Future Tense

What a Recently Uncovered Story by W.E.B. Du Bois Tells Us About Afrofuturism

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Addison N. Scurlock courtesy National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons, whilerests/iStock/Thinkstock.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Thursday, Dec. 3, Future Tense will host “Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity” in New York. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” So queried cultural critic Mark Dery, who in the early ’90s coined the term Afrofuturism in “Black to the Future,” his introductory essay to interviews with cultural critics Tricia Rose and Greg Tate and sci-fi writer Samuel Delany. Dery’s nomenclature codified a current of futurist aesthetics thrumming through much of 20th-century art, music, film, and literature by black American artists, from jazz musician Sun Ra and funk legend George Clinton to fiction writers like Delany and Octavia Butler.

Afrofuturism has continued to evolve in the 21st century. The past three years have seen significant museum exhibitions with Afrofuturist themes, and the concept has grown more prevalent as a method for social justice movements to imagine new ways to fight against systemic racism and socio-economic inequality.

“The word really captured everything we’d always known about black culture, but it gave us something to call it,” said Alondra Nelson in an interview posted online in 2011. Nelson, now a dean of social science at Columbia University, founded an Afrofuturism online community in 1998 and, as a grad student at NYU in 2002, edited an issue of the journal Social Text devoted to Afrofuturism. Or, as Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, put it: “Blackness has always been futuristic.”

Yet as much as Afrofuturism is about the future, so too is it about the past. Britt Rusert, assistant professor of African-American literature and culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studies the short genre fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois as a way to think about what she calls Afrofuturism’s “pre-histories”—works of art and protest that embody its concepts but predate its late–20th century context. Rusert and Adrienne Brown, a colleague who teaches at the University of Chicago, have recently uncovered in Du Bois’ papers a previously unpublished fantasy story, “The Princess Steel,” which they have dated to 1908 and 1910—much earlier than any of Du Bois’ other speculative fictions. The story and their essay on the find appear in the most recent issue of the scholarly journal PMLA.

Rusert and Brown’s find is a significant development in the study of Du Bois, author of 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk and the co-founder, in 1909, of the NAACP. Critics and historians have traced his simultaneous turn toward a more radical politics of race and publication of science fiction works like “The Comet” to the 1920s, when Du Bois was living in the New York City of the Harlem Renaissance. According to Rusert, dating “The Princess Steel” to the final years of Du Bois’ tenure as a teacher at Atlanta University demonstrates “that he is talking about those things much earlier” and from a different geographic home than previously recognized.

In the story, the protagonist Hannibal Johnson, a black sociologist, demonstrates for a honeymooning tourist couple a “megascope,” a machine he created to see across time and space. From the top of a New York skyscraper, they look into the historical “Pit of Pittsburg” and see an allegorical origin-story of steelmaking that frames steel production within a narrative that critiques historical colonization and primitive accumulation—the transformation of feudal production into capitalism. The Princess Steel, daughter of the “dark Queen of the Iron Isles—she that of old came out of Africa,” is separated from her mother, and after the Lord of the Golden Way kills her lover, she encases him in a hearse of “burning breathing silver” spun from her “silvery hair.” The murdering Lord, realizing the value of the steel spun from the Princess’ hair, purloins it strand by strand to create a “mighty loom” of mills that bind the Princess in “the imprisonment to which her spun hair held her as it stretched across the world.”

Uncovering “The Princess Steel” is an important contribution to the evolution of Afrofuturism. “I think you can read in the story that Du Bois is already understanding something about the social construction of technology,” says Rusert, who teaches from his short fiction and other texts in a graduate seminar on Afrofuturism. “In some ways, Du Bois’ commitment to revolution and social justice and social movements of course means he’s always interested in the future,” she says. She also believes that “Du Bois would ask us to think reflexively about what Afrofuturism means. … He would be interested in a kind of critical Afrofuturism, one interested in questions of history with a capital H.”

Rusert—who along with Brown is editing a collection of Du Bois’ fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and crime fiction—unearthed “The Princess Steel” in one of two archival boxes cataloged only as “short fiction,” and was struck by the range of genres—mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales, romance—represented therein. In this and other short stories like “The Comet,” in which a comet unleashes toxic gases on New York City, “you really see that Du Bois was an avid writer and reader of genre fiction,” Rusert says.

At the end of “The Princess Steel,” the reader learns that only the husband has been able to see and hear fully through the professor’s megascope to observe the story of the Princess Steel. His wife has seen merely “clouds and the rising moon”; the professor observes that the megascope “was not tuned delicately enough for her.” While she notes that this plot twist is potentially “disappointing in terms of gender politics,” Rusert aligns it with other moments in the story as “commentary on the social … construction of technology itself.” Du Bois doesn’t see technology as being objective,” she observes. “It is encoded by race, gender, and sexuality.”