Symposium Introduction

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.

Jayna Brown

Response

A Scientific Improvisation

Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science is situated within the unregulated and wildly fantastical worlds of speculation that were called “science” in the nineteenth century. I am drawn to these worlds, especially the ways we can understand black visions and practices within them. As Rusert says science was “capacious and flexible” (5). The lines between the spirit world and the stars, life and death were porous. The elementals still held metaphysical properties, my personal favorite being electricity, which traverses and links the body, the environment and the cosmos. Allopathic medicine had yet to supersede long histories of curative practices, from herbalism to conjuring. Rusert’s book focuses primarily on the biological sciences, as biology was the ground on which ideas of race were founded, and contested terrain for black people. Natural science could be used to argue for racialized peoples’ inclusion “as liberal subjects,” and as “fully human,” but it was also a place where Enlightenment logics could be challenged. As Rusert says, “Natural science served as a springboard for complex meditations on being, subjectivity, and existence” (5). She refuses to dismiss all science of the time, even though it was so shaped by a deeply racist ethos. Instead she pushes us to think of the ways black people were using its language.

Rusert’s book set my archive-loving heart to fluttering. For us in the un-housed, un-indexed, fugitive world (the undercommons as Fred Moten would put it) the insurgent search for, and use of, surviving material takes agility, endurance and fortitude. Rusert’s book made me aware of the ways archives are mobile, forming and reforming depending on the questions we ask, and what the materials say back to us. In our work we redefine what an archive is. I would like to hear Rusert’s thoughts on her use of the archives.

This is not the direction I would go with this material, I thought when I first began reading. I could just ignore black people’s use of phrenology, thank you. Or dismiss ethnographies as outdated and conservative. I’d rather not have to really consider W. E. B. Du Bois’s eugenical ideas. But Rusert stays with thorny, uncomfortable lines of inquiry. She refuses to reject contemporaneous scientific methodologies, as they were the medium through which black people were thinking, imagining and enacting resistance.

As she tends to recuperative and affirming appraisals, Rusert’s guiding questions ride “a dangerous line” (218). She voices the complexities she faced with this project in her conclusion. She asks of her last chapter: “What would it mean to supplement the Hottentot paradigm with the speculative, fragmented history of black women engaging with natural science in this period, including Douglass who taught black girls about the politics of self care through physiology and anatomy? . . . Is racial science ultimately salvageable?” Rusert is well aware of the violence brought upon black subjects by Western scientific practices. But her question raises the idea that there may indeed be no “outside” of our techno-scientifically mediated world. The hope for me is that science itself can be forced to change its paradigms.

What I love are the sources Rusert examines that register the imaginative quality of that era of science. In her second chapter, Rusert examines Hosea Easton’s Treatise published in 1837. In Treatise, Hosea Easton adapts the “microscopic imaginary,” inspired by the development of new visual technologies, the microscope and telescope. “Easton takes the terms of monstrosity and the grotesque as they were produced through the optical powers of the microscope and uses them to refract the optical bind of black Americans in the North and South . . . trapped between conditions of invisibility and cruel ‘diminishment of corporeality’ under slavery and forms of spectacular hyper-visibility and surveillance in the North” (99). Rusert aptly reads his arguments of the “morphological effects of slavery.”

As Rusert’s focus on Henry Box Brown in her third chapter shows us, the boundaries between scientific practice, performance and ritual were blurred, as in the public staging and performance of medical procedures, including dissections, caesarian sections, and autopsies (the reason we have “operating theaters,” today is due to this gruesome history). Lecture tours and staged demonstrations of wondrous and shocking scientific feats were common entertainment. Rusert directs us to think about Box Brown’s performances in relation to these histories of popular science. She draws us to consider Brown’s career after his move to England, in which he staged himself as the “African biologist” (137), performing acts of mesmerism and animal magnetism, or as it was also called “electro biology” (139).

In her fourth chapter, Martin Delany’s Blake comes alive as speculative fiction, as its character Henry Holland “skips across space and time” (164). Rusert’s chapter inspired me to visit the Weekly Anglo African, in which Blake was serialized. Among other materials she cites, I am drawn to Delany’s “The Attraction of Planets,” in which he argues for “electrical attraction and repulsion in the galaxy of worlds” (162). Delany’s words echo the creative cosmological theories of the eighteenth-century utopian Charles Fourier, who declared the laws of attraction between planets. “All stars copulate,” he wrote, in a chapter suppressed by his followers.1 Delany does not take his argument that far, but I wonder if he had read Fourier’s work or if these ideas had a wider circulation in the United States than I thought. But the interest in the astronomical has a special resonance in black cultural imaginary, as the stars provided a guide to freedom for those in flight from the violent regime of slavery. The infinite is the ultimate escape and the ultimate home.

Rusert’s work is helping me situate parts of my own work. Rusert’s focus on black practitioners helped me place three of Brown’s contemporaries, working within this amorphous field of medical science, who I have been fascinated with for a while. The first is David Ruggles, a black abolitionist whose work as a founder of the Underground Railroad and journalist is relatively well known. But less is known about his work later in his life. In poor health, after years of dangerous and stressful anti-slavery activism, Ruggles underwent hydropathy treatments, and then set up his own clinic in Northampton, Massachusetts, as a “Hydropathic Practitioner” (the first in the nation).2 After being severely ill, David Ruggles had gone blind. Through treatments, he regained some of his sight and developed a heightened sensitivity in his perception. He was able to feel, through touch, the fluxes and flows of electricity through the human body, and developed the theory of what he called “cutaneous electricity.”3 I am interested in how electricity flows throughout black cultural production, religion and science, both literally and as metaphor.

The second is Paschal Beverly Randolph, who LaMonda Horton-Stallings writes about in Funk the Erotic. I discovered him through my interest in black practices of mesmerism. After a life at sea Randolph settled in Utica, New York, in 1852, advertising himself as “Dr. Paschal Beverly Randolph, clairvoyant physician and psycho-phrenologist.”4 Randolph’s specialty was sex and curing sexual ailments. “True Sex-power is God-power,” he wrote.5 Medical disorders had to do with imbalances of energy in the body. In his “medical views, human vital energy and happiness could be increased by mutual sexual fulfillment.”6 How has a politics of respectability shaped our readings of the archive, and caused us to suppress these histories of sexual radicalism? How have alternative forms of medicine and science been kept as secondary or ignored, in the name of legitimizing black intellectual abilities?

The case of Mary Seacole, a free Jamaican woman who worked as a “doctress” in the mid-century, perfectly fits Rusert’s argument.7 Raised by a mother versed in “Creole medicinal art,” Seacole travels to the Isthmus of Panama and sets up a boarding house (Wonderful Adventures, 5). Facing an outbreak of cholera, Seacole begins treating its victims, but is driven by her desire for medical knowledge. Seacole unapologetically describes her midnight “post mortem examination” of a baby who had died of the disease, using the bushes as her operating theater. While she assures readers she would not do the same again, her findings, she argues, were “decidedly useful . . . what every medical man knows” (30).

How does consideration of these black figures help us think differently about this period of scientific development? Does Seacole’s distance from formal training illuminate anything about the necessarily improvisational nature of science? About the unknown and how we face it?


  1. Charles Fourier, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction, edited and translated by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu (Boston: Beacon, 1971), 402–3.

  2. David Ruggles, “Northampton Water-Cure Electricity and Hydropathy,” Liberator (Boston), December 8, 1848, issue 49, p. 196, col. E.

  3. Graham Russell Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 188.

  4. John Patrick Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 8.

  5. Paschal Beverly Randolph, “The Anairetic Mystery: A New Revelation concerning SEX!” Deveny, Paschal Beverly Randolph, 317.

  6. Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph, 27.

  7. Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988).

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert

    Reply

    Bodies Electric

    Brown’s beautifully wide-ranging response to Fugitive Science has got me thinking that the perniciousness of racial science, then and now, lies not just in the specific arguments made about human difference, but also in how it establishes the parameters for racial discourse more broadly. In other words, the question here, following Michel Foucault, is about how the archive of racial science determines the law of that which can and cannot be said. Expanding from Brown’s thoughtful provocation on this question: antebellum racial science might be understood as a kind of trap that placed the onus on black communities to prove their own intellectual capacity, and to do so at the expense of other and more experimental engagements with the body itself. The demand to respond to seemingly endless claims about intellectual inferiority could thus foreclose radical imaginaries of embodiment, as well as more dynamic accounts of the relationship between the psyche and the body, or what Sami Schalk calls “bodyminds.”1 Here, I am thinking about Lauren Oya Olamina’s hyperempathy in Octavia Butler’s Parable books as well as the power of the orogenes in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy: Butler and Jemisin write imaginatively and compellingly about forms of psychic power that are deeply embodied but also intersubjective (though in both series such forms of embodied and networked psychic power are not always easy or pleasurable to experience; they often point instead to the difficulty and the pain of being open to others, especially in a racist and sexist world).

    The obsession with bodily and intellectual fitness in antebellum racial science also, at times, produced a form of ableism within black antebellum scientific thought, an (impossible) privileging of black subjects left unharmed by the violences of enslavement, colonialism, and capitalism. And this is perhaps why I’m so interested in the proto-Afro-pessimism of someone like Hosea Easton, who, already in the 1830s, is imagining a black politics organized around the forms of violence, maiming and debility produced by anti-blackness itself in the antebellum United States. Easton’s figuration of nominally free black populations as “half-dead” resonates with Jasbir Puar’s recent arguments about innovations in biopolitical management in the twenty-first century, in which settler colonial states target racialized populations to be maimed rather than killed.2 The history of racial science and the whole apparatus of “slave management” points to a crucial, earlier history in which maiming, not killing, was also a critical tool of population control, surveillance, and exploitation.

    Brown also raises a question about my use of archives. I will talk more about my relationship to the archive in my forthcoming response to Greta LaFleur. I did not conceive of this project as an archival one (far from it), but it turned into one as I became more and more interested in following the fugitive thought and itinerancies of the historical actors in my study. In this way, my own method follows the shuttling between the empirical and the speculative that characterizes fugitive science itself. Since completing the book, I’ve also been thinking more about a kind of nagging, ineluctable desire for the archive itself, even though, as we know, it is no vehicle of truth, history, or even presence. At the same time, a fetishizing of what Arlette Farge refers to as “the allure” of the archive ignores scholars and other readers who find, not pleasure, enjoyment or “discovery” in the archive, but instead a record of coercion, captivity, and imperialism that cannot be innocently detached from forms of violence and subjectification in the present.3 Thus, my subject position as a white cis-woman working in the archives of racist thought is not insignificant; I recognize and value why other scholars would have no interest in engaging with many of the documents I analyze in the project. The historical actors in Fugitive Science further suggest how knowledge continues to be made and remade in spite of—and perhaps because of—lack of access to institutions and repositories of knowledge, including historical archives. This is fugitive thought in the undercommons: what Fred Moten talks about as the wealth that flows from the (artificially produced) scarcity of Black Studies / black study.4

    Brown also asks: “How has a politics of respectability shaped our readings of the archive, and caused us to suppress these histories of sexual radicalism?” I would begin to answer this crucial question by suggesting that the naming and organization of scientific and medical knowledge has itself contributed to such suppressions. For example, in the genealogies of fugitive science I trace in my book, “anatomy,” “physiology,” and “hygiene,” are all subfields that in their very naming and codification work to obfuscate their relationship to the study of sex and sexuality. Respectability can be also found all over the texts of fugitive science, from the Victorian sensibilities of antebellum black ethnology to the obsession with feminine virtue in black women’s friendship albums. But respectability could at the same time operate as a kind of camouflage that kept black study about sex and sexuality open and available, especially to black women. For example, Sarah Mapps Douglass trafficked publicly in the politics of respectability in part to protect and maintain the classes and discourse on bodies, sex, and reproduction that she regularly undertook with friends and students in her parlor. Brown is absolutely right to suggest that a politics of respectability may continue to shape scholarly approaches to the archive, and we should think seriously about ongoing elisions and suppressions of historical articulations of desire, sexuality, and even forms of what she calls “sexual radicalism.” Respectability may also impede the type of bold and imaginative analyses needed to redress or even undo forms of historical censorship, like Charles Fourier’s copulating stars or the contributions of black women to nineteenth-century periodicals that were heavily edited and censored by male editors.5

    I would love to hear more from Brown about how Paschal Beverly Randolph’s writings on sex, power and liberation might connect up to later histories and texts, especially Samuel Delany’s oeuvre. Brown’s current research and LaMonda Horton-Stallings’s Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (2015) both point to electricity, and experiments with it, as a surprisingly crucial site through which to understand black genders and sexualities within and beyond the nineteenth century. In this way, I would be curious to learn more about how black mesmerism potentially recircuits the history of sexual identity offered by Foucault. I further wonder how the history of black mesmerism might re-periodize sexology as well as what Foucault calls technologies of the self, replacing Wilheim Reich’s orgone accumulator and the (whitened) origins of the sex toy industry with the electrically-charged theories and apparatuses of Box Brown, Ruggles, and Randolph, as well as something like Pauline Hopkins’s writings on diasporic mesmerism in Of One Blood.6 Following Greta LaFleur’s critical interventions in her forthcoming monograph, The Natural History of Sexuality, I would argue that antebellum black ethnology might be read as an early sexological discourse. Black mesmerism might be another site to conceive of an alternative history of sexuality, a kind of real-life companion to Naomi Alderman’s recent novel, The Power (2016), but one in which blackness is actually made visible within the alternating and electrified circuits of gender, sexuality, and feminine power.

