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


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


    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


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


    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


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

  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:

  • Britt Rusert

    Britt Rusert


    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


August 16, 2018, 1:00 am

Susan Scott Parrish


August 23, 2018, 1:00 am