NOVEMBER 30, 2017
WE’RE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING a boom in black speculative literature and film. Whether it’s Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Underground Railroad; the spate of novels by Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Victor LaValle that have been optioned for TV; or the films Get Out and The Girl With All the Gifts, black speculative fictions are appearing at an incredible rate, a clear response to the long-standing need for cultural producers to imagine new and better futures. We can now add to these inventive visions the recently rediscovered William Demby novel King Comus. Demby (Beetlecreek, The Catacombs) began writing King Comus in the mid-1980s, which coincided with a proliferation of neo-slave narratives that includes Butler’s Kindred (1979), Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982), Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). However, critics have been unaware of Demby’s contribution to the genre because, after completing the novel in 2007 and finding himself unable to find a publisher before his death in 2013, King Comus is only now coming into print via Ishmael Reed’s publishing company. Now that Demby’s work is finally available, the text will no doubt be necessary reading for those interested in the cultural history of black speculative fiction.
The premise of the semi-autobiographical novel is that the main character D. meets up with his Army friend Tillman and their former commanding officer Joe Stabat, who are organizing a gospel summit for the singer Little Antioch in Rome. While this narrative thread occurs in the present, it also provides the occasion for D. to reflect on how he met Tillman during World War II and subsequently learned the story of Tillman’s fabled ancestor King Comus. King Comus, we learn, was bought, along with his mother, in 1815 at the age of 11 by a musician disguised as a baron. The musician taught King Comus how to play several instruments, including the piano, and as he grew older began to hire him out to perform. During one of these performances on a steamboat, King Comus escapes by jumping into the Mississippi, where a Cherokee woman pulls him aboard her raft.
Written in an experimental, absurdist style, King Comus features a number of odd moments. One of the first narratives, which stands apart from the rest, tells the story of how King Comus’s slavemaster kills and assumes the identity of a wealthy baron in Vienna in 1815. In another surreal scene, while in the Army D. attends a Thanksgiving dinner that Tillman’s aunt Harriet hosts but where Tillman himself is not present. At the end of the night, D. has an orgy with five women who are only described as Harriet’s “girls” without any explanation as to the nature of their relationship. In yet another instance, before Joe Stabat decides to put together the gospel summit, he has his lawyers draft a contract that legally makes Tillman his slave.
Further, as King Comus editor Melanie Masterton Sherazi observes in her notes on the text, the novel is full of inconsistencies both in terms of the timeline of events and how characters are related to one another. Sherazi remarks that the novel’s play with temporalities and interwoven plot lines are part of its experimentalism, and I would agree, particularly given the neo-slave narrative’s suspicion of official histories and Demby’s own project of casting doubt on oral histories. (Full disclosure: Sherazi is a friend.)
Told primarily as an oral narrative, King Comus would seem to follow the typical conventions of the neo-slave narrative, which Ashraf Rushdy defines as “contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative.” Rushdy locates neo-slave narratives as emerging after 1968, as the Civil Rights movement provided a space for black authors to reconceptualize black historiography. More radically, Madhu Dubey, in considering the intersection of neo-slave narrative and speculative fiction, argues that “speculative fictions overtly situate themselves against history, suggesting that we can best comprehend the truth of slavery by abandoning historical modes of knowing.” Demby takes this argument to its extreme by refusing to detail history at all. Instead, he references historical events such as World War II, the Trail of Tears, and the Indian Wars in ways that suggest the inability of these terms to signify in any substantial way the tragedy of each event. For example, in the section that takes place in Italy during World War II, Demby focuses on Joe Stabat’s black-market dealings with the Mafia over Etruscan art objects. While King Comus meets the mother of his son on the raft because of the Trail of Tears, aside from a quick reference to Andrew Jackson the novel doesn’t expand on King Comus’s time with the Cherokees other than to note that they exiled him and his son after the mother died. Similarly, while we learn that King Comus fights in the Indian Wars, it remains a historical gap. This is a sharp contrast with Butler’s Kindred, in which the protagonist Dana quickly realizes that reading about slavery does not convey the horrors of slavery; rather, these experiences must be embodied to be understood.