    Finally, I am so appreciative of Brown’s attention to alternative forms of medicine and healing, though fugitive science might raise the question of alternative to what? Throughout the project, I often refer to medicine as science since medicine was so often a tool of harm rather than health for enslaved and nominally free people. And yet, for all of my caution about the presumption that medicine is, or ever has been, therapeutic for racialized populations, the question of black therapeutics, community care, and healing are of course absolutely crucial to fugitive science, as well as to black organizing, movements, and survival today (I’m thinking here, for example, about the amazing work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs). Brown’s response reminds me of recent calls to queer both care and cure.7 Her brief delineation of black alternative medical practices, from Mary Seacole to Ruggles, also brings us back to the question not just of care and cure, but to pleasure. For Ruggles, Randolph, and Seacole all point to forms of therapeutic touch and even erotic connectivity that are rarely discussed, but that should be allowed a space within a history of medicine that remains sanitized, desexualized, and too often separated from the history of sexuality itself.


    1. Sami Schalk, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

    2. Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

    3. Arlette Farge, The Allure of Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

    4. Fred Moten, “Black Op,” PMLA 123.5 (2008) 1743–47.

    5. On the editorial surveillance and censorship of black women writers by male editors in African American periodicals in the nineteenth century, see Eric Gardner, Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

    6. As to Brown’s question: Did Martin Delany read the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier? I don’t know, but I love thinking about this possibility. It is deep and exciting and sets my heart to fluttering.

    7. Queering Care and Cure Conference, Queer, Feminist, and Trans Studies Research Cluster, UC Davis, November 18, 2017.

Michelle D. Commander

Response

Underground Black Speculations and the Future

In attempting to capture the state of African American life under white supremacy, I often arrive at the descriptors precarious and fraught. At the very moment from which I am writing, I likely will not have a difficult time convincing any reasonable observer of US-based affairs that this is so. Throughout my body of work, I have elected to highlight and examine the inventive ways that African Americans respond to the pernicious and ever-evolving manner in which white supremacy is exerted to control Black mobility and imagination. As African Americans dream about the potential for creating new worlds in their activism and art, there must be an acknowledgment of how the current struggle is connected to the historical project of Black liberation that political leaders, scientists, writers, visual artists, and laypersons have undertaken for centuries. In Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture, Britt Rusert expands our historical understanding of African American speculative thought at a moment in which there are considerable and essential scholarly contemplations on what we can learn from looking back as well as theories about what promises the future might hold for people of African descent in the United States.

To be sure, Rusert tends to utilize the term “speculative” throughout Fugitive Science to denote the experimental qualities of a particular action. The whole of the text, however, most certainly aligns with what I refer to in my own work on imagined and actual flights undertaken by African Americans in reaction to their social alienation as Afro-speculation. In my book, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, I describe Afro-speculation as a modality for living Black life that

is conjectural and conditional; the evidentiary matters not. Afro-speculation is an investment in the unseen and precarious; it is a gamble. It is the belief in the possibility for the establishment of new, utopic realities outside of dominant society despite the lack of proof that Black social life is conceivable. The humanistic qualities and liberatory nature of the genre renders speculative thought a fantastic, radical epistemological modality through which Afro-Atlantic identity can be lived across time and space.1

African American speculation is a defiant posture and therefore, it is inclusive of the notion of the fugitive that Rusert defines in the introduction. After clarifying that her analyses will extend past that which has been firmly established regarding the particularities of escaped enslaved persons, Rusert details her intervention: she offers an expansive examination of “African American experiments with natural science . . . and the itinerancies of flexibilities of antebellum sciences more broadly” (5). Through a compelling teasing out of the intricacies of how African Americans presented challenges to ethnology; the ways that Native Americans and African Americans countered the visual cultures of racist science through ekphrastic means; the performative aspects used on the international lecture circuit that contested race science’s connection of Blackness to the biological body; the literary proto-science fiction of the era; and Black women’s contribution to natural history discourses through the parlor and the classroom, Rusert compiles an exceptional interdisciplinary archive to demonstrate what it meant for nineteenth-century African Americans to wield a measure of control over the literary and philosophical narratives regarding race and humanity.

I was impressed by Rusert’s description of the sustained manner in which such a collective of disparate African Americans entered conversations across the sciences, disciplines, and formats, earnestly proffering challenges to figures such as Thomas Jefferson whose treatise Notes on the State of Virginia, and in particular Jefferson’s infamous Query XIV, held that African Americans were inferior to whites in reason and that they lacked imagination (37). The renowned African American author and scientist Benjamin Banneker, for instance, responded to Jefferson directly point by point and also sent along his almanac to Jefferson, modeling the forthright posture that future intellectuals would need to assume to face directly the inherent irrationality of ethnological racism. As Rusert so aptly shows in her examination of the early nineteenth century’s “Banneker Age,” Banneker’s influence carried over into the ensuing decades and the next century indeed saw a shift in African American politics in the centering on anti-slavery efforts and a conglomeration of insurgent efforts toward liberation. In the following century, Black nationalist David Walker insisted that Jefferson’s Notes should be given to every son in the African American community to study and therefore to assist them in comprehending the nature of white supremacy, a call for underground study that likely promoted and anticipated the continued, interdisciplinary custom of actively battling with Jeffersonian science and its seemingly perpetual afterlives.

This group of African Americans, then, maintained a stance of persistent refusal in that they did not allow racist postulations to go unchallenged. In fact, their commitment to the production of scientific counternarratives resulted in what Rusert describes in chapter 2 as the project of speculative kinship, connecting works as varied as James W. C. Pennington’s contributions in Black ethnology and his slave narrative to the longing for origins and familial recuperation expressed in the slave accounts penned by Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs in which they desired to “reconstruct the forms of relation denied and destroyed by polygenesis, which uncannily doubled a history of detachment and alienation that began centuries earlier with the slave trade” (66). At this point in Fugitive Science, I was reminded that Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, too, details the fact of his disconnection from most of his family and the ways that enslaved people elected to forge a kinship network with others regardless of known biological ties. Near the conclusion of his Narrative, Douglass advocates for a kind of deliberate, tacit fugitive mindset—a positionality requiring that those who are deemed and thus treated as the abject should be mindful as they plan their escapes from and take flight from the plantation. Douglass advances a speculative philosophy that, if enacted properly, would perpetually haunt the slaveholder

to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.2

Paired with Rusert’s careful reading of Martin Delany’s proto-science fiction novel Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–1862) in chapter 4 about a transnational slave insurrection, this chapter advances an important argument about how the era’s speculative texts and those who repurposed the function of empirical science served as potent attacks “on Western epistemology, revealing blackness to be an errant, disruptive force that stands at the heart of Western science itself” (153).

Fugitive Science is an exciting cultural history for its focus on the inventive ways that African American intellectuals and artists of what Rusert refers to as early African American culture endeavored to achieve liberation through the speculative enterprise. Though focused on the nineteenth century, Rusert effortlessly maneuvers between centuries in short and relevant asides, connecting her work to a growing body of scholarship on empirical science and speculation. Fugitive Science is a complement to recently published works such as andré carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Alondra Nelson’s The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (Beacon, 2016); and Aimee Bahng’s Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (Duke University Press, 2017).

As I draft my current book project on Black speculative arts, I marvel at the fact that quite a number of scholars are examining the novel ways in which marginalized and dispossessed populations actively turn the very notion of Western speculation (in all of its terrible manifestations) on its head. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries indeed have seen the emergence of overtly politicized artistic responses to contemporary circumstances that not only include allegorical and narratological inventions, but also the establishment of revolutionary modes for negotiating marginalization in American society, including the exploration of possibilities for creating alternative futures.

Though the necessity of fugitivity in some ways calls into question when it is that we will all get free, so to speak, the longevity of the Black struggle for freedom and the range of imaginings that have propelled the pursuit ought to reassure those of us who are still in what Christina Sharpe refers to as the wake that we must faithfully and resolutely assert our intent to live by proceeding speculatively.


  1. Michelle D. Commander, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 6.

  2. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845; New York: Modern Library, 2000), 95.

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert

    Reply

    Experiments in Afro-speculation

    I love Michelle Commander’s theorization of what she calls “Afro-speculation” both here and in her recent study, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (2017). I love how this term claims speculation for Afro-diasporic peoples. I love how it allows her to explore a broad range of works, from Octavia Butler’s Kindred to Reginald McKnight’s I Get on the Bus, in terms of the thinking they do in and through the unfolding of narrative itself. In other words, rather than simply labeling something “Afrofuturist,” smiling, and moving on, Commander asks her readers to consider the deeply textured, ambivalent, and sometimes difficult forms of thought that take place in the literature and cultures of the “black fantastic” as they variously meditate on what she discusses as the precarious and fraught nature of black life in a white supremacist global system. This is crucial work.

    Commander’s interest in the primacy of imagined “speculative returns” to the continent also echoes for me with the recursive, tentative, and crab-like movements tracked across Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, as well as the collection’s ethereal-material inter-text/track, Don Cherry’s Mu/First Part & Second Part (and yes: Fugitive Science does not adequately attend to either poetics or music though I would be curious to think more about how both the poetic and the sonic reframe or completely transform the genealogies of fugitive science that I trace). Gnostically conjured up somewhere between a dreamy past and a dreamed-up future that is nonetheless borne out of the brutalities of the transatlantic slave trade, Splay Anthem pauses, listens, and meditates on the surreality of black historical experience as much as it flies, moves, dances, and traces lines of flight/escape.1

    Afro-speculation also offers a crucial way out of what I see as a critical conversation about both the “empirical” and the “speculative” that has run out of steam. New materialism often relies on a naïve account of both materialism and empiricism while both speculative realism and object-oriented ontology construct a frustratingly opaque and indirect relation to the Real itself (in which the Real can be accessed and theorized by theorists but no one else). “Afro-speculation” finds a way around those debates by pointing us instead in the direction of black thought, affect, and indeed, of whole worlds unto themselves—what Commander calls “the establishment of new, utopic realities outside of dominant society despite the lack of proof that Black social life is conceivable.” Afro-speculation takes shape as a form of searching, thinking, and knowing that proceeds in spite of white supremacy’s refusal to admit the empirical existence and viability of “Black social life.” In the absence of “cold proofs” of black humanity, like those arrogantly demanded by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, Afro-speculation takes off on other lines of flight (including through the very figure of the flying African around which Commander’s monograph takes shape), refusing the terms of the debate as set outside of diasporic culture and thought.2 Fugitive science is in concert with those terms.

