After my father died, I didn’t write for two years. Even reading fiction no longer interested me. But when a friend mentioned WEB Du Bois The Dark Princess, a romance novel published in 1928, I was curious. The novel had been maligned and overlooked by critics; maybe that’s why I was attracted. Did Du Bois, the famous social scientist and activist – whose founding book of essays, The souls of black people, remains one of the most influential works of African-American literature – really writing a romance? I had never been a reader of the genre, but death had recalibrated my relationship to the world so much that it was difficult for me to be definitive about anything, even my own tastes.
The Dark Princess begins in New York with Matthew Townes, an aspiring obstetrician who is prevented from continuing his medical studies because he is black. After leaving school, he travels to Berlin, where he meets Kautilya, a purple-haired Indian princess who invites him to join a secret coalition working to overthrow white imperialism and achieve self-sovereignty for the most powerful races. dark. Ultimately, the book is a love story between Princess Kautilya and Matthew that spans years: Matthew ends up in prison in Chicago and later becomes involved in local politics, while Princess Kautilya works in factories and unions across the United States. When they finally reunite after years apart, Matthew tells Princess Kautilya, “And that night my body kissed yours, a billion years passed in a heartbeat. What more can I ask for? »
It’s a surprisingly syrupy line for someone who wrote as seriously as Du Bois. But to me, it reveals a writer who isn’t afraid to embrace emotion. Near the start of the novel, Du Bois describes Matthew’s arrival in Berlin as a wake-up call – a reminder of all he had left behind in America, but also a hint of the possibility that awaits him: “Oh, he was alone ; lonely and homesick with terrible homesickness. After all, in leaving white, he had also left black America – everything he loved and knew… What wouldn’t he give to shake a black hand now, to hear a soft roll of Southern words, to kiss a brown cheek? … God—he was alone. So, terribly lonely. And then… he saw the princess! During the period after my father died, writing was difficult because my imagination had weakened and I tried not to feel anything at all. But here is a book brimming with shameless longing, optimism for what the world could be. I had thought romance was a windy daydream on a hot afternoon, but after reading The Dark PrincessI realized that gender could help us see beyond the limits of our reality, opening our minds to fantastic possibilities.
The novel contains an assortment of stories one would not expect to experience together – Princess Kautilya and Matthew’s meeting in Berlin, the finer details of the political milieu in 1920s Chicago, the anti- imperialism in the Global South and racial liberation struggles in America. The New York Times called it “flamboyant and unconvincing”, with “enough material for several novels”. The romance seems out of control. But what got me excited was her sweeping understanding of romance as a possible force for change. In her introduction to the 1995 edition, reviewer Claudia Tate wrote that if “reviewers had judged the novel by the values of eroticized revolutionary art instead of the conventions of social realism, they would likely have celebrated The Dark Princess as a visionary work. Romance, with its tendency towards coincidences and melodrama, gave Du Bois’s characters the freedom to live and dream in ways realistic writing could not.
As a sociologist and historian, Du Bois, of course, primarily wrote in a mode that attempted to capture the world as it is. But he was also a particularly courageous and inventive writer. His books resist and refuse the limits of the genre; he realized that each form had the ability to illuminate the human psyche. Writers are sometimes reluctant to step out of their comfort zone for fear of how their work will be perceived. “Genre” fiction is also often discarded in favor of realistic literature. In accepting a lifetime achievement award at the 2014 National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin paid tribute to her “fellow fantasy and science fiction writers, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have seen the handsome rewards go to the so-called realist. Hard times are coming when we will want the voices of writers who can see alternatives to our current way of life, can see through our frightened society and its obsessive technologies into other ways of being, and even imagine real reasons for being. ‘hope. ”
As Du Bois shows, genres such as science fiction and fantasy can be expansive tools of the imagination. In The Dark Princess, the romance between Matthew and Princess Kautilya is also a symbol of the coalition’s vision of interracial solidarity. The birth of their son suggests a future utopia, one in which the boy will lead people from “darker worlds” as a sort of Messiah, showing them a way “out of their pain, slavery and humiliation, a beacon to guide manhood to health, happiness and life and away from the quagmire of hate, poverty, crime, disease, monopoly and mass murder called war. Although some aspects of The Dark Princess, as the orientalized portrayal of India and the one-dimensional nature of some of the female characters, did not resonate with me, I recognized the power of this act of imagination – even though in the novel the coalition does not ultimately didn’t realize his utopia. In the act of writing, of imagining, there is no failure.
Over the years, The Dark Princess lingered in my mind and encouraged me to be more experimental in my own writing. Before the pandemic, I had a fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where I conducted research for a novel set in a future New York City in which AI rules many aspects of life. In this novel, Meet us by the Roaring Sea, a young woman translates a manuscript that follows a group of female medical students as they attempt to create a compassionate, communal way of life amid drought and violence. Part of it is a love story that dives into many forms and genres, crossing borders, time periods and gender norms. Writing in a genre like science fiction allowed me to review our world. What does it really mean to care about the suffering of others? How do we show this concern? When the coronavirus pandemic hit, these questions felt even more urgent; it became clear how interconnected our lives really are. While writing, I found myself constantly sliding into second person and first person plural, wanting to entangle the reader and evoke the collective.
In his 1940 book, Twilight at dawn: an essay towards an autobiography of a racing conceptDuBois says The Dark Princess his favorite work. He had kept his forgotten and unloved novel closest to his heart, and I can understand why. The novel, which is dedicated to Titania, Shakespeare’s fairy queen Dream of a summer night, ends with a question addressed to him: “What is really Truth, Reality or Fantasy? the Dream of the Spirit or the Pain of the Bone? With The Dark PrincessDu Bois achieves this dream and asks us to realize it.