Instead, Demby plays with historical knowledge. At one point, Tillman seems to offer historical specificity by noting that he once checked his family history against historical facts and “came to the conclusion that King Comus’ famous leap into the Mississippi had to have taken place around 1837 or 1838 on a Christmas Day.” However, even here the date is 1837 or 1838. A few pages later, he parenthetically remarks, “I’m not going to get into the exact dates everything happened because I’ve never been sure of the exact dates myself.” Tillman introduces additional complications with his oral history by noting that the men and women of his family have two different stories of how and why King Comus leaped into the river. In the men’s version, King Comus is caught in flagrante delicto with the bandmaster’s niece and promptly flees. In the women’s, King Comus is a petty thief caught in the act of stealing. Either way, Demby puts equal pressure on official historical narratives and the oral histories that characterize both slave narratives and neo-slave narratives.
Indeed, Demby doesn’t seem particularly interested in the typical subject of the neo-slave narrative; rather than discuss King Comus’s time as a slave, he merely tells us of his escape. Learning Tillman’s history means learning the longer history of his family, which is to say, learning of their survival. Thus, it is fitting that at the end of the novel, King Comus, convinced he is already dead, is visited by a shaman who asks him if he would like to go to the past, the present, or the future. King Comus chooses the future, to “see how my loved ones and my kinfolk are doing, now that everybody’s free.” King Comus imagines his descendants are free because of his own escape and self-determination. However, as he takes King Comus into the future, the shaman ominously intones, “Nobody told you everybody’s free,” which is reflected in the fact that Tillman, King Comus’s final descendant, is Stabat’s slave. Whereas Sherley Anne Williams once remarked, “there was no place in the American past I could go and be free,” Demby refuses even a free present in King Comus. Before becoming a slave, Tillman is initially hired to be Stabat’s cook, and there’s a glimmer of a suggestion about the disproportionate service work done by black people and minorities contrasted with whites. In turning Tillman into a slave, Demby highlights the historical continuities of racially imbalanced labor.
This is not to say the novel is completely without hope for the future. At the gospel summit, Little Antioch sings her global hit, “Lord, Lordy Lord, I Need an Explanation”:
Lord, Lordy Lord, I need an explanation
The sadness of the world has trodden me into
The grief, the sorrow
The children without joy
If this is how it is,
And this is how it must be
Lord, Lordy Lord, I Need an Explanation!
But if you know his name
This savior without fame
Come Sweet Lord and tell me
And I will tell the World —
As she sings this hymn, King Comus appears, suggesting that he is the savior without fame. However, shortly after he appears, King Comus disintegrates into dust. In the pages preceding this scene, the text suggests yet another savior: D. Little Antioch, who we discover is his daughter, gives D. divining pebbles along with a note from her grandmother that explains them: “Always remember, you don’t belong to yourself no more, you belong to The Tribe, which still walks and breathes, and wants you back because of my dreams and what has since come to pass that you and nobody else but you are the elder and therefore the Chief!!!” As D. is also a writer and shares many qualities with Demby himself, we can read King Comus as part novel, part transcription of Tillman’s oral history that D. has put to paper. While the novel ultimately refuses to give a clear explanation, it does demonstrate how personal and political histories are interwoven; as the new chief, D. is responsible for King Comus’s family line. There may not be a biological connection (it’s unclear whether Little Antioch is also a descendant of King Comus), but there is still a sense of what Sherazi calls “affiliative” kinship.
While Demby is not as well known today as his friends Richard Wright and Ishmael Reed, the publication of King Comus will surely bring renewed interest to his work and his contribution to both neo-slave narratives and black speculative fiction. As Demby demonstrates, the neo-slave narrative is necessarily speculative since we cannot imagine the conditions of slavery as practiced in the US South. Rather than attempt a realist depiction of slavery in the 19th century, Demby offers a narrative that hinges on our inability to know history in any form. That said, he also suggests that we must continue to write it for ourselves because, to echo Little Antioch’s grandmother, we don’t belong to ourselves no more; we belong to a larger community with all the responsibilities that entails.