The Pioneering Black Sci-Fi Writer Behind the Original Wakanda

Written by MIT CMS/W alum and former Senior Communications Associate, Office of the Dean, Ali Lanier.

“MIT rarely allows Hollywood films to be shot on their campus. So it was a surprise when an email went out in 2021, alerting students that a film titled Summer Break would be filming at the school. Turns out, this was the working title of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It’s now burst into theaters, with its rare commodity of MIT as a backdrop.

But something else was special about Wakanda Forever’s filming location. The MIT scenes were shot a stone’s throw from where, a century before, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins worked at the Institute.

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was a groundbreaking novelist, playwright, performer, orator, thinker and activist—and she’s credited with inventing the setting that eventually became Wakanda in her science fiction. But while her imaginative creations live on in massive-franchise form, her name isn’t widely known.

This tremendous literary and political figure is memorialized sparsely: a small placard stands outside her former North Cambridge home, where she lived until her death in 1930. The Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society—founded in 2009—continues to uphold her legacy through scholarship, publications and conference events. But there are no records of her in MIT’s archives—though there are numerous contemporary accounts of her working at the school, she seems to have vanished quietly and undeservedly from Institute memory as much as from public acclaim…

Professor Marah Gubar of MIT Literature came across Hopkins’ work as she sought to create a more diverse reading list for her students in the course “Science Fiction before Science Fiction” (That is, works that are now called science fiction, but were establishing the genre before that term came into use in the 1930s).

Hopkins’ writing wasn’t anthologized in the collections of science fiction and fantasy published by academic presses that Gubar was consulting at the time, and Gubar recalls that Hopkins’ work had never been assigned to her in undergrad or grad school. It wasn’t until she came across Hopkins’ name in Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction that the work of “the single most productive Black woman writer at the turn of the century” was revitalized at the Institute where she spent the last decade of her life.”

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