    Commander’s response is also an invitation to think more about the relationship between the empirical and the speculative as it is laid out in Fugitive Science. When I conceived of this project, deep in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and interested in Deleuze’s reclamation of the pragmatists, I had a certain commitment to reclaiming the ground of empiricism through fugitive thought and/as movement. I remain interested in how fugitivity and empiricism might be thought—and enacted—together. However, now, I am more interested in the relation between the so-called empirical and the so-called speculative, and how that very question opens up altogether different forms of thought and relation. Here, we could turn to something like Nat Turner’s Confessions (1839), in which Turner’s rebellion is preceded by a set of divinely-inspired experiments with the earth, a kind of gnostically-motivated empiricism that resonates with black mysticism but also with forms of experimental science (geology, agricultural science, chemistry) that were emerging in the Second Scientific Revolution, during Turner’s lifetime. Crucially, this collision between gnostic/prophetic spirituality and grounded/scientific experimentation produces something new and even revolutionary in the process: Turner’s “making experiments in casting different things in moulds made of earth” leads to experiments with making both paper and gunpowder. In the narrative, Turner’s experiments with a kind of fugitive science” is immediately followed by the Southampton slave rebellion itself.

    I want to end with Commander’s own definition of Afro-speculation:

    I describe Afro-speculation as a modality for living Black life that “is conjectural and conditional; the evidentiary matters not. Afro-speculation is an investment in the unseen and precarious; it is a gamble. It is the belief in the possibility for the establishment of new, utopic realities outside of dominant society despite the lack of proof that Black social life is conceivable. The humanistic qualities and liberatory nature of the genre renders speculative thought a fantastic, radical epistemological modality through which Afro-Atlantic identity can be lived across time and space.”

    What a beautiful way into the contingencies of fugitive science as practiced in a world of violence and captivity that is also always a world of pleasure and possibility. Commander notes that “Afro-speculation” is an “investment in the unseen and precarious; it is a gamble.” The “gamble” of Afro-speculation offers a new way into literary and cultural archives of the past, but also charts a way forward in a contemporary moment that continues to be marked deeply and profoundly by regimes of racialized risk, debt, and precarity.


    1. Michelle Koerner, “Lines of Escape: Gilles Deleuze’s Encounter with George Jackson,” Genre 44.2 (2011) 157–80.

    2. And in that bone-chilling, knee-quaking quote from Douglass’s 1845 Narrative that Commander cites, we see Douglass deploying the philosophical existentialism of Afro-speculation to bring the doom to slaveholders, as he loved to do. This is Douglass at his most metal.

Anjuli Raza Kolb

Response

Liberation Biology

On Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science

The most disturbing scene in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, is not, perhaps, the most obvious one. It is true (spoiler) that Laurel Freeman, mother of two teenage girls, is discovered to be breastfeeding the chimpanzee, Charlie Freeman, in a bid to win his affection, to soothe him, to bond with him as she and her children and husband attempt to teach him sign language. This is their mission during a period of residence at the Toneybee Institute, a scientific research campus with an unseemly past. It is also true that Callie Freeman, a young girl displaced from Boston, who finds herself in the midst of an ill-conceived socio-biological experiment in the woods of New England, develops an insatiable taste for raw ground beef, which she scoops into her mouth by the handful from the Institute’s cafeteria kitchen in some of the most shudder-inducing pages I’ve read in a long time. Far more unsettling than these latter-day horrors, though, is the scene in which the novel’s historical figure, Nymphadora, finds herself the willing subject of a comparative anatomist’s pencil—knows what danger of abuse, of exploitation, of prurient desire she is putting herself in—and stays.1 Because, she says, she likes the feeling of being “looked at.” And to be looked at as an object, a “specimen” of potential derision and “empirical” claims to racial science, this scrutiny is better than not being seen at all.

Greenidge’s novel is too nuanced and too humane to allow Nymphadora’s story to stand solely as an example of the erstwhile evils of racial science. She is neither an unwilling nor even an unwitting participant in her bid to enter the archive of human study and comparative anatomy. When Dr. Gardener (Greenidge is so good with names) asks her to undress, to pose on her stomach with her bottom facing his easel, he also promises her that along with her likeness, he will tell the world of her history, her erudition, her character, her impressive intellect and wit. He tells her the drawing will be a “great monument,” a credit to her race. He appeals to her history as well as her vanity. As a child, the novel tells us, she was photographed by W. E. B. Du Bois, her picture appearing in the Paris exhibition of 1900. This is a wonderful, sly reference to the often-overlooked fact of Du Bois’s upbringing in the Berkshires; but it’s also a moment of speculative history that connects the novel’s imaginative present to a vibrant and important past of black empiricism that spoke back explicitly to nineteenth-century codifications of race and pernicious social science.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman was very much on my mind as I read Britt Rusert’s enormously satisfying Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture. I see these two books as intimate companions: Greenidge’s fiction shot through with the radical empiricism Rusert uncovers, Rusert’s “fugitive” history laced with fictional thrills and a refusal to let the extant archive have the last, racist word. Beyond this elemental connection, Greenidge’s and Rusert’s books share a kind of perverse pleasure in acknowledging, clear-eyed, the horrors of past racism, and refusing to let this be the entire story.

In Greenidge’s hands, this refusal is staged as a tense meeting between the archive and its inheritors. Encountering the nude sketches of Nymphadora some seventy years later—placed, inevitably, next to images of primates in Dr. Gardener’s album—Charlotte Freeman, the protagonist, sees nothing in them but hatred, abuse, and denigration. She isn’t wrong. But the frame of her encounter is instructive. It is a scholarly book called Man or Beast? written by a historian fond of using words like “subaltern,” “hegemony,” and “appropriation.” The book reconstructs the history and decries the injustices of the Toneybee Institute, particularly its founder Julia Toneybee-Leroy. Greenidge’s send-up of academic self-righteousness is a canny move. It puts some distance between Charlotte’s horrified, indignant reaction and the other story the novel tells about black women’s agency and the grounds on which they perceive themselves to be staging resistance to their own prejudices, as well as those of their families and communities, by way of radical social experiments including friendship with a white man and adoptive motherhood to a chimpanzee. In the novel, this is true for Laurel Freeman as much as it is for Nymphadora, whose very name becomes indexical of the undecidability of the archive. Its origin is not the gutter imagination of Dr. Gardener, but rather a secret naming ceremony for the Stars of the Morning, a fictional sororal organization to which she belongs and from which, with her irrepressible desire to taste and feel life, she feels cast out.2 Nymphadora, whose given name is Ellen Jericho, yields her secret name to Dr. Gardener with some hesitation, and he, predictably, exploits her trust. Her narrative thus renders plausible that which appears in the record as an unalloyed violence, namely the pseudonymous hypersexualization of her person suggested by the horrific single name under her portrait. In this way, We Love You, Charlie Freeman asks us to consider whether every transaction upon which racist science was built contains more than a simple desire to harm on the one hand, and more than an equally simple beguilement toward victimhood on the other.

Greenidge extends this question into the proximate present, our nominally post-racist scientific future, where once again institutional structures exert downward pressure on black people, especially women, and once again their own compromises, thoroughly considered decisions, radical experiments, and unlikely bravery, are all but illegible to everyone around them. Laurel Freeman’s commitment to the Charlie experiment is deeply fraught, dancing dangerously on the line of the Institute’s racist past and flirting with monstrous forms of self-abnegation, even dehumanization. She loses her marriage in the process, is the subject of public consternation if not outright shaming, a condition made worse by the almost totally homogenous white population of the town they’ve moved to. She alienates her daughters, too, and ultimately Charlie, who becomes a depressed adult chimp, or maybe, as their father likes to believe, just is and always was an asshole. For the science, for all that that might mean and encompass—pride, expertise, curiosity, mastery, persistence, awe at the universe and its laws—Laurel wagers everything.

Rusert’s sense of what science means is equally capacious: science is an affect, a praxis, an orientation, a path, as much as a codified system. It is a tool for opening, as much as for closing. Like most students of enlightenment projects and their historical relationship to race, I have taken a rather dimmer view of empiricism’s false promises. It is with equal parts envy and admiration, then, that I devoured Fugitive Science’s deep archive of literary, political, scientific, and ephemeral texts and a special brand of anxiety that I grappled with Rusert’s insistence on recovering a history that departs from the usual litany of power and ugliness in American race relations and nineteenth century imperialist empiricisms. Rusert’s is through and through a black optimist project, and it shares in this school’s exhilarations, artistry and infectious attitude.

Although race science provides the clearest frame for thinking Rusert’s “radical empiricism,” I was especially interested in the parts of this book that depart from race science; these chapters free readers more fully to imagine the ways in which investigative praxis “could be used to enact a radical concept of freedom” (7). The last chapter, on the parlour science of Sarah Mapps Douglass and other women scientists—a term Rusert uses in a deliberately generous way in order to unsettle the bourgeois valorization of professional credentials and institutional recognition—points up the incredible care with which Rusert approaches her subject. Sculpting from scant but compelling archival sources, the four surviving “friendship albums” of African American women, Rusert offers her most speculative claims about those likeliest to be written out of the archive and of history. These are the black women scientists involved in the study and teaching of natural history, both in and beyond traditional learning venues. In reading what she calls the “ornamental sciences” of feminine investigation, Rusert brilliantly renders into evidence the most sentimental, easily dismissed ephemera that are at the heart of her counter-archival practice.

Particularly moving are Rusert’s readings of the two paintings by Sarah Mapps Douglass that grace the front and back covers of her smartly designed book. The painting of fuchsia flowers, copied from James Andrews’s Lessons in Flower Painting, demonstrates for Rusert a kind of quiet inhabiting of the world of science—a confident borrowing through which a claim is exerted on botanical knowledge. The painting is both token of participation in the broader world of natural history and taxonomy as well as a gift in the form of a humble copy, beautifully rendered in Douglass’s former student’s friendship album. To the painting, Douglass appends a citation from a floral dictionary pointing to the flower’s “modest bending of the head” which hides its calyx. Rusert reads this detail as constituting a lesson in modesty as much as in botany, one that points up Douglass’s unique admixture of “self-care” and disciplinary hygiene.

More inspiring, but also agitating, is Rusert’s take on the painting of a butterfly (the book’s front cover) as a trans-species embodiment of black femininity “about to take flight” (216). It is the kind of reading that one wants ferociously to work, because if she is right that there is much in the archive of black science in the United States that overturns, disrupts, and challenges the cooptation of empiricism that more often works to consolidate brutal suppression and injustice, then this is just the kind of stunning image one wants to embody them. Partly because Rusert is so unwaveringly responsible to her subject in the rest of the book, and so precise in her description of what Sarah Mapps Douglass borrowed from the natural history textbooks at the Institute for Colored Youth where she taught (the butterfly’s segmented abdomen and clubbed antennae) the wager that this painting obliquely inherits a tradition of “common cultural analogies made between women and flowers” feels like a bit of a stretch. Rusert likens the drawing to the silhouette of an enslaved woman styled “Flora” on a 1796 bill of sale, pointing to Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s reading of the image as a kind of pressed floral specimen, underscored by the woman’s name. Rusert also cites Jasmine Nicole Cobb on the absence of representations of black women’s bodies in friendship albums, an absence Cobb posits is filled by “flowers and other natural history objects bec[oming] figures for black women’s bodies within the space of the album” (215). In light of this, Rusert suggests, the blackness of the butterfly is “resignified as another ‘camouflaged’ representation of black women’s embodiment and beauty, forged in response to degrading representations of black womanhood in transatlantic popular science and visual culture” (215). That the butterfly is “fixed on a branch, perhaps about to take flight . . . also subtly represents black women in Philadelphia and the Southern United States, and in various spaces across the Atlantic” (216).

