The Only Living Black Man in New York: On an Overlooked, Subversive Sci-Fi Story by W.E.B. Du Bois
Gabby Bellot Considers “The Comet” and the Pervasive Legacy
of the Color Line
In 1903, in The Souls of Black Folk, his seminal essay collection on Black American identity, W.E.B. Du Bois famously declared what the central concern of the century to come would be. “The problem of the 20th century,” he wrote in “Of the Dawn of the Freedom,” “is the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
By “color line,” Du Bois was referring to racial segregation, conjuring up an image of a literal dividing line running through the country, whites on one side, everyone else on the other, its shape erratic and sharp as a heartbeat monitor. The image’s argument was simple but severe: America was a country shaped and divided by racism, and those nonwhite Americans who failed to see where the color line began and ended were risking their lives. It was not simply a color line, of course; it was a death line.
It was a term—and, indeed, a sentence—Du Bois was proud of. He had first used it at the Pan-African Conference in London at the start of the century, and it appeared, in abbreviated form, not once but twice, in “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” a piece in The Souls of Black Folk, bookending the essay’s beginning and end. The term “color line” had appeared in the 19th century, most notably in the title of an 1881 article by Frederick Douglass, but it would come to be associated most with Du Bois. While the term would forever be linked to The Souls of Black Folk, its idea permeates Du Bois’ other writings, including one of his most unusual short stories, “The Comet” (1920), which he included in Darkwater, a series of essays, poems, and fiction aimed at expanding on what the color line meant.
The story has long been overlooked, discussed often more as a curiosity of Du Bois’ oeuvre or a minor moment in science fiction’s history. But it deserves attention today, given that it is one of the few sci-fi stories of the time devoted explicitly to Blackness and interracial relationships.
One of Du Bois’ rare forays into the genre, “The Comet” follows Jim, a Black man in Manhattan, on a day that everyone is talking about a comet expected to light up the sky. Jim works as a “messenger,” who frequently has to do the tasks “too dangerous for more valuable men.” He’s sent into old, recently flooded underground vaults to retrieve some documents; after poking around the “fetid slime” and cobwebs, he finds an ancient secret room, which contains the documents and, to his surprise, a chest of gold. But, at that serendipitous moment, there is a boom, and Jim is trapped in the room.
When he finally escapes back to the world above, he finds a hellscape: corpses everywhere, a miasma of death in the air. The comet has passed by, releasing “deadly gases” that seem to have killed everyone but Jim. He searches New York for signs of life, including his family, but he finds only corpses, until, by chance, he stumbles upon Julia, a wealthy white woman; like Jim, she was in a closed-off room when the comet passed. 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.
Then, suddenly, they hear noises. Julia’s father and some other men have survived, too. They rush to her; one man, seeing Jim, 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. “‘A ni***r?’” the man says. “‘Where is he? Let’s lynch the damned—’” He’s talked down, and Julia’s father, after some racism of his own—he is alarmed Julia was alone with a Black man—thanks Jim, who then leaves. They reveal, too, that it is only New York that has been affected by the noxious gases. The story ends with Jim seemingly reuniting with his wife and child, who have also survived.
The story is at once simple and complex. Du Bois was less interested in the science than the fiction, so he spends little time on how the comet’s lethal gases work and more on the people affected—and, in particular, what race and racism mean in an apocalypse. This was major, given that Black characters at the time rarely appeared in American science fiction, which was overwhelmingly written by and populated with white men; when Black characters did appear, they were usually crass minstrel stereotypes. A Black writer unapologetically composing a sci-fi story with a Black protagonist, therefore, was radical.
And Du Bois didn’t merely feature a Black protagonist; the entire point of the story was race. Jim, for one, is an invisible man, not unlike the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s novel of the same name; his Blackness means white people see him only for his race, if they bother to see him at all, and when he is noticed, it is almost always negative.
“Few ever noticed him save in a way that stung,” Du Bois writer in the first paragraph. “He was outside the world—‘nothing!’ as he said bitterly.” That Du Bois chose to highlight this trait as early as the story’s second sentence shows how central it is to understanding Jim; like Ellison’s narrator, he is both in and outside of the world.
When he meets Julia, she notes that, before the comet, she would never have noticed him, simply because of his race. It has taken an apocalyptic event, has taken mass death, for a Black man to be noticeable—and for him to seem equal, finally, to her.
“‘Death’ [is] the leveler,’” he says, and Julia adds, tellingly, that it is also “‘the revealer.’” At one point, he eats food from a fancy hostelry, its waiters and patrons all dead. “‘Yesterday,’” he notes wryly, “‘they would not have served me.’”
Moreover, the tale’s suggestion of Jim and Julia as a potential interracial couple at the end of the world was deeply subversive for its time, given that it would be decades before interracial marriage even became legal across the United States. Jim and Julia are as different as they can be, and yet the color line crumbles away under the weight of so much death—at least until other white Americans arrive, and Jim is reminded, to his horror, that he has survived in a world that is still seemingly dominated both by whites and by white supremacist notions, given how casually he is labeled a “ni***r” who must be “lynched.”
