Sixth Book: Fugitive Science Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture


Fugitivity names a critical method, or a particular mode of study that experiments with new ways of reading and analyzing texts and contexts from the nineteenth century to the contemporary moment.”

In Fugitive Science, Britt Rusert traces the rarely acknowledged work of African American scientists and artists during the Antebellum period, recounting a subterranean history of experiments, practices, and methodologies, which worked to mobilise popular science for the purposes of resistance, confronting scientific racism through both the activity of invention and the re-purposing of mainstream knowledge. Indeed, the book reveals how such ‘fugitive sciences’ forged literal experiments in freedom, radical empiricisms, capable of not only contesting colonial logics, but also refuting mainstream racial science; a science which actively utilised contestable and shaky experimental data in order to speculate on ‘African deficiency and degeneracy’, and thus justify continued subjugation, as well as white supremacist violence.

Within the text, Rusert proposes three forms of fugitive science: oppositional, practical, and speculative. Oppositional forms of fugitive science are composed of explicit critiques of racial science that aim to make a direct intervention into scientific discourse. Practical fugitive science seeks to “instrumentalize” science and technology in the struggle for emancipation. Finally, speculative fugitive science uses the rich imaginative landscape of science to meditate on slavery and freedom, as well as the contingencies of black subjectivity and existence.

Indeed, Rusert examines a rich body of science writing produced by African Americans practitioners (such as Robert Benjamin Lewis, Hosea Easton, and Sarah Mapps Douglass), who, routinely excluded from institutions of scientific learning and training, transformed everyday spaces into laboratories of knowledge production, experimentation and contestation. They presented themselves as vital scientific agents, manipulating and experimenting with the objects of the natural world, rejecting the idea of black individuals merely occupying the form of passive subjects within early American science; bodies to be experimented upon for the furthering of non-Black expertise.

Rusert’s archival analysis reveals the innovative and pressing work done by Black scientists and practitioners, from the importance of black ethnology in forging transatlantic and diasporic solidarities; the forms of fugitive science practiced by black women in the tight spaces of the parlour and the classroom (such as Sarah Mapps Douglass’ radical lectures on physiology which contested black women’s supposed biological inferiority in various forms of scientific and popular texts); to Robert Benjamin Lewis and Hosea Easton imagined and imaged speculative genealogies of kinship, which sought to ameliorate the erasures of the Middle Passage and perform important reparative work.

Chapter 2 (titled Comparative Anatomies: Re-Visions of Racial Science), alongside the introduction, will be the reading group’s central focus. The chapter explores the dialectic of calculated visibility, and strategic invisibility, as it shapes black ethnology’s theorisation of the visual in and against race science. Chapter 5 (titled Sarah’s Cabinet: Fugitive Science in and beyond the Parlor) is optional, though recommended to anyone interested in Black women’s contributions to Antebellum science.

The book is recommended to anyone interested in: African American science and technology; the Antebellum scientific community; Critical Race Studies of Science; speculative kinships; Afro-Native solidarities; critiques of, and responses to racial science; the scientific-artistic cultures of black women; radical black ethnology; the use of popular science in transatlantic abolitionist performance cultures; the use of science for activism and anti-racist critique.

If you would like to join us please feel free to just show up on the day!

The link above contains a PDF download of the introduction, as well as Chapters 2 & 5.

WHEN: Monday 29 October, 4-6pm.

LOCATION: Meeting Room 370, Social Science Building, Camperdown Campus, USyd

(near Ross Street gateway to the Camperdown Campus.)


© Compiled by Zsuzsanna Dominika Ihar for BoS

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