I linger with this moment in Rusert’s expansive book not to point to something wrong or fuss over a minor difference in interpretation (the butterfly looks to my eye like it has just landed, suggesting a different itinerary of fugitivity headed for empiricism’s elusive but stable forms of freedom, but this is immaterial, really). I linger with this image because I am somewhat dispositionally resistant to Rusert’s beautifully optimistic reading of the archive of what she calls, after Deleuze and Guattari, “minor science” (17–18). This feeling lingered with me throughout my reading, but emerged most strongly when I felt the stakes were the highest, when I overwhelmingly wanted the speculative, counter-hegemonic history to be as true, as real, as stable, and as powerful as the ordinary one. Perhaps I just wished for the speculative aspects of speculative historicism, or Rusert’s compelling phrase “speculative fugitive science” (18) to go away, so that what scholars like Rusert have built can root down, can be landed upon and launched from. Rusert insists that speculation is not just a subject of her research, but also an important methodological tool. With this I agree, but in the end I could have used some further elucidation of the difference between, say, Sutton Griggs’s speculative science fiction and fictionalization of Benjamin Banneker in Imperium in Imperio, or of Delaney’s brand of anti-humanism that imprints the radical experiment and astronomical form of Blake, and the speculation Rusert herself is undertaking as a scholar of these materials.

Some of this has to do with the challenges of deeply interdisciplinary scholarship, and the question of what Fugitive Science ultimately wants to say about the materials it so deftly assembles and reads. I confess that it was only as I was beginning the third chapter (on performance, rather than written documents) that it occurred to me that despite Rusert’s training, the book is at least as interested in what happened, who was doing what when, and under what circumstances, as it is in representation, form, and poetics. For Rusert, science is a kind of fiction, and writing and performance, in all their forms, have the potential to be empirical, scientific. This insight allows her to recuperate the range of epistemologies encompassed within the broad rubric of scientific investigation without having to continually concede the unbearable brutalities undertaken and defended in its name. It is a refreshing, useful, and utterly compelling way for a humanist to approach the history and philosophy of science—a deeply Kantian impulse that recognizes the fugitive, disruptive capacities of empirical inquiry and systematic thinking.

At its best, the speculative aspect of Rusert’s thinking points toward utopian futures by reconstructing pasts that might have come to be—I have in mind the sketch she conjures of Philadelphia’s Arch Street in the 1850s, where Sarah Maps Douglass might have encountered Samuel George Morton, author of the infamous Crania Americana, who in turn might have noticed that Henry Box Brown delivered himself to freedom by way of the Anti-Slavery Office on the same street. This speculative mode also allows for an acrobatic and impressive approach to the archive, which structures the way Fugitive Science reads absence and suggestion, as in chapter 1, which posits a robust conversation among black scientists against Jefferson’s despicable race theory in Notes on the State of Virginia. Rusert does truly impressive work in building out a sense of what she calls “the Banneker Age” from small but important evidence—the many documents she groups together as “supplements” and “surrogates” to the scientific rebuttal of Jefferson written by Banneker himself. It’s a scholarly act of devotion that is entirely convincing, and makes good on the promise of the introduction: that empiricism, science, even race science, can be and, indeed, has been, a means to combat subjugation. As Rusert puts it, we don’t need to think that science was “nothing other than a hegemonic tool of the state” (13).

For my part, and in my research, I am committed to the belief that there is still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between empiricism and hegemony, but Fugitive Science neither denies nor obscures this work and this history. The conclusion, in particular, reminds readers of the ongoing injustices stretching across the twentieth century and well into the present that continue to tether empiricism and especially the human sciences to the history of racial subjugation in the United States. In this way and more, Rusert’s book is a paragon of ethical scholarship from beginning, where she explains her refusal to reproduce the sickeningly familiar exploitative “scientific” images of black bodies (26–27), to end, where in considering the radical potential of empiricisms wrested from the violence of profit, nationalism, and racism, she reminds us of the important scholarship that has been and has yet to be done on the other side of things. This scholarship, Rusert’s parting thoughts remind us, make it possible to speculate responsibly, to follow the vector of a forgotten empiricism—a disassembled itinerary of black study—toward freedom, instead of away from it.

Yet even in these most heart-quickening, optimistic moments, Rusert is careful not to conflate empiricism’s promise of freedom with bourgeois norms of professionalization or tired, class-driven narratives of racial uplift. I have rarely read an academic book whose heart was so much and so consistently in the right place. Fugitive Science is no less a feat of intellection, assiduous research, and creativity. If there were a radically-oriented comparative anatomy of scholarly writing, Fugitive Science would be a perfect specimen.


  1. A portion of the novel, including parts of Nymphadora’s story, were published in Transition, available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/595021/summary.

  2. A fascinating discussion of black fraternal and sororal organizations and Greenidge’s own archival and oral historical work can be found in this interview, conducted by Liz Moore for the Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/03/the-rumpus-interview-with-kaitlyn-greenidge/.

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert

    Reply

    On Speculating Responsibly

    I am humbled that Anjuli Raza Kolb sees Fugitive Science and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s magisterial recent novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, as “intimate companions.” I learned new things about my own book through Kolb’s richly astute analysis of it and I love the forms of critical companionship she invites and enacts through her response to it (both with Greenidge and with me). Her extended reading of We Love You, Charlie Freeman—which through the very process of analysis opens up a series of stunning insights and adjacent, assembling lines of inquiry—reminds me of the deeply imaginative but also potentially grounding empiricisms of a good close reading, marked by what Kolb, later in her response, describes as a “Kantian impulse”: one “that recognizes the fugitive, disruptive capacities of empirical inquiry and systematic thinking.” Her reading further points to how fiction, over and above both history and literary criticism, is perhaps better equipped to navigate the murky ambiguities, wayward desires, and even uncomfortable alliances found across the archives of racial science. Fiction is also able to avoid two unhelpful and even damaging orientations to racist thought and practice: academic self-righteousness and moral judgment (i.e., racial liberalism). The novel instead charts something more complicated than good (liberals) pitted against evil (racists): “We Love You, Charlie Freeman asks us to consider whether every transaction upon which racist science was built contains more than a simple desire to harm on the one hand, and more than an equally simple beguilement toward victimhood on the other.” Here, Kolb focuses in on the startling account of Nymphadora, the historical character in the novel who is subjected to the “comparative anatomist’s pencil” but then “decides to stay” because she likes being “looked at.” This scandalous narrative of a woman subjected to the gaze of racist science, and seemingly liking it, reminds me of Jayna Brown’s comments in this forum about how a politics of respectability may continue to shape scholarly approaches to the archive. Invited by Nymphadora’s perverse response (and her subsequent re-presentation within a scholarly monograph) as well as Brown’s concern about a respectable and even prudish academic method, the second thing to note here might have to do with how archivally rooted scholarship tends to at best evade and at worst erase the “scandal” of black desire, especially feminine desire. In other words, the censoring of archival discourse about black bodies, sex, and sexuality because it is insensitive or downright exploitative may unwittingly obscure the knowledge, agency and desire of those objectified within those discourses.

    Fiction and possibly other forms of narrative are poised to do this kind of unsettling work, but it remains a tricky and risky endeavor (lest one appear to be reproducing, condoning, or complicit in the very histories one is seeking to interrogate). I thought a lot about the dangers of unintentionally resuscitating racist knowledge when I began to work with Samuel George Morton’s scrapbook at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which is comprised of a collection of illustrated plates removed from French natural histories and Egyptology books, newspaper clippings, pencil sketches of Native Americans, and even original oil paintings of North Africans taken by a French Egyptologist and sent to Morton in Philadelphia. Morton’s scrapbook is a fascinating artifact insofar as it contains carefully rendered and aesthetically pleasing portraits of Black and Native subjects before they were transformed into the crude typologies of racial science.1 Similarly, Morton’s Crania Americana (1837) is filled with skillfully executed and gorgeous lithographs of indigenous skulls alongside noble portraits of Native Americans. As Ann Fabian observes in her The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, Morton’s Crania Americana might be also classified as an art book. This is an unlikely origin for modern scientific racism in the United States and I think there is more to say about the aesthetics of the texts and images of even the most virulently racist forms of comparative anatomy in the period. But ultimately I worried about the stakes of making such an argument: did I really want to make an argument about the aesthetics of racial science? Would I legitimate racist thought by giving it space in the project? Or even by clearing critical space to think about it?

    I also keep thinking about Kolb’s discussion of the transactions between scientific observers and their racial subjects that frequently lie beneath the surface of these texts. Of course, one of the important things to say about antebellum polygenesis is that it speculated wildly and irresponsibly; it was a heterodox, heretical, and secularizing discourse that sought to establish a renegade Anglo-scientific authority through an often bizarre collation of ancient and modern sources; it did not care in the least about the actual observations or expertise of racialized subjects (see, for example, Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind [1854]). It strikes me that eighteenth-century natural history was much more interested in the actual expertise and knowledge of enslaved and indigenous people, even if it had to delegitimize or disavow the source of such knowledge. And the voices and experiences of the indigenous and the formerly enslaved would once again, though not unproblematically, become central to anthropology and adjacent fields in the early twentieth century. Antebellum natural science has a different status in this regard.

    Kolb’s observations about the transactions behind the screen of racial science further remind me of the various exchanges and forms of leverage that could be negotiated by Afro-diasporic subjects in the very process of their interpellation into scientific and medical discourse and regimes of exploitation. To return to We Love You, Charlie Freeman: I, for one, pondered about what kind of exchange may have been happening when Du Bois took a photograph of Nymphamoda in her youth. This might be another way to think about how knowledge deemed racially authentic can be used as a bargaining chip, a mask, or even, to return to Du Bois, as a veil: scraps of dissembled and dissembling knowledges thrown to the scientists for something in exchange, including, at times, a good laugh. The more I worked on this project, the more I realized that all African Americans of the period, as today, recognized the absolute absurdity of scientific claims being made against them. And this is where the wit, sarcasm, and dark humor of a text like David Walker’s 1829 Appeal or James Pennington’s 1844 Text Book becomes central: like the theories of white supremacists today, much of this shit is just plain ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still dangerous.

    Finally, I appreciated the affects of reading that I could trace across Kolb’s essay; she is an extremely generous and enthusiastic reader of Fugitive Science—for which I am so grateful—but also, as someone with a “rather dimmer view of empiricism’s false promises,” she at times finds the optimism of the book to be “agitating” and “anxiety-producing” (two affects that largely match this writer’s own during the process of research and writing). Kolb writes,

    I linger with this image [of Sarah Mapps Douglass’s butterfly] because I am somewhat dispositionally resistant to Rusert’s beautifully optimistic reading of the archive of what she calls, after Deleuze and Guattari, “minor science” (17–18). This feeling lingered with me throughout my reading, but emerged most strongly when I felt the stakes were the highest, when I overwhelmingly wanted the speculative, counter-hegemonic history to be as true, as real, as stable, and as powerful as the ordinary one.

    I’m interested in Kolb’s own articulation of critical desire here: that she wanted my “speculative, counter-hegemonic history” to be “true,” “real,” and “stable.” Kolb recognizes the ideological construction and undecidedability of the archive at the same time as she recognizes the desire for the real (or, maybe, more appropriately, the Real) as authorized by the archive, even though, or perhaps because that real/Real is not easily graspable and often seems to be slipping way. Similarly, where I desire that Douglass’s butterfly is about to take flight, Kolb desires something more grounded: a butterfly that has just landed, or perhaps that is stably perched. Through Kolb’s analysis of the negotiations of racial science that, on both sides, complicate paradigms of “good” and “evil,” and really binaries of all kinds, I recognize that our divergent readings of Douglass’s butterfly are both marked by a desire for truth, liberation, and perhaps for history itself.

