W.E.B. Du Bois is probably best known as an essayist and the co-founder of the NAACP. But he also wrote a number of works of fiction, including the well-known apocalyptic story “The Comet.” But his newly discovered short story from around 1908 could be a foundational text of Afro-Futurism.
The story, called “The Princess Steel,” was discovered by scholars Adrienne Brown and Britt Rusert, who write about it in the new issue of the Modern Language Association journal. An earlier draft of the story was called “The Megascope: A Tale of Tales.”
Slate offers a plot synopsis:
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.”
And Slate talked to Rusert, who argues that this early Du Bois story shows not just that he was an enthusiastic consumer of genre fiction, but also that he was thinking about “the social construction of technology. And that Du Bois would argue Afro-Futurism, and being interested in the future generally, include asking questions about “history with a capital H.” [Slate]
Top image: Black Heritage stamp showing Du Bois at work.