3. Lit Hub: The Only Living Black Man in New York: On an Overlooked, Subversive Sci-Fi Story by W.E.B. Du Bois
Earlier this week I explained to someone that I don’t like reading fiction. I will gladly consume fiction in other forms, and enjoy what I learn the few times a year I force myself to read the genre, but it’s not something I’ll go out of my way to do. In contrast, I adore reading about works of literary fiction.
I didn’t know about W.E.B. Du Bois’ short science-fiction story “The Comet” before reading this piece. Written in 1920, the story follows “Jim, a Black man in Manhattan, on a day that everyone is talking about a comet expected to light up the sky.” Trapped alone in an underground vault as the comet passed over New York City, Jim emerges into “a hellscape: corpses everywhere, a miasma of death in the air.” The comet released a deadly gas. Eventually Jim finds “Julia, a wealthy white woman . . . After overcoming her surprise that the only survivor is a Black man, they agree to search together for their loved ones, but without luck, and, finally, they accept that they are the last two left on Earth. They begin to imagine starting a new life together, possibly as lovers, the interracial Adam and Eve of an apocalyptic urban Eden, racism snuffed out like the candles of all the planet’s living, and all it took was the near-extinction of our species.” This changes as soon as Julia’s father and some other men find them, but seeing Jim, one of them men “immediately yells that he must be lynched, because even after a celestial disaster, Black men must still be killed on sight in this white man’s mind, are still guilty by virtue of existence.”
In her analysis of “The Comet,” Gabrielle Bellot writes that it “reflects a quietly utopian moment for Du Bois in which humanity gets a chance to start over, sort of, with less racism—only, of course, it took a cosmic calamity to get there.”