    As to Kolb’s worry that my own speculative method shares a suspicious isomorphy with the speculative content that I ascribe to fugitive science in the nineteenth century, this is something that doesn’t really worry me. Over the course of my research, the archive did exert a transformative pressure on me, and I ultimately realized that the speculative dimensions of the documents I was reading just couldn’t be avoided. Such a realization did change the shape of the project and allowed me to unloosen from some of my early tenacity about even the broadest and most radical of empiricisms. Here, I’m also thinking about David Kazanjian’s recent study of the rich forms of philosophical speculation within the archives of correspondence from former US slaves living in colonial Liberia in the nineteenth century.2 In Kazanjian’s study, we see black settler-colonials (but who were decidedly non-elite), doing the kind of deeply speculative, ambivalent, and even fictionalizing work with and on history that also characterizes Greenidge’s novel.

    Finally, I must admit that I gasped a bit to read that in Kolb’s take on my approach to the history and philosophy of science she recognizes a “Kantian impulse.” This is the first time I’ve been called anything close to a Kantian (at least as far as I know). But to have one’s work described in this way—elaborately, carefully, responsibly—by Kolb also gave me a jolt of joy. In other words, I’ll take it.


    1. It’s also fascinating that the Library Company has classified this bound collection of Morton’s research material as a “scrapbook” since the library also houses the black women’s friendship albums—another semi-private/domestic nineteenth-century genre—that I discuss at length in Fugitive Science.

    2. David Kazanjian, The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

Greta LaFleur

Response

Politics and Practices of Refusal

At the heart of Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science lies a generative, if complicated, tension: how could the natural sciences, in the nineteenth century, possibly provide useful fodder for Black practices of freedom when these very same sciences were not only implicated in, but were often in fact both animated by and driving, the promulgation of anti-Black racism and violence? Differently put, how might we imagine Black philosophers such as Benjamin Banneker taking inspiration from, or finding potential in, the established science of natural history or the burgeoning science of ethnology, given that each of these disciplines was explicitly invested in and used toward the project of justifying racial hierarchies that identified African Americans, Native Americans, and other non-European races as inferior to white Europeans? Can scientific racism be conscripted by practices of Black freedom without the inadvertent validation of its ugliest conceits?

As it turns out—and as Rusert very ably illustrates—it can, and, in fact, it was. Fugitive Science tracks the way that a number of the most cherished of nineteenth-century African American writers and thinkers—from Benjamin Banneker to David Walker, Frederick Douglass to Martin Delany—extensively engaged contemporary natural sciences in their work. From natural history to ethnology, phrenology to astronomy, physiognomy to anatomy, African Americans were no less immune to the popular excitement or even fervor surrounding new developments in scientific knowledge and experimentation than were their white nineteenth-century peers. Yet, what Rusert demonstrates in Fugitive Science is that African American contributions to nineteenth-century science took two forms, both of which have been underexamined in studies of literature and science in nineteenth-century America. The first set of contributions that Rusert documents is a rather traditional one: through the process of careful archival research, she demonstrates that African American print publications were important sites for discussions, expositions, and debates surrounding contemporary science. The Anglo-African Magazine, for example, which was published in New York City from 1859–1860, “was deeply engaged in contemporary scientific debates and promoted itself as a premier venue for black science” (160). In this journal, writers “presented substantial and weighty empirical evidence in opposition to the tenuous claims of antebellum racial science, as well as making contributions to scientific debates with no explicit connection to the science of race” (162). Indeed, one of the many contributions of Rusert’s book is the way that it effectively works to “fill out” the archives of writers such as Martin Delany, detailing the way that Delany’s interest in astronomy in fact informed the narrative he crafted in his landmark Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–62). By drawing our attention to these writers’ longstanding and extensive engagements with scientific theories and experimentation, Rusert is able to convincingly demonstrate the centrality of science to some of the most read and taught works of nineteenth-century African American literature. Furthermore, she is able to insist on the importance of science as a site of inspiration, experimentation, and practice for Black Americans who were working hard to both make art and imagine freedom under social, legal, and economic conditions of slavery and unfreedom. Thus, in Fugitive Science, Rusert both uncovers new histories of Black engagement with contemporary science as well as collates extant scholarly understandings of nineteenth-century Black scientific culture in order to craft a new, and more nuanced narrative of the relationship that Black scholarly and non-scholarly thinkers cultivated to new science during this period.

The more provocative—and very exciting—second contribution of Rusert’s book is to demand a reexamination of the framework through which we understand empiricism. Unlike contemporary philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, scholars in eighteenth-century studies—my scholarly home—have not extensively explored or theorized what has always seemed to me to be the innately queer and sensual aspects of empiricism, as a method for the production of knowledge. As one of the most storied terms in histories of science, histories of the liberal subject (and thus histories of citizenship more broadly), and histories of knowledge, empiricism is a strange, energetic understanding of the way that the relationship between the body and the world shapes perception. Thus, one of the aspects of Rusert’s book that I most appreciate is her effort to redefine scientific empiricism as a practice constitutively informed by—at least among Black scientists and thinkers—fugitivity. Her use of fugitivity will be more or less familiar to anyone engaged with recent African American cultural studies, and performance studies in particular, but I define it here in order to name with precision the broad assemblage of ideas that Rusert collects under the auspices of this term. Fugitivity “challenges grand emancipation narratives, showing the many similarities between the age of slavery and the age of emancipation”; it constitutes a “practical, philosophical, and artistic method deployed both before and after Emancipation by people enslaved, fugitive, and nominally free”; it “unhinges black escape from the grip of criminality, transforming ‘the fugitive’ from solely a criminal or legal category to a kind of radical comportment to the world . . . that does not necessarily end when one successfully escapes from slavery or when slavery is legally abolished,” and finally, it provides a methodology. Fugitivity, for Rusert, is a “critical method,” and one that she shares with the figures at the heart of her study; as a method, fugitivity provides “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” (17). Fugitive science, then, names both a method and a practice, and one that Rusert argues characterizes the way that nineteenth-century Black American thinkers and writers engaged contemporary science and its often insidiously racist aims. “As critical genealogy and as method,” Rusert argues, fugitive science

turns our view to a concept of experimentation that traverses African American science, art, and physical expressivity. This, then, is finally an appeal for new, transdisciplinary, and perhaps also undisciplined approaches to the study of black literature and culture, approaches traversing traditional divides between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in order to excavate neglected genealogies of experimentation across the Black Atlantic. By taking science more seriously in African American studies, and by recognized the dynamism of natural science in the antebellum period, new light may be shed on the origins and contours of early African American cultural production, particularly the permeable boundaries of and surprising cross-fertilizations between what we today rigidly categorize as “art” and “science.” (21)

Empiricism necessarily takes new shape when understood through the lens of fugitivity, although Rusert argues that fugitivity is and has demonstrably always been at the heart of empiricism, anyway; “as a method that depends on sense perception, continual observations, and a mobile, searching orientation toward the world, there is indeed something fugitive about empiricism itself” (20). But, she suggests, science itself might be understood differently when we understand empiricism as a fugitive practice, or when we understand empiricism as a method animated by a fugitive ethics. First, theorizing empiricism in fugitive terms allows us to see scientific practice where we once might not have: for example, Rusert’s discussion of Henry Box Brown’s incorporation of mesmerism, animal magnetism, and biology—putative “pseudosciences” that were in fact taken quite seriously during the nineteenth century—into his series of performances for working-class British audiences emphasizes the way that popular science worked to “reinforce the growing divisions between the working class and the bourgeoisie under industrialization” (138). Brown’s use of the power of popular science to unite working class audiences around a shared relationship to the transatlantic exploitation of labor both belies a popular interest in and understanding of the science of, for example, mechanics itself, while also revealing that interest in science to be a potentially effective site for unexpected solidarities. As Rusert puts it, “Rather than viewing science as a nonpolitical domain, or as an escape from politics, we might consider how science as experiment and practice helped to link mesmerism and electro-biology both to Brown’s ongoing project of self-transformation and emancipation, as well as to the political and scientific movements of the British working class” (142).

Second, fugitive empiricism allows us to see versions of scientific practice—some of which, Rusert suggests, were specific to nineteenth-century African American cultural production—that built on well-documented forms of science but that we might not otherwise have understood or recognized as such. Think, for example, of what Rusert terms the “anti-humanism” of Delany’s Blake, “which refuses to settle on an impoverished notion of the human as the final horizon for black politics” (176). Tracking the complicated representation of the “immeasurable, vital force of blackness” through Delany’s novel, Rusert argues that in Blake we see Delany both refusing natural historical or ethnological theories of human history and ontology that circulated during his lifetime, as well as envisioning a new, speculative form of Black animacy in which Blackness cannot be limited to the human form. Rusert argues that

in addition to the standard narrative of a slave becoming “man” (becoming-human), Blake is composed of a series of other becomings (becoming panther, becoming-woman, becoming-black, becoming comet), all of which strain against the purposefully inadequate and narrow conception of the human offered by polygenesis, which sought to reserve this status for a small, select group of people. Indeed, Delany’s fugitive science posed a serious challenge to the anthropomorphism of both antebellum racial science and liberal abolitionism. The anti-humanism of Blake, which refuses to settle on an impoverished notion of the human as the final horizon for black politics, offered important challenges in its own moment as it does in ours, given the novel’s rejection of traditional categories of personhood, and of the human itself, as the horizon of political, and no doubt, artistic creativity. (176)

Here, we see Rusert bringing two bodies of thinking—one more traditional, one slightly more recent—into conversation, productively exploiting their intersections in order to demonstrate the importance of fugitive science to both nineteenth-century American studies and twenty-first-century African American cultural studies. Bringing together careful archival work that reads Blake through Delany’s slightly lesser-known career as a writer, thinker, and scientific ambassador, alongside Black feminist critiques of the human that have themselves rejected traditional empiricism, Rusert compellingly situates Blake in an African American philosophical tradition while simultaneously insisting on the importance of that largely twentieth-century tradition to nineteenth-century African American studies. In general, this type of approach—what we might term a strategic presentism, that troubles precisely the kinds of conservative empiricism at the heart of the kinds of bad historiography that addle early American studies—is broadly characteristic of Rusert’s approach to the texts at the center of Fugitive Science, and is in general one that I think early American studies across the board (both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) could employ more often to our benefit.

Indeed, many of the questions that drive Rusert’s work are animated by twenty-first-century critical inquiries, an approach that I employ in my own work. Too often, concerns about historical accuracy mask (or call into being . . .) a fallacious sense that historical certitude or truthfulness is possible, a notion that some histories are actually true. While I believe in the potential of research and of study, as a scholar of the eighteenth-century world—and furthermore, as a scholar who works on the history of sexuality, and the history of race—I believe accuracy to be, at best, a fraught endeavor. For anyone working on pre-1900 materials of any kind—and especially for scholars who work on the histories and cultures of disenfranchised, unfree, or nominally free peoples—our twenty-first-century efforts to produce knowledge never feel very far or very disaggregated from many spectacularly clear examples of the ways that certain forms of knowledges were and continue to be repressed, destroyed, and intentionally stricken from the record. At times in Fugitive Science, Rusert addresses these concerns head on, pointing to the way that much of the archive at the center of her project “exists under a triple erasure: archival, historiographical, and conceptual” (183), that leaves us with far fewer details pertaining to the life and work of Benjamin Banneker or Sarah Mapps Douglass than it has of the natural historical efforts of Thomas Jefferson or the feminist eugenic writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. To address these concerns, Rusert engages in a process that she calls “speculation,” a method that draws in equal parts from recovery historiography, archival work, and intellectual creativity in order to offer an account of (as she does in chapter 5) Sarah Mapps Douglass’s work that Rusert styles as a beginning, rather than a definitive or conclusive reading, of the highly limited archive of Douglass’s life’s work as a teacher and scientist.

Alongside questions pertaining to the impossibility of the fullness or sufficiency of nineteenth-century African American archives stride questions pertaining to what might be termed the political ontology of nineteenth-century science. It is in this set of questions that I hear some of the most complex and undecided strivings of Rusert’s thinking, questions that pertain not only to the nineteenth century but to how we do politics, today. Fugitive Science is broadly concerned with the relationship between “science”—a word that has perhaps never borne more cultural power than it does in our moment, in which many of our institutions are defunding the humanities to fund the STEM fields—and race, in both the nineteenth century as well as today. Indeed, Rusert’s provocative conclusion says as much, carefully detailing the way that the questions that she explores at such length within her book persist into our times, and calling for something that we have also heard from the feminist movement: a practice of science performed by and for the people it serves. We don’t need Foucault to teach us that science has long been conscripted toward the aims of oppressing women and people with vaginas, people of color, poor people, transgender people, disabled people, and colonized peoples here and abroad; for many of us, that is the most empirical of truths, knowledge we have gained through our own experiences.

