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September/October 2015
 
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Light Ahead for the Negro, by Edward A. Johnson (1904)


FEATURING airships, cryostasis avant la lettre, and time travel, Johnson's Light Ahead for the Negro opens with a freak accident that leaves its narrator frozen in suspended animation at the upper limits of the atmosphere. Jumping from 1906—according to Johnson, the inaugural year of popular airship travel within the United States—to 2006, the narrator awakens to find the racial tensions of the early twentieth century resolved.

Conversations with a young nurse reveal the steps that have brought this about: the initially modest changes of the "absence of slurs" directed toward Black Americans in media and the proliferation of racially mixed labor unions, then a radical overhaul of the agricultural industry of the South and, finally, in a lovely display of pre-Orwellian optimism, the abolition of Congress for a government run by "bureaus" and "departments." Even the role of President has been replaced with an Executive Department.

Johnson presents a remarkable figure in American letters. Born into slavery in 1860, he went on to become a politician, attorney, scholar, author, and activist, and the first African American to be elected to the New York Legislature. Light Ahead for the Negro may be read within a tradition of early African-American utopian fiction, joining Pauline Hopkins's "Of One Blood" (1902) and W.E.B. Du Bois's later "The Comet" (1920) as works that imagined the place of race in an America yet-to-come. This tradition challenged works like King Wallace's The Next War: A Prediction (1892) in a time when such matters as interracial marriage and the ability to vote arguably constitued "science fictions" in their own right.

—Phoenix Alexander

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