For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, African American activist and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois led the creation of over 60 charts, graphs, and maps that visualized data on the state of black life.
For such dealings with criminals, white or black, the South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories; its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police … the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of reenslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge.
There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.
W.E.B. Du Bois, from The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870
W. E. B. Du Bois is not a name one typically associates with science fiction. But the sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and author penned a sci fi story in 1920 called “The Comet”. Set in New York City, the tale involves a black man and a white woman who seem to be the only survivors of a comet striking the Earth.
The story was originally published in Du Bois’ “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil”.
“The Comet” is an Old School Science Fiction example of what we today call “Afrofuturism” and is one of the earliest examples of an author using sci fi to explore the black experience.
“Laura Wheeler of this city made several contributions to the exhibition of paintings and sculpture at the Dunbar High School, Washington, DC. Her exhibits showed considerable merit and charm.” – The New York Age, Apr. 19, 1919.
Laura Wheeler Waring was an African-American teacher and artist who became known for her portraits; the subjects she painted include W.E.B. Du Bois and Marian Anderson. Wheeler headed the art and music department at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers (now known as Cheyney University).
In other words, the notion that there is no black social life is part of a set of variations on a theme that include assertions of the irreducible pathology of black social life and the implications that (non-pathological) social life is what emerges by way of the exclusion of the black or, more precisely, of blackness. But what are we to make of the pathological here? What are the implications of a social life that, on the one hand, *is not what it is* and, on the other hand, is irreducible to what it is is used for? This discordant echo of one of Theodor W. Adorno’s most infamous assertions about jazz implies that black social life reconstitutes the music that is its phonographic. That music, which Miles Davis calls ‘social music,’ to which Adorno and Fanon gave only severe and partial hearing, is of interdicted black social life operating on frequencies that are disavowed—though they are amplified—in the interplay of sociopathological and phenomenological description. How can we fathom a social life that tends toward death, that enacts a kind of being-toward-death, and which, because of such tendency and enactment, maintains a terribly beautiful vitality? Deeper still, what are we to make of the fact of a sociality that emerges when lived experience is distinguished from fact, in the fact of life that is implied in the very phenomenological gesture/analysis within which Fanon asserts black social life as, in all but the most minor ways, impossible? How is it that the off harmony of life, sociality, and blackness is the condition of possibility of the claim that there is no black social life? Does black life, in its irreducible and impossible sociality and precisely in what might be understood as its refusal of the status of social life that is refused it, constitute a fundamental danger—an excluded but immanent disruption—to social life? What will it have meant to embrace this matrix of im/possibility, to have spoken of and out of this suspension? What would it mean to dwell on or in minor social life? This set of questions is imposed upon us by Fanon. At the same time, and in a way that is articulated most clearly and famously by W. E. B. Du Bois, this set of questions is the position, which is also to say the problem, of blackness.
The great poet-thinker Fred Moten, throwing down the gauntlet in “The Case of Blackness” (Criticism 50:2 2008) and the starting point for one of my semester research/writing/curating projects.
Such is beauty. Its variety is infinite, its possibility is endless. In normal life all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of it; and yet today the mass of human beings are choked away from it, and their lives distorted and made ugly. This is not only wrong, it is silly. Who shall right this well-nigh universal failing. Who shall let this world be beautiful? Who shall restore men the glory of sunsets and the peace of quiet sleep?
W. E. B. Du Bois, from Vol. 32 No. 6 of the Crisis, October 1926, pp. 290-297.