Yet, scientific study has also been used, at times, to the most felicitous of ends, and Rusert’s call for science and scientists who consider the effects of the particularities of, for example, social and structural experiences of embodiment that many Black people share, echoes recent Black feminist thinking, such as Britney Cooper’s “Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now: The Place of Vaginas in Black Feminist Theory and Organizing.”1

But what distinguishes racially-sensitive science from race science? Is it possible for such a distinction to hold? One of the true strengths of Rusert’s project is her willingness to really tarry in an archive that, then and now, we understand to have brought harm to the world; Rusert herself refuses to reproduce oft-cited nineteenth-century racist anatomical images (of Sarah Baartman, for example) in the book, while simultaneously taking seriously the idea that racist science might have been (and, as she demonstrates, was) repurposed toward anti-racist ends, put to work in the service of experiments in freedom. In this explicitly vexed relationship to this archive, however, I hear a larger question than the one to which Rusert returns at the very end of the book: “is racial science ultimately salvageable?” (217). Here, I hear a larger question about the ethics of engagement with politically harmful materials and archives, one that is intimately relevant to our own time.

We are living through a moment in which there seems, at times, to be remarkably little room for complexity. Call-out culture (which I am distinguishing here from what Ngọc Loan Trần has termed “calling in”) often offers little more than a “with-us-or-against-us” vision of politics in which asking questions is tantamount to a form of refusal, and in which achieving homogeneity of perspective is more important than building political perspective characterized by nuance or texture of understanding.2 The ugliest versions of this particular political culture take the form of a sweeping refusal to engage: to read books, watch movies, or even talk to people who are deemed offensive or problematic. It also implicitly traffics in a logic of political purity that I think is fundamentally at odds with everything we know about neoliberal capitalism, and the insidious ways that this structure relies on economic and discursive hybridity and overlap to proliferate. This is not to suggest, of course, that refusal is never an effective political strategy. Refusing to engage—in the form of everything from boycotts to quitting a bad job—can be a very powerful form of intervention. But as a scholar and teacher, and especially as a scholar and teacher of early American culture, this politics of wholesale refusal worries me, in part because it can work so horrifically in step with the project of erasing histories of racist and settler violence when it comes to the study of American history. Of course, refusals land differently, coming from different people, and in different political moments; with Rusert, I also heed Sadiya Hartman’s and Christina Sharpe’s concerns about “the reproduction of scenes of black suffering and misery, scenes that reproduce racialized violences of the past, but also feed into (neo)liberal logics that traffic in the spectacle of black suffering subjects” (26). What strikes me as so promising about these questions about the impact of refusal politics that move quietly through Fugitive Science, then, is that they model a different form of refusal, one no less rigid than the one that styles itself as the politics of our moment, but much more informed. And we see this practice in Rusert’s nineteenth-century archive itself, but also in her own method (25–26).

As Rusert illustrates, the very ugliest parts of early American culture were both consensually and nonconsensually shared experiences. Citing Hosea Easton’s Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States (1837), Rusert details the incredible proliferation of racist imagery throughout the everyday lives of residents of the early United States. In Easton’s Treatise, he notes that urban barrooms, shop windows, and even the ceilings of public spaces were regularly papered with degrading images of Black people draw from racist visual culture. Part of Easton’s refusal of this scientized narrative of Black inferiority thus took the shape of writing back to this tradition in its own language and form. Perhaps more notably, one facet of David Walker’s refusal of Thomas Jefferson’s now very famous work of natural history, Notes on the State of Virginia, took the form of exhorting every Black man in the United States to “buy a copy . . . and put it in the hand[s] of his son” (quoted by Rusert, 42). Rusert is careful to specify why Walker was so interested in Notes: “Far from seeing it as a rarified Enlightenment vanity project,” she writes, Walker understood Notes as “an extremely dangerous text” (41) and for this reason encouraged all Black people to read it. Refusal, in Walker’s case, took a highly engaged form of what Foucault would later call a “genealogical” or antiscientific approach to racial science, producing responses that offered “a combination of erudite knowledge and what people know.”3 As Rusert makes clear, scientific engagement was not exclusively or even primarily the idiom in which the writers at the center of Fugitive Science spoke back to nineteenth-century anti-Black racism, but their tactic of engaged refusal speaks to their transhistorical, shared understanding of the cultural power of science. It is worth noting that, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the difference between scientific fields and non-scientific fields was in no way as stark as it is today; as I tell my students every semester, science is just the Latin word for knowledge. And knowledge is, as Foucault put it so pithily in 1984, “not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.”4 With experience at being on the wrong end of the knife of scientia—at times both literally and figuratively—writers and thinkers such as Benjamin Banneker, David Walker, James McCune Smith, Hosea Easton, Edmonia Lewis, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Henry Box Brown refused racist science by reconfiguring it in fugitive terms, finding in its racist weaponization a tool for experimentation, and weaponizing it in turn toward anti-racist ends.


  1. http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2017/01/23/pussy-dont-fail-me-now-the-place-of-vaginas-in-black-feminist-theory-organizing/.

  2. Ngọc Loan Trần,“Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” in The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail at Showing Up for Each Other in the Fight for Freedom, ed. Mia McKenzie (Oakland: BGD, 2016), 59–63.

  3. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 7–8.

  4. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 88.

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert

    Reply

    Damaging Archives

    I am grateful to Greta LaFleur for taking the time to offer such a nuanced and comprehensive overview of the literary-historical arguments and construction of concepts in Fugitive Science. I especially love how her deceptive “description” of fugitive empiricism turns into its own productive theorization of empiricism. LaFleur’s attention to the sensual dimensions of empiricism reminds me of the richly open-ended, lushly naturalistic, and at times beautifully unruly forms of description that characterize the terrain of empiricist philosophy, from the eighteenth-century natural histories featured in LaFleur’s forthcoming monograph, The Natural History of Sexuality, to the textured becomings narrated in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia project. Her contributions to the assemblage that is empiricism further reminds me of the primacy of co-creation and co-production at the heart of knowledge production, which I also discussed in my response to Jayna Brown. Here, to fugitive empiricism—and rooted in her research in eighteenth-century natural history as early sexology—LaFleur adds the “innately queer and sensual aspects of empiricism, as a method for the production of knowledge. As one of the most storied terms in histories of science, histories of the liberal subject (and thus histories of citizenship more broadly), and histories of knowledge, empiricism is a strange, energetic understanding of the way that the relationship between the body and the world shapes perception.”

    LaFleur moves on to call out a certain model of historical research—rooted in a decidedly less lush and more restrictive empiricism—and one that continues to structure (too) much scholarship in early American studies. She generously suggests that the “strategic presentism” of my method might trouble “precisely the kinds of conservative empiricism at the heart of the kinds of bad historiography that addle early American studies.” I further, and often, wonder how narrowly historicist methods—what LaFleur rightly calls “conservative empiricism[s]”—also work to exclude scholars from the field of early American studies, even in its broadest iterations (including scholars of color, trans and queer scholars, adjuncts, and those variously situated in non-elite institutions). For as much as the field seeks to expand its purview to include other languages, geographies, and materials, its fetishizing of the archive limits the field in other ways, as well as the reach of its claims. Not only is a positivist relationship to the archive unable to produce actually “true” histories, as LaFleur notes, it can also invite dangerous forms of gatekeeping.

    In her writing on Lacan’s ambivalent relationship to his own papers and to the archive more generally, Elizabeth Roudinesco writes:

    If everything is filed, monitored, noted or judged, history as creation is no longer possible: it is replaced by the archive transformed into absolute knowledge. But if nothing is filed, if everything is erased or destroyed, then there is nothing to stop narrative being swept off into fantasy, or the hallucinatory sovereignty of the ego, in favour of a kind of archive that functions as dogma.

    Between these two impossibilities, which are like two boundaries on the same prohibition—prohibition of absolute knowledge, prohibition of the interpretive sovereignty of the ego—it must be accepted that archives—destroyed, existing, excessive, or erased—are the precondition of history. In other words, blind submission to the positivity of the archive is as certain to result in the impossibility of history-writing as rejection of the archive.1

    Early American studies (which often replaces “history as creation” with a faith in the archive that is a form of bad faith) might do well to understand the archive as the simultaneously necessary and fantasmatic grounds for narrating history.

    Like Brown, LaFleur raises crucial questions about how and why I attend to harmful, toxic, and maybe even irrevocably damaged archives: “In this explicitly vexed relationship to this archive, however, I hear a larger question than the one to which Rusert returns at the very end of the book: ‘is racial science ultimately salvageable?’ (217). Here, I hear a larger question about the ethics of engagement with politically harmful materials and archives, one that is intimately relevant to our own time.” First, I would like to address this question about how and if racial science is salvageable. I’ve started to think that my question might be really a question about the salvageability of science itself. If we believe Foucault (in The Order of Things) that the human becomes an object of knowledge beginning in the late eighteenth century, then, from that point on, it’s really racial science all the way down, from fields that we traditionally associate with human difference to a broad range of other fields of study and disciplines. To consider how blackness but also anti-blackness shape all scientific knowledge might recalibrate and expand scholarship on “race and science,” while insisting on the necessity of perspectives from race and ethnic studies to a much broader range of conversations around science (and not just those about “diversity in STEM,” health disparities, or racial science). Kyla Schuller’s recent arguments that beginning in the nineteenth century, gender itself became a racial project—and thus a tool of biopolitical governance and security—further points to crucial scholarly contributions at the ever-expanding intersections of race, sex, and science.2

    I didn’t expect someone to take on call-out culture in this forum (!), but LaFleur’s arguments on this topic are compelling and thought provoking. In opposition to a worrisome contemporary “politics of refusal” that she describes as a “refusal to engage: to read books, watch movies, or even talk to people who are deemed offensive or problematic,” she finds a politics of refusal in Fugitive Science that nonetheless engages problematic and even harmful materials. Admittedly, this project is in part a literary and cultural history of African Americans reading hateful and horrible nonsense and then telling other African Americans that they too should probably be aware of this hateful and horrible nonsense (for example, in his 1829 Appeal, when David Walker tells all black boys that they should own and read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia so they understand the physical and existential threat that white supremacy poses to them, we might think about the work he is doing alongside something like James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time).

    I do think some of what gets labeled as call-out culture is actually a kind of millennial militancy. I’m always for more reading, more watching, more listening, and thus, more study, but I am hesitant to dismiss the demands of a generation that has grown up in a full-out risk society, a generation that knows that the ongoing gamble of finance capitalism (speculative capital running on fumes) is and will continue to be at their expense. Moreover, call-out culture and the whole language around triggering feels transitional to me and with even a few years of hindsight, I have a feeling that we will understand and narrate this phenomenon differently. For example, I’m struck by how my students use the term “triggered” to describe many different forms of experience, affect, and trauma, as well as vastly different temporalities of trauma. In What Is Sex? Alenka Zupančič writes about the proliferation of neologisms as reflecting a broader crisis in authority, knowledge, and the politics around them (in her case, she is discussing the endless production of neologisms in Lacanian thought). Rather than critiquing a culture of “triggering,” then, I wonder how the term itself is symptomatic of broader socioeconomic and political shifts, including those within the university itself. Empiricism is of course always also about the processes of signification—of finding new names for new things—but it also repurposes old names to describe new things as well as emergent conditions.

