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  • International Powers:Energy and Progress in Dark Princess and Black Empire
  • Walter Gordon (bio)

Toward the end of his visit to Liberia as special envoy in 1924, an enthusiastic W. E. B. Du Bois reflected on the political future of the African continent: "Africa is the spiritual Frontier of human kind," he writes:

Oh the wild and beautiful adventures of its taming! But oh! The cost thereof—the endless, endless cost! Then will come a day—an old and ever, ever young day when there will spring in Africa a civilization without coal, without noise, where machinery will sing and never rush and roar, and where men will sleep and think and dance and lie prone before the rising sons, and women will be happy.

Fantasizing about a time after the age of imperial misadventure has ended, Du Bois pictures a self-determined "civilization," at once technologically modern and aesthetically pure. In that future space, "the objects of life will be revolutionized," and the life of the worker will consist of "dream[ing] the day away and in cool dawns, in little swift hours, do[ing] all our work."1 As a "world of service without servants," to take a phrase from Du Bois's Darkwater, the future that Du Bois imagines functions as a kind of antimodernist utopia that comes after the paroxysm of modernity; it is a space that is at home to the machine but without any of the material disharmony of industry: a civilization of machines, Du Bois is careful to note, "without coal."2

By decoupling machines and the messy politics of energy to which they seem inevitably tethered, Du Bois is, perhaps incidentally, reflecting a form of political desire—the longing for an infinite source of invisible power—that is certainly familiar today. This desire goes back to at least the mid-nineteenth century in an American context, as Lynn Badia has shown, when the concept of the "free energy utopia" emerged as a serious way to imagine the "reorganization" of American life. In this utopian scheme, Badia writes, "need, suffering, and evil" derive from "the earthly fight for energy," such that "a paradise on earth, a garden of abundance, is a free energy state."3 As the opening lines of [End Page 581] Du Bois's article seem to indicate, Liberia's future might serve as such a garden: "Africa is vegetation," he writes; "it is the riotous, unbridled bursting life of leaf and limb. It is sunshine."4 Even if his vision of a future "without coal" responds literally to a lack of the fossil fuel in the region, Africa contains, for Du Bois, on a figural level, all the trappings of a free energy utopia.

Just as we might recognize Du Bois's hope for a free energy utopia, we might also find Du Bois's choice to omit what replaces coal in his utopian schema familiar, if significantly less indelible, as a problem today. What alternative to the "rush and roar" of coal, we might ask of Du Bois, will make machines "sing"? In this essay, I look closely at how two African American writers—Du Bois and his contemporary, George Schuyler—consider the question of energy alternatives in relation to the political future, the color line, and concepts of internationalism. Each of the novels I engage with, Du Bois's 1928 Dark Princess and Schuyler's 1936–38 Black Empire, consider the political and social meanings of energy sources that might be considered "minor" or "subordinate" in the regime of their day: hydroelectric and solar power, respectively.5 Tracking how each writer treats these distinct forms of energy technology, I contend, provides a fresh perspective on what each thought about the interlinked problems of race, utopia, and the nature of progress.

As Du Bois's comment about a future without fossil fuel suggests, both novels were written firmly in the "age of coal," according to the traditional view of America's energy history: coal remained the nation's "predominant fuel source" from about 1885 until 1951, when oil finally surpassed it, as reported by the US Department of Energy.6 On a global scale, as J. R. McNeill and...


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