Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture
Published by: NYU Press
Honorable Mention, 2019 MLA Prize for a First Book
Sole Finalist Mention for the 2018 Lora Romero First Book Prize, presented by the American Studies Association
Exposes the influential work of a group of black artists to confront and refute scientific racism.
Traversing the archives of early African American literature, performance, and visual culture, Britt Rusert uncovers the dynamic experiments of a group of black writers, artists, and performers. Fugitive Science chronicles a little-known story about race and science in America. While the history of scientific racism in the nineteenth century has been well-documented, there was also a counter-movement of African Americans who worked to refute its claims.
Far from rejecting science, these figures were careful readers of antebellum science who linked diverse fields—from astronomy to physiology—to both on-the-ground activism and more speculative forms of knowledge creation. Routinely excluded from institutions of scientific learning and training, they transformed cultural spaces like the page, the stage, the parlor, and even the pulpit into laboratories of knowledge and experimentation. From the recovery of neglected figures like Robert Benjamin Lewis, Hosea Easton, and Sarah Mapps Douglass, to new accounts of Martin Delany, Henry Box Brown, and Frederick Douglass, Fugitive Science makes natural science central to how we understand the origins and development of African American literature and culture.
This distinct and pioneering book will spark interest from anyone wishing to learn more on race and society.
"Imaginative and based on rich interdisciplinary research, Ruserts book resurrects an important, neglected story about race and oppositional science in the antebellum US." ~Choice
"Rusert has produced a compelling initial foray into fugitive science that will prove useful for scholars studying science in the United States and beyond." ~The Journal of Southern History
"Beautifully written and a pleasure to read,Fugitive Scienceis an ambitious, creative, and deeply researched interdisciplinary study of nineteenth-century African Americans engagements with racial and other sciences of the period. Ruserts notion of 'fugitive science'the idea that African Americans developed perspectives on science apart from established scientific communities and thus 'on the run,' as it wereis quite compelling and should quickly become one of the vital paradigms of nineteenth-century African American studies." ~Robert S. Levine,author of The Lives of Frederick Douglass
"Britt Ruserts Fugitive Scienceis atour de force of scholarly recovery and intellectual reimagining. This beautifully rendered cultural history bravely engages African American critiques of racial science as well as the politics of scientific knowledge these artists, writers and activists deployed toward the goal of liberation. Groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholarship." ~Alondra Nelson,author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome
"Antebellum African-Americans, as Britt Rusert has shown, boldly challenged the racist science of their day by drawing on Charles Darwins new evidence that all humans share a common ancestor...Just as the movements to remove Confederate statues, or those of British colonial rulers, force us to re-examine officially sanctioned versions of history, so the movement to topple monuments to racist scientists offers an opportunity to rewrite the histories of science." ~The Guardian
"Writing with decades worth of historical and literary scholarship on scientific racism, Rusert excavates an alternate genealogy of “ongoing experiments in freedom, radical empiricisms,” that she terms fugitive science. Through readings of nineteenth-century African American texts that sit at the “cross-section of science and struggle,” Rusert traces an archive, a methodology, a theory, and a practice of “science on the run” that helpfully expands disciplinary understandings of both science and literature … This brand of scholarship eschews oppositions between the historical and the theoretical, modeling how conceptual tools that have arisen through literary scholarship can enrich archival materials and methods. Rusert’s elegant, clear prose and tight, organized arguments prove that theoretically enlightening and historically rigorous work need not be cumbersome or inaccessibly obtuse. As such, scholars across disciplines will find Fugitive Science useful for research and teaching in science and technology studies, critical race theory, literature—including print culture and book history—and antebellum history." ~E3W Review of Books