In 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a short story titled “The Comet.” The protagonist is a young African American bank messenger in New York named Jim, who is seen as completely inconsequential by the other employees and excluded from social spaces at every turn. (And informal Jim Crow prevailed even in cities like New York in the early 20th century.) On this day, everyone in the bank is chattering about a comet that is supposed to strike the Earth. Jim is sent into the filthy basement to retrieve documents that must be protected. But this unpleasant task turns out to be fortuitous. While he is below, the comet releases a noxious gas that kills everyone.

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