Short Story Saturday: “The Comet”

comet

So, last week I talked about a story by a notorious racist. This week, due to that and also events that are currently unfolding, I’ve decided to discuss a story by a well-known African American author.

That story is “The Comet” by W.E.B Dubois, which served as the tenth chapter to his 1920 book Darkwater: Voices From Within The Veil.

The story begins with Jim, a black man who works as a messenger for a bank, listening in on a conversation with his white coworkers and employers about a comet that’s supposed to pass over at about noon that day. The president then orders Jim to go down into the lower vaults to find some records.

Jim knows that the only reason that he was told to do it is because no one else wants to, and isn’t happy about that, but does it anyway. This turns out to be a very good thing, considering what happens next.

While he’s down there, the heavy vault door slams shut behind him. It takes him a while to get the door open, and what greets him upon leaving is not a pretty sight: everyone inside the bank is dead. In fact, everyone outside the bank is dead as well.

After fainting a couple of times, Jim heads out to try and find others, intending to head to Harlem to check on his family. On the way, he stops at an upscale restaurant and takes some of the food, thinking to himself that if this were yesterday, they wouldn’t have served him.

A while later, he hears a woman screaming for help and runs to her. This turns out to be a rich white woman named Julia. Julia had been developing photos in her darkroom and came out to find everyone else dead. She is quite understandably freaked out by this.

She then remembers that her father had left to go to the bank he owns that morning, and is concerned about him, nearly to the point of hysterics. Neither wanting to be alone right now, the two take Julia’s car to Harlem, and then to her father’s bank. There’s no one alive at either location. Julia’s father, however, has left a note saying he and another guy were going for a drive, and likely wouldn’t be back until evening.

The two of them then head to the phone company, where they try to place calls to people, but no one answers. They eventually make their way to a tower, where Jim starts setting off rockets to try and signal anyone else. They also talk for a while, and come to understand each other pretty well.

In fact, the two of them are about to bang when Julia’s father, along with a group of other people, come in on the elevator. He’s not too happy to see his daughter with a black man and is about to do something about it, but Julia intervenes and tells him that he helped her.

Then a black woman breaks from the crowd yelling Jim’s name, and the two embrace.

Now, one of the first things about this story that struck me was the parallel between the Jim and Julia, and Adam and Eve. The story states that what was driving them wasn’t necessarily lust or romantic love, but the fact that they believed themselves to be the only ones left to repopulate the species. This is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first is that most western religious art depicts Adam and Eve as white, so having a black Adam would be considered odd, if not outright inflammatory. There is also the fact that a relationship of this nature between a black man and white woman was not only taboo at the time, it was illegal in most of the country. (As a note: it would not have been in New York, since they never enacted anti-miscegenation laws in the first place. Still would’ve been pretty taboo, though.)

This tale is also often cited as an early example of Afrofuturism, a cultural and philosophical movement that seeks to recontextualize the African diaspora’s relationship to its past and future, as well as its relationship to technology. Speculative fiction is a huge part of Afrofuturism, and two other writers I’ve talked about, Ocatavia E. Butler and N.K. Jemisin, are also considered Afrofuturist writers.

So, what did you think about this story? Do you think that it fits with other Afrofuturist fiction? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below, and I will see you all next time.

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