NAACP founder WEB Du Bois wasn’t just a committed, effective activist for the rights of black people in America: he was also a prolific author of early 20th century science fiction and fantasy stories.
Now, his earliest known short story, “The Princess Steel” (dating from 1908 and 1910) has been discovered and published (in a paywalled journal, despite the story being in the public domain) by Britt Rusert from U Mass and Adrienne Brown from U Chicago.
The story’s protagonist, Hannibal Johnson, is a black sociologist who uses a “megascope” to look across time and space. He demonstrates his gadget for a honeymooning couple, using it to look from the top of a NYC skyscraper into the fantastic past of Pittsburgh, in which supernatural beings play out an allegory about colonialism and race. It’s a critical piece of the history of Afrofuturism, a lineage that stretches forward to such writers as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler to Nalo Hopkinson and today’s explosion of African science fiction.
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.
What a Recently Uncovered Story by W.E.B. Du Bois Tells Us About Afrofuturism [Jane Greenway Carr/Slate]