The scent of the grave is not strong enough; they need more blood, more murderous carnivalesque spectacle, a sacrifice to the old American god the white man who brought up lynching has not yet given up worshiping. Jim leaves Julia knowing that, at any moment, even at the end of New York, he can still be killed simply for being the wrong color.
The way that racism intrudes on Jim and Julia’s beautiful moment of imagining the world they can remake reflects just how deeply embedded anti-Blackness was—and remains—in America. It is the thing that always returns, never sated, a blood god red as a comet’s tail.
A hundred and one years later, as the systemic murder of Black Americans continues to be an all-too-banal evil, I think of Du Bois’ subtle genius here, capturing the way that racism, that death-shadowed thing, can perhaps never truly leave America. I think of the epidemic of police brutality today, a smaller, more mundane apocalypse in its own right, and I find myself amazed that Jim gets to have something like a happy ending when he reunites with his family, even as they must still live under the constant fear—perhaps even more amplified if they are the only Black people left in New York—that if a comet does not take their lives, something else will.
In reality, this story might not have a happy ending at all.
If the idea of a life-ending comet might seem implausible, if not outright outrageous today, the notion was one that Du Bois’ readers would likely have been all familiar with in 1920. By the time Du Bois’ story appeared, American readers had had multiple moments of mass panic connected to flaming rocks, both real and fictional. The end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries had been filled as much with astronomical discoveries as with apocalyptic declarations of doom, and a number of the latter had been explicitly connected to comets.
A number of short stories had appeared before Du Bois’ that imagined Earth being affected, if not annihilated, by nearby comets. One of the most remarkably unnerving was H.G. Wells’ “The Star” (1897), which portrayed a blazing mass of rock colliding with another planet, then hurtling, alarmingly, towards Earth. Humans panic, believing their planet will be obliterated; one doomsayer uncannily predicts global warming, arguing that the tail of the comet will heat the Earth up to unbearable temperatures. At the last moment, the flaming rock is diverted by another celestial object, but the horror remains. In Wells’ story, space has become a hostile, unpredictable environment, in which beauty and death alike can appear in an instant.
Wells’ descriptions of panic were curiously prescient, capturing the way that real-life people reacted when a comet appeared. In 1908, when the comet Morehouse passed by, astronomers announced that they had found cyanogen, a toxic gas, in its tail, a discovery that might have gone by largely unremarked upon by the general public except for the fact that another comet would be passing near Earth two years later: Halley’s comet. In little time, there was widespread panic.
Articles appeared claiming that Halley’s comet would release lethal toxins into the atmosphere, spelling the end for all life; grifters went so far as to sell “comet pills,” which would supposedly counteract the lethal effects of the poisonous gases. If the fumes did not kill us, other op-ed writers mused, a collision might, with many newspapers carrying fearmongering speculations about the comet crashing into Earth or even setting the planet on fire if its tail passed too close. Halley’s comet was no longer a mere celestial event; it was quite possibly the end of the world.It might take an immense cosmic event, like an alien invasion, for humans to coexist without prejudice.
Of course, none of this happened, but comets would continue to hold the general public’s attention. For some people, they still represented a threat that we had simply evaded thus far; Du Bois’ story functions as an example of this, actually mentioning Halley’s comet passing without incident, while the tale’s eponymous comet is a later one that did endanger Earth. For others, comets would remain incandescent omens in a more science-minded age that increasingly dismissed notions like omens. And for everyone else, they were quietly fascinating in the way they had been to us for centuries, as blazing, inexplicable reminders of our curious, and always precarious, place in a strange universe beyond any human’s control.
At the beginning of Darkwater, Du Bois included “Credo,” a short but remarkable distillation of his beliefs. Biblical in tone, as Du Bois’ writing often was, it captures his faith in racial equality without calling for outright colorblindness—that is, being able to be equal while acknowledging our unique histories and struggles.
“I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers,” he wrote,
varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.
Especially do I believe in the Negro Race: in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth.
“The Comet” shows a Black man inheriting the Earth with a white woman, at least for a moment, an interracial pair left as the keepers of their home, a new Eden of a city of the dead. Jim imagines being the progenitors of a new, perhaps less prejudiced race of humans, bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh. Naïve as this may be, the scene 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.
In this sense, the story seems to echo a sentiment of Octavia Butler’s, who would argue, many decades later, that it might take an immense cosmic event, like an alien invasion, for humans to coexist without prejudice.
“Perhaps for a moment, only a moment,” she mused in “The Monophobic Response” (1995), “this affront will bring us together, all human, all much more alike than different… What,” she asked in the final sentence, “will be born of that brief, strange, and ironic union?”
Du Bois, perhaps, has already answered that question here in his own beautiful and tragic way, offering a glimpse of what could be, after devastation, and a poignant reminder of what probably will be, instead, in an America where racism was, and remains, the subtler cataclysm we cannot seem to escape.