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  • Hope Draped in Black: Decolonizing Utopian Studies
  • Caroline Edwards (bio)

What does utopian studies have to learn from critical race theory, Black studies, and ideas of Black futurity? While utopian scholars have begun unpicking the colonial entanglements of utopianism’s origins (particularly as a literary genre grounded in pelagic crossings to the New World that have advocated slavery, extractivism, and eugenics to name a few notable examples across the utopian canon), few, if any, have incorporated the perspectives, aesthetics, and theoretical work of Black scholars themselves.1 The following are a few brief remarks organized around keywords (in a nod to Raymond Williams, a fierce advocate of utopian thinking) that attempt to sketch an answer to these questions, with a focus on my own area of utopian study: utopian literary and cultural production in the contemporary period.


We might start by considering the literary utopia’s most prolific period, from roughly 1880 to 1915. In a deluge of utopian narratives, many of them penned by amateur writers, we find the emergence of a genre that is thoroughly [End Page 498] rooted in industrialized progress. Whatever their perspective on capitalism and waged labor, these works privilege advanced industrialization as the primary means to eliminate poverty and disease, thereby liberating workers into automated futures of post-scarcity abundance. Examples include Edward Bellamy’s highly rationalized system of pneumatic delivery (Looking Backward: 2000–1887 [1888]), Mary E. Bradley Lane’s chemical production of food from waste products (Mizora: A World of Women [1890] 1999), H. G. Wells’s titanic hydro-powered engineering (Men Like Gods [1923]), Edward Bulwer Lytton’s lithic limitless energy, Vril (The Coming Race [1871]), or the ubiquitous electricity that powers Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s clean city (New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future [1899] 2011), Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Marchant’s advanced Martian society (Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance [1893]), and Alexander Bogdanov’s advanced scientific culture on the red planet (Красная звезда [Red Star (1908) 1984]). Indeed, many notable dystopian novels begin with the same premise of highly automated societies that focus, rather, on the awfulness of life without purpose (Anna Bowman Dodd’s The Republic of the Future; Or, Socialism a Reality [1887], E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” [1909], Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano [1952]). While they are far from uncritical of the telos of historical progress (most of the works highlight the class and gender inequalities of their own time), utopian novels in this period tend to view the utopian process as one of harnessing historical progress in a more equitable direction; they rarely question the Hegelian premise that history moves through contradictory forces in a dialectical series of stages.

In his 2016 book Hope Draped in Black, Joseph R. Winters explores the lasting damage that ideas of historical progress have wrought on Black writers, artists, and thinkers. While notions of racial uplift are loaded with a linear narrative of Black progress such conceptions, he writes, “are mediated by melancholy, loss, and a recalcitrant sense of tragedy” (6–7). Building on Adorno and Horkheimer’s landmark critique in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) as well as the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Winters notes that

modern notions of progress and freedom are inherently flawed and problematic because they rely on and are intertwined with practices and conditions—capitalism, colonial expansion, racial hierarchies, endeavors, and incentives to usurp and possess that earth—that are harmful to non-Europeans, working-class bodies, women, and other groups.

(2016, 8) [End Page 499]

Examining the relationship between melancholy and hope in Black literary and aesthetic traditions, Winters explores how writers such as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison incorporate jazz into their works, using its discordant, improvisational structures to imagine time out of joint (the Derridean deferral of justice announced by the arrival of the specter of old King Hamlet, who returns) (Derrida 1994). Here, Winters writes, “the past can always haunt and disturb the present [so that] the present is always a site of potential breaks and ruptures that can signify both dislocation and pain as well as novelty and possibility” (2016, 25). If we are to contemplate the almost overwhelming task of decolonizing utopian studies, then...