The Comet (short story)
The Comet is a science fiction short story, written by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1920. It discusses the relationship between Jim Davis (a black man) and Julia (a wealthy white woman) after a comet hits New York and unleashes toxic gases that kill everyone except them.
Originally published as the tenth chapter of Du Bois's Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, The Comet was reprinted in the 2000 anthology Dark Matter: The Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction by Black Writers.
“The Comet” begins with the messenger named Jim descending into the lower vaults of the bank where he works to complete a task for the president. Jim silently considers his frustration with the task while the conversation of his superiors revolves around discussion of the "Comet.”
While Jim is completing his assignment, the great stone door of the vault mysteriously closes shut. When Jim finds his way out and returns to street level, he discovers that the vault clerk and everyone else he encounters is dead. Jim walks up Fifth Avenue, enters a restaurant where he previously would not have been allowed to eat, and eventually finds a car and drives around the city but still finds no other living person.
Near 72nd Street, Jim hears a woman’s voice crying out from the upper window of a home. The survivor is a white woman surprised to discover the only other survivor, her would-be hero, is a black man. The two travel to Harlem and the bank where the woman’s father works to check on their families but find no more living people and only a note at the bank from the woman's father. They attempt to contact the outside world by placing a call on a long distance telephone but receive no response from the phone call. They return to the bank and seem on the verge of overcoming their racial barriers in an act of procreation, when the girl’s father returns with a group of white men and the woman leaves Jim to join them. At the very end, a black woman parts from the group and rushes into Jim's arms after calling out his name.
Religion The short story "The Comet" contains several religious themes. From the start of the story, the narrator refers to Jim as "the messenger" rather than by his first name, which the reader learns later. At first, this title seems to describe his employment. However, the idea of a messenger is well established in Christian mythology as related to being an angel of God, like Gabriel, who relayed God's message to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus Christ. Additionally, the two main characters of the story, Jim and Julia, begin to seem like Adam and Eve figures, as they are seemingly the only people left alive in the world. Julia comes to think of herself as the "mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life" and of Jim as "her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be". Julia's comments paint Jim as both an Adam figure, the "All-Father of the race to be" and a Jesus figure, "Son of God". Julia's own status as the figure of Eve, who betrayed Adam and all of humanity, is enhanced by the fact that her father and fiancée show up, destroying her future with Jim and their plans to continue the line of the human race. At the end of the story, she and Jim are stripped of their status as religious figures when they discover that only New York has been destroyed by the comet.
Race In portraying a black man as the last and first man of humanity, W. E. B. Du Bois is engaging in black speculative fiction, and helping to develop a genre that would later be characterized as Afrofuturism. Afrofuturists, as Du Bois achieves in "The Comet," wish to re-imagine the past and future of African Americans in order to revise the historical and diasporic narrative. In the Afrofuturist narrative, blackness is not a mark of shame but a source of pride, establishing a space where black culture can thrive. "In Du Bois' analogy, race imbalances were so entrenched that only a catastrophe could bring equity."
Du Bois situated Jim as the destiny of humankind, the man onto whom the responsibility to repopulate the earth is bestowed. Considering the story through the lens of Afrofuturism, Du Bois reclaims and rewrites the origin story in order to re-imagine the African American future-past. In revising the origin story, a story traditionally associated with Protestantism and whiteness, Du Bois is able to recover the beginning of a narrative that, from an Afrofuturist perspective will otherwise eventually dismiss and disregard the black experience. Through the course of this re-imagined origin story, Du Bois moves Jim, who was relegated to the task of going deep underground to retrieve records from the bank vault, to become the vital source of human life. In doing so, Du Bois has, effectively, re-imagined the experience of becoming human and establishing humanity, more specifically, black humanity. Du Bois reclaims black humanity through recasting the narrative source of human existence: the origin story and the story of the savior.
- Darkwater at WEBDubois.org
- Excerpt from Dark Matter at the African American Literature Book Club
- DuBois, W.E.B. (1969). "The Comet." Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Schocken. pp. 253–4.
- DuBois, W.E.B. p. 258. Missing or empty
- DuBois, W.E.B. pp. 260–73. Missing or empty
- Du Bois, W.E.B. "The Comet". 1920
- Womack, Ytasha (2013). Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. pp. 119–120. ISBN 978-1-61374-796-4.