Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture argues that when science became a primary modality of anti-Black racism in the antebellum United States, the story didn’t end there. Black writers, artists, lecturers, and other cultural producers not only forcefully critiqued racist science, they also redeployed scientific knowledge toward emancipatory ends, and even used it to launch inquiries far beyond its own limits. In a moment when white supremacy has become flagrant and the only means of valuing science seems to be enshrining it as universal truth, Rusert uses the past not only to show us how we got to where we are today, but how we might leave it behind.
Fugitive Science is built on meticulous archival research. Rusert considers antebellum science, both racist and anti-racist, not as abstract ideas but as a throng of printed texts, visual culture, and embodied performances. She explains that scientific racism took hold in the United States less through science writing than through its remediation in popular culture: caricatures, song and joke books, almanacs, blackface minstrelsy shows, and other forms of media. Fugitive science, in turn, arose because the mass media of scientific racism unwittingly “opened the field to an unlikely set of actors” (14) who turned it into a laboratory for their own experiments. Rusert’s scrupulously materialist approach to the history of ideas contributes to a growing body of work on nineteenth-century Black print and performance cultures. At the same time, by attending to forms of knowledge that emerge from material conditions but do not necessarily settle into predictable, recognizable, or permanent shapes, she braids materialist approaches with the theories and practices of speculation that have become especially vibrant in Black Studies. Rusert thus draws on the examples of her historical subjects for her own critical method, treating her archive less as conclusive evidence than as an incitement to further thought. She weaves a narrative about Black scientific performances from “a paper trail of ticket stubs, pamphlets, newspaper columns and announcements, broadsides, and other printed texts and ephemera” (114); she imagines the Black feminist pedagogy Sarah Mapps Douglass might have forged by setting students’ investigations of their own bodies against the absence of Black women in their textbooks; she observes that Douglass, Henry Box Brown, and Samuel George Morton all traversed Arch Street in Philadelphia and wonders if they crossed paths; she reminds us that behind the archives she combs to such generative ends lie “shadow archives” of Black working-class and enslaved people’s scientific practices, which undoubtedly touched her subjects’ work but often elude recovery. Through her case studies and her own example, Rusert shows that materialist and speculative methods are not and never have been separate: materiality is not stability, and people may turn everyday objects into ingredients for acts of surpassing imagination.
This resolutely dialectical method, which finds unguessed possibilities in even the apparent dead end of racial science, makes Fugitive Science “through and through a black optimist project,” as Anjuli Raza Kolb notes. But its optimism is not a faith in good outcomes so much as a recognition of ongoing potentiality, an openness toward openness. Rusert looks at the tradition of empiricism, for instance, and finds “something fugitive” in its reliance on “sense perception, continual observations, and a mobile, searching orientation toward the world” (20), which fugitive scientists activated and expanded. The “elusive traces of fugitive science” (218), in turn, can be found in attempts to contain it, Rusert acknowledges in the book’s final sentences, where she reverses her initial trajectory from racial science to fugitive science and considers the imprint fugitive science might have left on racial science.
In their contributions to the symposium, Jayna Brown and Susan Scott Parrish consider how far Rusert’s concept of fugitive science might extend. Parrish presses on both the “fugitive” half of the phrase and “science” half. In reference to the former, she inquires whether all Black scientific practices were subversive of anti-Blackness. In reference to the latter, she notes that Rusert focuses on human sciences like ethnology and anatomy and asks whether practitioners of fugitive science looked to nonhuman sciences to theorize forms of subjectivity and political life, as well. Jayna Brown also broadens the book’s discussion of fugitive science by asking what light it can shed on nineteenth-century Black practitioners’ experiments in “alternative forms of medicine and science” that have been “kept secondary or ignored,” such as “cutaneous electricity” (David Ruggles), “sex-power” (Paschal Beverly Randolph), or “Creole medicinal art” (Mary Seacole). How would attending to more marginalized types of scientific thought, in turn, reframe the concept of fugitive science?
Kolb, Greta LaFleur, and Michelle D. Commander illuminate how urgently Fugitive Science speaks to our present moment. Kolb juxtaposes it with Kaitlyn Greenidge’s 2016 novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, in order to foreground the continuities between the nineteenth-century history Rusert chronicles and “our nominally post-racist scientific future.” Greta LaFleur’s essay lingers with one of the most difficult problems Fugitive Science raises. Behind the book’s examination of critical and reparative responses to racial science, LaFleur writes, “I hear a larger question about the ethics of engagement with politically harmful materials and archives,” which both absorbs Rusert’s nineteenth-century subjects and resonates amidst the “refusal politics” of the present. Michelle Commander’s essay highlights a fascinating subplot in the book: the “short and relevant asides” in which Rusert “maneuvers between centuries.” In these passages, Commander notes, the book offers a long history of Afrofuturism, in which Black writers and artists have “live[d] by proceeding speculatively” in the face of those who would deny them life at all.