianne loves Antoinette/Antoine through a multitude of scenarios. These vignettes’ action and dialogue overlap and in part repeat themselves, advancing gradually into grimmer and grimmer territory. Beginning with an accidental injury to Adrianne’s head that seems to occur beneath one of New York City’s ubiquitous scaffoldings, Brissett transports readers from that recuperating woman’s sad apartment, site of her lover’s inexplicable disenchantment with their relationship, to a vast underground city, to the post-apocalyptic ruins of a museum, to other even stranger locales.

Over and over again, owls and elks appear in mysterious and completely inappropriate circumstances. A green dot glows constantly in the sky. Along with continuity glitches such as autumn’s advent in the middle of high summer and the return to life of those indisputably dead, these recurrences delicately undermine each episode’s narrative reliability. Each until the last.

Touchstones with the black experience abound in Elysium. At the most superficial level many of the characters’ physical traits–skin color, hair texture, facial features–are described in ways that tell readers they are black. And there are textual references, too, as when Adrianne follows the green dot through spectral city streets “like the slaves of old the northern star.” Digging slightly deeper you’ll find one version of Adrian musing about the protection from an alien-induced plague his high melanin count gives him. In this instance blackness is not only present, it’s a plot point.

Earthlings’ interactions with different passages’ differently rendered alien invaders also model facets of the black experience. Elysium’s depiction of the alien colonizers’ implacable elimination of anyone in their way will be familiar to all people of color. Denying others’ humanity is yet another imperialist tactic used around the globe, echoed here by the pest-control-like tactics apparently employed against all humans. However, their wider resonance does’t make these elements of the book any less relevant to blacks: the particular source of them in Brissett’s black heritage lets its outpourings become universal but stays anchored in the hurt and defiance of the ever-present African-descended ancestors many of us share.

Finally, there’s Elysium’s connection, deliberate or not, with the concept of survivance. As noted in the linked article, survivance is a deliberately ambiguous term first used by Native American critical theorist Gerald Vizenor. A step beyond mere survival, survivance entails adaptation. It implies growth and change, not just preservation, and renounces the subject-weakening acceptance of a history of victimization.

Invisibly coded into Earth’s atmosphere, the fictional computer whose machine-language interruptions punctuate Brissett’s story contains a record of our whole world’s culture. History, art, science–everything is archived here. But the archive isn’t meant, as Adrianne rebukes an alien eager to explore it, “for the likes of you.” It’s meant for other humans, as a tool with which to build and rebuild the essence of our evolving lives.

“Ambitious” is the word most frequently used to describe Elysium. In form and topic, that description is apt. Intimately detailed scenes portray a galactic epic superbly. Sublimely.

This book has a poem’s grace. That is to say, though made of words, it dances. Spare yet gorgeous, Elysium’s turns of phrase require no decorative enameling, no armature or exoskeleton to hold them up or flatteringly frame their substance. Rhythm and repetition strengthen Brissett’s message about love’s enduring power. Rhythm and repetition help; ultimately, though, the words she uses are exactly perfect, and being perfect, they’re all that’s needed.

When asked to list African-descended science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, readers will often come up with a very small number of names. Usually Samuel R. Delany gets mentioned, and usually Octavia E. Butler. Resourceful people are able to cite a few others without resorting to internet search engines. But there are many more, as my original Crash Course post made clear.

Jennifer Marie Brissett is one of them. Elysium is her debut novel; she has also written several short stories. As one of an emerging crew of African Americans working in the imaginative genres, she’s in the vanguard of a literary movement, a gloriously gifted voice raised in the newly swelling choir of speculative griots. As a living author currently working in the imaginative genres, she thrives on audience support. So let’s give it to her.


 Mama Day by Gloria Naylor | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

       Back in 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.)  In what seemed at the time an obvious homage to Charles W. Eliot’s 51-foot shelf of Harvard Classics, I listed 42 short stories and novels that I deemed essential reads for students of Black science fiction and fantasy.  At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the titles on that list in turn.

       The original essay and became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available.  The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis. 

       My original list is chronological.  But this series of columns didn’t start with that list’s beginning; nor did it simply reverse it.  I gave Mama Day (1988) primacy of place in this series because it means some very personal things to me.  So that’s where we’ll start, and we’ll follow the same order in which the Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction first ran.