    At the same time as I remain hesitant about calling out call-out culture, I agree, emphatically, that even harmful materials can be transformed into tools for struggle. As LaFleur reminds us, Foucault wrote that knowledge is “not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” She further notes that Fugitive Science addresses black figures and collectives who “refused racist science by reconfiguring it in fugitive terms, finding in its racist weaponization a tool for experimentation, and weaponizing it in turn toward anti-racist ends.” I really love that in our own moment, a generation of young activists, scholars, and others are refusing to cede anything to the fascists, to white liberals, to neoliberal administrators, and so on; and they are busy weaponizing a whole lot of things. In that regard, I don’t think that archives, or the spaces in which they are housed, should be ceded either. Why give them over to scholars who will use them to fabricate histories of Anglo-Saxon superiority or even to produce (neo)liberal accounts of abolition?

    Following the work of Robin D. G. Kelley and Ruha Benjamin, I am also interested in how the radical imagination of black aesthetics can encourage new approaches to the archive as well as new creative works (the forms of artistic production and re-mediation recently borne out of the archive of Octavia Butler is a testament to how and where this is already happening).3 Frankly, my concern with teasing out the imaginative and speculative dimensions of black cultural production in the antebellum period made it difficult for me to spend time with more recent works of literary and other forms of artistic production, though I was inspired by many in the course of my writing. I wish I had taken more speculative leaps to the present in that regard.

    It’s true that early American archives are not very sexy places, but, following LaFleur’s theorization of empiricism as both sensual and queer, I would be interested to consider how one might think about the eroticization of these spaces. It strikes me that arguments about the “allure of the archive” both disregard the important desire to not engage these histories (signaled in Brown’s “no thank you” impulse at the beginning of her essay), but also come up short in terms of the other forms of desire and even pleasure that can and could be produced through such work. Similarly, the politics of access continue to matter: who gets to work in archives? What counts as an archive? Who can handle documents and what are the parameters for how they can be viewed, touched, and even smelled? These questions make me wonder how LaMonda Horton-Stallings’s framework of a black transaesthetics (which includes a theory of funk as literal funkiness, or smell) could be thought of as an archival methodology unto itself.

    The antiblack and colonial construction of the archive (indeed, of all archives) should provide license to think about different ways that one might relate to, identify with, or disidentify from the archive. It might turn out that scholars need to steal from the archive or annotate it through covert tactics (for inspiration, see the exhilarating narrative of collective archival activism in Jordy Rosenberg’s new novel, Confessions of the Fox). But aside from annotating, tagging, or otherwise scrambling the archive itself, scholarship, literature, and collective study might themselves be reconceived as so many guerilla archival tactics.


    1. Elizabeth Roudinesco, Lacan: In Spite of Everything (London: Verso, 2014), 51.

    2. Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

    3. Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2003); Ruha Benjamin, “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2.2 (2016) 1–28.

Susan Scott Parrish

Response

Boundaries of the Human in Fugitive Science

Concluding her important new book, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture, Britt Rusert summarizes its central claim: “The history of fugitive science unsettles narratives that presume the unquestioned hegemony of racist science in the nineteenth century” (219). Rusert assumes that scholars of African American and Atlantic history are already very familiar with the thinking about and performance of race by the likes of Thomas Jefferson in Query XIV of his Notes on the State of Virginia; Samuel George Morton in Crania Americana; and Georges Cuvier in his dissection of the much-staged body of South African Sarah Baartman. Rusert thus sets out not to detail again that story but rather to trace, from the “Banneker Age” of the early national United States to the time of the Civil War, the frequent and varied responses on the part of African Americans to the dominant practices of ethnology which alleged European supremacy. Many others have studied how black Americans in the nineteenth century countered the persistent allegation of their inhumanity, for example by entering the print public sphere or leveraging the radical aspects of Protestant theology. Rusert, by contrast, shows African American writers, performers, doctors and educators, in local, national and transatlantic circuits, combatting racist science on its own terms and in its own venues. Thus we see figures as well known as Frederick Douglass and as obscure as Sarah Mapps Douglass entering into the practices of physiology, physiognomy, phrenology, anatomy, statistics, world history and astrology, and drawing from those fields the means of recovering stature and legitimacy for Africa and its descendants.

I admired so many aspects of Rusert’s study: how resourceful she was in bringing to our attention the likes of Sarah Douglass, Hosea Easton, James W. C. Pennington and others; her re-situation of classic texts (like Martin Delany’s Blake) in their original serial publication alongside scientific articles; her theoretical stretching of key terms like “fugitive” and “empiricism”; and her overall aim of bringing science studies and African American studies productively together.

As I was reading her book, what got me wondering—and wanting to hear more from Rusert about—is the relative emphases she gives to the differing branches of the sciences as practiced and understood in the nineteenth century by her subjects. She explains early on that because the racist sciences overlapped with popular entertainment (from lecture circuits to minstrelsy to freak shows to museums), she would trace her subjects’ anti-racist science in the same spaces and media. This is a convincing defense of the book’s interdisciplinary inclusion of not only ethnological tracts and science classrooms but also novels and performances. Brava.

What I wondered, though, was: what about the nonhuman sciences? I started to keep track of tantalizing references by Rusert to a host of activities along these lines on the part of African Americans: Benjamin Banneker’s mathematics (38–39), James McCune Smith on “nonhuman species” (58), Henry Box Brown as the “African Biologist” (137), Martin Delany on cholera (149), scientific entries in the Weekly Anglo-African (162) and Robert Forten’s nine-foot telescope (191). These were often mentioned just glancingly though, en route back to her main discussion of the figures’ apparently more important or persistent work in the human-based sciences and humanistic arts. I wondered why. What were we missing by not hearing more?

Now, in her chapters on Martin Delany and Sarah Douglass, Rusert does analyze their work in astrology and botany/entomological illustration, respectively. She gives us a wonderful reading of Douglass’s anatomically exact watercolor of a black butterfly alighting from a flowering branch, arguing (on 210–15) that the image does cultural work at many levels: it demonstrate Douglass’s skills of minute observation of nonhuman species, down to the clubbed antennae and segmented abdomen of the butterfly; given as a gift, it links together a coterie of curious black women in Philadelphia; it reverses the way black women were reified as specimens; and it does powerful metaphorical work as an image of natural black fugitivity. Likewise with Delany. When Rusert analyzes his novel Blake; or, The Huts of America, she makes some use of Delany’s interest in comets and planetary attraction to understand Delany’s “opening up the category of human agency to include nonhuman bodies and inhuman forces” (173). Rusert goes on, then, to bring up the point that is at the heart of my question. She says: “Delany’s fugitive science posed a serious challenge to the anthropomorphism of both antebellum racial science and liberal abolitionism. The anti-humanism of Blake, which refuses to settle on an impoverished notion of the human as the final horizon for black politics, offered important challenges in its own moment as it does in ours, given the novel’s rejection of traditional categories of personhood, and of the human itself, as the horizon of political, and no doubt, artistic activity” (176).

And yet, other than this ten pages in which Rusert is reading either Blake or the black butterfly, the book itself remains in a largely anthropomorphic space, suggesting that it was not just “racial science and liberal abolitionism” that were thus confined, but also the vast majority of her subjects’ anti-racist science as well. So, my question, briefly put, is: other than these two moments, is fugitive science exclusively preoccupied with the human? Did the rest of the black scientists believe or find that the most effective way to combat and undermine the allegations of African racial inferiority was through, and exclusively through, the category of the human? I couldn’t help but wonder if, in those many other moments in which Rusert briefly mentions but doesn’t describe black practitioners studying mathematics, zoology, astrology, contagious disease and so on, there were other, non-anthropomorphic strains of fugitive science? And if so, do these remain to be further explored and theorized? Did Rusert find a much greater preponderance of the human sciences within fugitive science, or was she simply more drawn to these areas in the archive because there was a more discernible tie there to black claims for “freedom,” another key term in her study? To put it a different way, was it clearer—as a humanistic investigator—to know what to do with Banneker’s refutation of Jefferson’s racism than with Banneker’s mathematics, or with the tidal and planetary calculations of his almanac? Are the claims to, or ideas about, humanity in the nonhuman sciences too circuitous or allegorical?

My caution in Rusert representing fugitive science as largely restricted to the human sciences is that it implies a restrictively defined—because human-bound—sense of affiliation and concern on the part of black knowledge-makers and observers. What of curiosity about and working knowledge of animals, metals or plants? Certainly work as farriers and other tenders of domesticated animals, blacksmiths, agricultural field laborers, or testers of sugar crystallization made African Americans deeply aware of animals’ bodies, illnesses and breeding patterns; the pliability of different metals and the hardening of different liquids under heat; or the behavior of plants interacting with insects, sun, temperature and soils. When writing an essay a few years ago on Zora Neale Hurston’s environmental experience and representation, I came upon an interview, conducted by Benjamin Botkin, a friend and colleague of Hurston’s at both the Federal Writers’ Project and the Library of Congress, and a fellow Columbia-trained ethnographer. In his Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery, Botkin quotes a formerly enslaved man from Texas named John Love, who is reflecting about the boll weevil’s arrival in cotton country. It bespeaks what must have been a commonplace, but nonetheless remarkable, kind of ecological awareness on the part of agricultural laborers during and after slavery.

I knows why that boll weevil done come. They say he come from Mexico, but I think he always been here. Away back yonder a spider live in the country, ’specially in the bottoms. He live on the cotton leaves and stalks, but he don’t hurt it. These spiders kept the insects eat up. They don’t plow deep then, and plants cotton in February, so it made [produced fiber] ’fore the insects git bad.

Then they gets to plowing deep, and it am colder ’cause the trees all cut, and they plows up all the spiders and the cold kill them. They plants later, and there ain’t no spiders left to eat up the boll weevil.1

What this conjecture about the etiology of insect infestation shows is Love’s long temporal and varied topographical awareness of multiple, mutually impacting factors: deforestation, microclimate change, vulnerable plant-insect symbiosis, and technological practice. Moreover, multiple actors influence these events: spiders, boll weevils, cotton plants, plows, humans, weather. Love thinks in terms of a complex network of human and nonhuman agents. He thinks like a member of a biotic (and abiotic) community. How do models that Rusert develops in Fugitive Science help us account for Love’s ecological way of knowing? Or is Rusert’s model workable with ecological knowledge that isn’t about human freedom as such?

In her book Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (2013), Monique Allewaert likewise addresses issues of black knowledge-making in a time of slavery, albeit focusing mainly on the Caribbean. Allewaert argues that the strange and newly disturbed environments of America made all people feel a bodily susceptibility to metamorphosis within this milieu of changing and “enmeshing life-forms.” Euro-Americans tactically shifted the threatening aspects of American ecological embodiment onto persons of African descent and thus intensified black physical experiences of fragmentation. Allewaert looks to oral tales and spirituo-physical fetishes to argue that enslaved African Americans dealt with this self-dispersion, alongside their less-than-human legal status, as they assembled a horizontal network of “proximate life-forms as actual support.” She calls this flexible ecological personhood “the parahuman,” a mode of living that perpetually keeps open and negotiates “a number of identificatory possibilities,” alliances and sites of origin. I am wondering whether Rusert likewise found instances—other than in Delany’s Blake—of such parahumanity?2

I have one other, related query. In an article that Rusert wrote for the journal Social Text in 2015, “Disappointment in the Archives of Black Freedom,” she discusses her own trouble working with the highly sentimental friendship albums of Sarah Mapps Douglass and other members of her female, Philadelphia coterie: “These friendship albums may be stunning, but they are also difficult . . . to fit into models of scholarship that privilege black resistance, subversion, and agency.” And later she asks: “Must recovery always entail recuperative narratives of resistance and reparation, what [Saidiya] Hartman calls the ‘romance of resistance’”?3 This was an ongoing question I had while reading Fugitive Science, whether Rusert herself felt a kind of insistence on casting virtually all of African American nineteenth-century science as being expressions of or tactics in “black resistance [and] subversion.” In other words, though Rusert wrangles, in her Social Text piece, with finding friendship albums which didn’t attest to “subversion” (but rather bespoke disappointment), in her book, there seemed less possibility of getting outside the everything-is-subversion model of fugitive science. All who “mobilized natural science” did so “in the quest for and name of freedom” (4).