      Mama Day is the third novel by recently deceased African American author Gloria Naylor.  Though never categorized as fantastic literature by its publisher or critics, it depicts myriad magical events–hexes, hauntings, concerts of singing flowers–as well as focusing on the magical aspects of events we typically regard as mundane, like weather, birth, death, and love.  The title character, Mama Day, lives on the peculiar coastal island of Willow Springs, which lies off the Georgia/South Carolina border.  Admired and respected for her legendary healing powers by the island’s inhabitants, Black descendants of antebellum freedmen, Mama Day knows secrets she often wishes she didn’t.  Her great-niece Ophelia grows up protected from being caught up in the family’s recurring tragedies by not one but two nicknames: Cocoa and Baby Girl.  As an adult Ophelia leaves the island for New York, where she finds, loves, and marries the pragmatic engineer George.  When George accompanies his wife on an ill-fated visit to Willow Springs, he’s soon forced to watch her rotting slowly away before his eyes.  Mama Day tries to educate George and recruit him as her helper in the battle for Ophelia’s soul, but even her wisdom fails to reconcile him with the mystic forces she has harmonized with for 80-plus years.


       My younger sister is nicknamed Cocoa.  On my birth certificate I’m listed as Baby Girl.  And though I’ve never put moss in my shoes prior to entering a graveyard, though I’ve never celebrated Candle Walk on December 22 with ginger tea and kerosene lanterns, these and other elements of the island’s mythic atmosphere resonate with my world.  For Mama Day’s jealous neighbor Ruby and Ruby’s sloppy drunk husband Junior, substitute my sweetly spiteful Aunt Pearl and handsome, dissolute Uncle Carl.  For the slanting floor of Grandmother Abigail’s spare bedroom substitute the soft, creaking boards beneath my Gransie’s parlor carpet.  For the baskets of peaches, grocery bags of pawpaws; for hurricanes, blizzards.  Many times no substitution’s needed, as with the body language of hands on hips, or the default assumption that any of your hair left in a brush or comb after a styling session will be gathered and burnt “so that the birds won’t find it and weave it into their nests.” Because if that happens you go crazy.

       Black culture is full of these near-equivalencies and exact parallels.  Generally, they strengthen connections between its various subgroups, and the connections between my personal experiences and those depicted in this book make it particularly poignant to me.  My interest in and practice of African-derived religious traditions also yield plenty of fruitful connections.  Mama Day doesn’t pray as I do, doesn’t make the offerings to the orisha I make, but she’s rooted in the natural world my deities spring from, and the ancestors I revere whisper in her open ears.


       Apart from the book’s ringingly authentic depiction of the Black fantastic, Mama Day deserves to be deemed essential Black SFF for two more reasons: its ambitious structure, and the permeable boundary it places between science and magic, mirroring the way that for this ethnicity, at least, the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is difficult to draw.

       Near the novel’s end, Mama Day brings down lightning to strike the same spot twice.  First comes a passage showing a ritual in which Mama Day casts silver powder in a circle around an enemy’s house, banging her walking stick against its walls with a sound like thunder.  After the storm hits and fire from heaven burns the place down, George muses that while unlikely, what had happened was at least theoretically possible.  All that was needed was the distribution on the spot in question of materials that could hold both positive and negative electrical charges.  Which rational explanation casts other occurrences in the light of possibly being similarly explicable.  Which then undermines the classification of this story and others like it as either fantasy or science fiction.  

       The back cover of my copy of Mama Day, and of the only copies Iíve ever seen, proclaim it to be “FICTION”–in all caps.  No compromising modifiers included.  SFF is a community, and members of the African diaspora were for a long time left out of this community; but genre is also a marketing tool.  Gloria Naylor did not come up in SFF fandomís ranks.  Perhaps her agent and editor and publicist were fine with that.

       At least part of the reason for Mama Day’s absence from our SFF fold is because of mainstream literature critics’ favorable reactions to the aforementioned ambitious structure.  Reviewers have identified at least three different narrative threads.  There’s the haunting first-person plural voice used to ground readers in Willow Springs’ historical background, evoking ancestral knowledge.  At times it shifts almost imperceptibly to what academics call “free indirect discourse.” This means that the third-person narration includes not just what the text’s subject does, but what they think, and how they feel.

       Most moving to me are the passages narrated by George and Ophelia.  Critics characterize these passages as being written in first person, but because they’re addressed to one another, I call this technique mirror second.  

       “You were sick and I was totally helpless,” George writes about the weeks when a hex threatens Ophelia’s life.  “You’re never free from such a loss,” she later responds.  Though much of what these mirror second passages describe is the story as experienced by their “I’s,” it is aimed at their “you’s.”  We’re reading love letters over their authors’ shoulders: twinned tales of discovery and acclimation and grief, reflections of reflections echoing in ghost-filled halls.

This is a book with many ways of telling itself and being told.  In the end what comes across to us from it depends on us, on Mama Day’s readers.  We are the first plural, the matching halves of the mirror second, the freedom of the indirect third.  “Think about it,” the collective narrator of the foreword advises us; “ain’t nobody really talking to you…the only voice is your own.”