It made me wonder: were there black sciences which fell outside this definition? I suppose this question sounds like I am asking: can curiosity allow one to put aside race? Said that way, it would be a naïve question in all kinds of ways, assuming “curiosity” itself to be universally accessible (a fundamental faculty more than a culturally and historically shaped epistemic practice), or presuming racial categorization to be as easy to slough off for brown bodies as for white ones. It’s more that I worry that if we try to fit all instances of black Americans being curious into simultaneous acts of subversion, it deprives those subjects of any mental and imaginative space outside of the all-consuming one involving racially defined struggle. It risks limiting black expertise to matters of racial embodiment. Maybe that is historical necessity staring us in the face. Or maybe it is our moment of historiography.

In eighteenth-century European metropoles, “curiosity” and scientific aptitude were linked with the condition of disinterestedness. Champions of the “New Science” at organizations like the Royal Society of London reasoned that only male affluent gentleman were free enough from material and social dependence (and hence “interest”) to allow their minds to be pure conduits of matter. “Interest” of any kind created, according to this tenet, epistemic friction or static. And yet in practice, as I argued in my book American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (2006), places like the Royal Society actively sought out—in the Americas at least—transplanted and non-aristocratic Europeans, Africans and Native Americans. They did so because empiricism (the direct investigation of nature with hands, eyes and instruments) as opposed to scholasticism (nature known through logical argumentation and conveyed in books) was the founding and central episteme of Baconian science. So, in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, physical proximity to and experience in environments could qualify one for an ability to make scientific knowledge about these environments. All of which brings me to this question: is there any merit in locating not only black freedom-fighting empiricism but also a black version of “disinterest,” which we could define as scientific inquiry in which human benefit is temporarily suspended? Or is disinterest a strange white fiction, and hence an exclusively white privilege? Or, do we resolve this question by remembering Bacon’s “knowledge is power” dictum, and then see Europeans’ imperial science and African Americans’ freedom-gaining science as both being about negotiations of economic and political power?

I look forward to hearing Britt Rusert take up any of these questions which seem productive.


  1. Benjamin Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), 13.

  2. Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 69, 98, 111.

  3. Britt Rusert, “Disappointment in the Archives of Black Freedom,” Social Text 33.4 (2015) 23, 27.

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert

    Reply

    Tarrying with the Nonhuman, Sometimes Avoiding the Ecological

    I want to begin with Scotti Parrish’s question, “What about the nonhuman sciences?” as that question is and is not taken up in Fugitive Science. I thought a lot about this as I was writing, although my thinking may not have registered on the page, or perhaps it registered only as a symptom, as Parrish’s cataloguing of my sometimes scant and passing references to astronomy, chemistry, geology, and other nonhuman sciences suggests. First, insofar as this is a project about slavery as well as a profoundly negative form of black freedom (see here Calvin Warren’s new book, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation), I think of the entire book as being about the nonhuman. I don’t mean this in a flippant way: rather, I think that the nonhuman is constitutive of the human sciences and the relationship between the human and the nonhuman deeply shapes every iteration of fugitive science that I consider in the book (though it perhaps more often takes the shape of an open, even philosophical question, rather than as a set of so many experiments with nonhuman species and environments). For example, when in “Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered” (1854), Frederick Douglass responds to the vicious and inhumane excision of Africans and Afro-diasporic peoples from the “human family,” what else is he talking about than the ideological and discursive construction of the nonhuman for racist ends? Moreover, the taxonomizing and racialization of nonhuman flora and fauna were central to polygenesis’s construction of hierarchies of race and (in)humanity. In this way, in the antebellum period, polygenesis might have been the nonhuman science par excellence. Similarly, Afro-diasporic healers, conjurers, and other spiritual-material practitioners regularly challenged the parsing of the human from the nonhuman; in other instances, something like conjuring illuminates key forms of antagonism and conflict that could also attend black negotiations of the natural world.

    Relatedly, and following crucial work in Black Studies, from Sylvia Wynter and Alex Weheliye to a broad range of scholarly interventions being produced under the rubric of Afro-pessimism, I would raise a question about how the Slave itself animates the human/nonhuman divide as it is constructed in natural science, and perhaps uncannily stands at—or even haunts—that very caesura.1 I didn’t quite have this language when I was writing, but since then, I have learned so much from a growing body of scholarship on the human and the question of the animal in the contexts of slavery and its afterlives.2 And so, rather than worrying too much about the question of the nonhuman sciences versus human sciences, I guess I would instead want to think about how the history of slavery—as well as the figure of the slave—asks us to think about the grounds upon which that binary is constructed, and how it is animated and reproduced over time. Rather than working from our own assumptions about the human and the nonhuman, the practitioners of fugitive science variously meditated on those categories (and sometimes, in the case of someone like Henry Box Brown, did so through a meditation on one’s own fungible relationship to the “human” as determined on the auction block, through the process of escape, the restaging of escape—itself a form of fugitive empiricism, a performative regime of repetition and difference—and other forms of fugitive thought, study, and movement).

    Moving from the ideas of the slave as being anterior to and indeed, animating, the human/nonhuman divide, I have been thinking more about the deadness of natural history, and how fugitive science finds resources in an older and passing regime of natural-historical scientific knowledge even as it is also embracing an emerging language of the biological. And here, I think that Monique Allewaert’s theory of black “parahumanity” as she develops it in Ariel’s Ecology, and which Parrish cites, is crucial. Following Allewaert’s interest in the centrality of the fetish in diasporic knowledge practices, I am also interested in conceiving of the specimen itself as the fetish of natural history. How then might we reconceive of natural history in relation to Fred Moten’s recent reminder about the “fetish character” of blackness (blackness as, among other things, the ur-site of historical and ongoing forms of commodification under capital)?3 Viewing Betye Saar’s altars/assemblages at the Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition last summer, I wondered if altars—and other spaces of diasporic worship, collection, and display—could themselves be thought of as forms of fugitive science: as challenges to the taxonomizing that is so central to what Sylvia Wynter discusses and Alex Weheliye takes up as “genres of the human” within but also beyond natural science. At the same time, Saar’s altars are helping me think in completely new ways about Sarah Mapps Douglass’s natural history cabinet, which she constructed and contributed to for decades while teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. She used her cabinet of curiosity in her own science teaching, and also, it seems, when teaching night classes for adults in her neighborhood. Her specimen collecting for the cabinet began in the 1830s and continued through Reconstruction; her cabinet thus maps a different concept of time and even hints at a kind of historical stasis (maybe even signifying what Hartman calls the non-event of emancipation) amid the seemingly tumultuous historical and political transformations of the mid-nineteenth century. Can we locate the fetish—and the open secret of its relationship to blackness—through the specimens in Sarah’s cabinet, or think about other possible relationships between blackness and objecthood as they are organized, conjured, and choreographed within cabinets and other spaces of black curiosity? In other words: can we trace histories of the fetish, of conjuring, and other knowledge practices—beyond the disciplines of the “new science” and outside conventional periodizations of both American history and the history of science—through something like Douglass’s (lost; dispersed) natural history cabinet?

    There is a personal backstory here that has to do with the origins of Fugitive Science in a dissertation that was precisely about the ecological history of the plantation as articulated from James Grainger’s 1764 Caribbean georgic, The Sugar-Cane, to Jean Toomer’s 1923 experimental novel of the New Negro Renaissance, Cane. In that project, “Shackled in the Garden: Ecology and Race in American Plantation Cultures,” I was interested in how the plantation emerged as a space of medical, agricultural, and even aesthetic experimentation through forms of ecological enclosure that often violently conjoined the slave and the plantation environment. But frankly, when I defended my dissertation in 2009, I didn’t feel like there was a place for me to do this type of work, at least within literary studies. However, scholarship around slavery, race, and ecology—as well as a range of robust conversations about environmental racism; regimes of late capitalist environmental extractions and resistance to them both domestically and across the Global South; and what Katherine McKittrick calls “black geographies”—has expanded and become so fruitful over the past decade, I do have some regrets that I didn’t transform my dissertation project into a book-length manuscript.4

    The second part of that personal backstory involves a struggle with forms of anxiety linked to environmental disaster that emerged when I was quite young. I grew up in Tonawanda, New York, a small city situated on the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Fall, and a place marked in many ways by a series of environmental-economic disasters: industrialization, deindustrialization, Love Canal, the (illicit) burial of radioactive materials from the Manhattan project in landfills sited in close proximity to residential neighborhoods (including one three blocks from the street I grew up on). However, as a child, it was not any of those disasters that worried me, but a constant fear and looming dread of that still not very common in Western New York phenomenon of tornadoes. Today, my localized Rust Belt / Great Lakes environmental anxiety has expanded to a more occasional, though still sometimes consuming dread about ecological catastrophe on a more global scale (an anxiety that is clearly linked to what I experienced as a child but that also feels different, likely because of age but also changing historical conditions and the affects they produce).

    So, this is just to say that I have found research and writing about the ecological to be difficult, and at times, debilitating. And yet, I remain convinced that white anxieties about global environmental catastrophe are often wrapped up with political-economic anxieties with what Achille Mbembe talks about as the actual “becoming black” of the world.5 And the “becoming black” of the world is not something to worry about, or to mourn. I am also thinking about Christina Sharpe’s arguments about the atmospheric nature of anti-blackness and how for diasporic peoples, anti-blackness is often experienced as a total environment.6 This argument about the atmospheric, almost environmental, nature of anti-blackness makes me think about growing up in a mostly (though decreasingly) white working-class town that was sited on contaminated ground, but that has been policed and (informally) segregated so that it can appear to be a white place. How do we understand the desire to protect whiteness in and against the “contaminations” of racial invasion/encroachment that are nonetheless, simultaneously, geographies of environmental contamination and toxicity?

    I do now wonder if I could have used my own experience growing up in a place where the environmental-economic disaster seemed to have already happened (beginning with the original and subsequent dislocations and dispossessions of the Iroquois), in order to think more productively about how fugitive science arises in the nineteenth century out of the very wreckage of the environmental-economic-social catastrophe that was Indian removal and New World slavery. In other words, we know that scientific innovation has been a handmaiden of environmental degradation since the First Scientific Revolution, and from the origins of capitalism itself. So I guess I don’t want to be completely sanguine about the language of exploration and invention within fugitive science: even black invention, at times, traffics in the tropes of imperial discovery and conquest of nature (this is one of the problems with androcentric theories of black ethnology, as I chronicle in chapter 1). It’s here that the interventions of Afro-Native intellectuals in the project seem most urgent and crucial to thinking about sites of political solidarity and iterations of fugitive empiricism today. And Parrish’s important gesturing toward a long history of natural history collection and agricultural expertise from below points not just to more ecologically-attuned forms of fugitive science, but to how animals, plants and other forms of nonhuman life have themselves been given kinship status within networks of both Black and Native knowledge and knowledge-making, and in their very sensuousness and activity, have also shaped insurgent knowleges. In this way, it seems fitting that Parrish includes a detailed and even intimate account of the boll weevil that comes from a formerly enslaved practitioner named James Love.7


    1. Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003) 257–333; Alex Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

    2. See, for example, Brigitte Fielder, “Animal Humanism: Race, Species, and Affective Kinship in Nineteenth-Century Abolition,” American Quarterly 65.3 (2013) 487–513; Che Gossett, “Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign,” September 8, 2015, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2228-che-gossett-blackness-animality-and-the-unsovereign; Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism,” Feminist Studies 39.3 (2013) 669–85.

    3. On the “fetish character of blackness and its open secret,” see Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 162.

    4. There is too much good work to develop a comprehensive list here. Katherine McKittrick theorizes “black geographies” in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); see also Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), as well as the forthcoming Syndicate symposium on Sonya Posmentier’s Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2017).

    5. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

    6. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

    7. On how enslaved and indigenous actors contributed significantly to the knowledge-making and truth claims of British metropolitan science in the colonial period, see Parrish’s American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

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