Dr. Britt Rusert’s new book, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture sheds a contemporary light on the Black artists, scientists, clergy and activists working to critique and challenge the racist sciences of the 19th century.
Through an interdisciplinary lens, the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor hones in on the relationship between Black freedom movements and their organizers’ engagements with science as a field for social and intellectual mobilization.
Dr. Britt Rusert
Rusert shares that the premise for Fugitive Science began as “an inversion of her dissertation” about the emergence of plantations as experimental sites in the antebellum period in the United States. “When I defended my dissertation, I started to do some research into how those forms of science and experiments were covered in Black newspapers in the north,” she says.
After defending her dissertation for her Ph.D. in English, Rusert also began to look into how Black activists of the period attempted to use their art and other forms of writing as activism. The Black print culture that she unearthed included critiques of racist science that were emerging to support slavery and exposés condemning brutal forms of medical and scientific experimentation.
However, one surprising thing that Rusert found was a “pretty robust discourse on science beyond disciplines of racist science.” In the book, she includes critical figures like Martin Delany, Sarah Mapps Douglass and James McCune Smith who emerged as influential Black scientists writing in the field.
In another chapter, Rusert writes on the Black intellectuals who challenged Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in which he describes people of African descent as inferior to Whites intellectually. Figures including David Walker, James W.C. Pennington and Hosea Easton “through their shared hatred of Jefferson,” began to write to and among one another creating a body of Black scientific writing and work throughout the mid-nineteenth century.
“It’s actually the first time in the tradition of African-American literature that Black writers are really writing to one another in this particular way,” Rusert tells Diverse. “But they are also writing to each other and citing each other and it becomes its own kind of scientific network in Black New England, and I thought that was really fascinating.”
Engaging with the Black artists and scientists’ work, in addition to looking beyond the traditional science and medicine archives, was essential to tracking the history and telling the stories of her characters, Rusert says.
“It ended up being really important for me to think about how forms of science [were] being engaged with by Black performers on the stage…to look at these periodicals [and] sources to think about all the different ways that Black writers who are writing fictional and other forms of literary texts and imaginative works are engaging with science,” she adds.
While these forms of racist science may seem like “quack science” today, Rusert says, they had very real legitimacy and implications for the Black figures in her book. It is also why the professor disagrees with the term “pseudoscience” as a contemporary means to describe sciences like phrenology—the study of the shape and size of the skull as an indicator of character or mental abilities.
“We often think about histories of race science and racist science as being pseudoscience because we know that they weren’t legitimate, that they were experiments that were abusive,” Rusert says. “We don’t want them to be science…and we want to feel like we’ve overcome those histories and that’s no longer happening. But we know that these kinds of experiments and these histories still persist.”
In the contemporary moment, these scientific histories are playing out in the current opioid crisis and in social movements.
That the opioid crisis is disproportionately affecting White people, is largely due to “studies that show the kind of differential treatment of pain based on perceived racial identity,” Rusert says. The opioid crisis is “absolutely that kind of politics of pain and how it links up to race and racialization…It’s absolutely a part of this long history of racial science.”
And among the current movement to remove statues of controversial figures, the Black Youth Project 100, an activist group, demanded the removal of a James Marion Sims statue from outside the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem on August 19. Sims, who is known as “the father of modern gynecology,” also conducted brutal, surgical experiments on slave women without anesthesia because he claimed “Black women don’t feel pain.”
Ingrained assumptions about the treatment of pain in both races are “often unconscious, unintentional” and they still persist today, Rusert says. Using the term pseudoscience to describe historical figures like Sims’ scientific work suggests that “science has overcome biases and really dark histories from the past,” Rusert adds. “I think that we have to continue to think about how forms of abuse and neglect, abandonment and violence still persist in contemporary science.”
Fugitive Science’s collection and analysis of the Black artists’ literary, historical and scientific writings parallels Rusert’s own intersectional work in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. She and her colleague Adrienne Brown recently published The Princess Steel, a little known fantasy story by Du Bois. Rusert will also be looking into earlier histories and the contemporary iterations of Afrofuturism, as well as bringing into print a collection of Du Bois’ data visualizations from the Paris Exposition of 1900.
“The Afrofuturism stuff is really exciting,” she says. “For me, since I work in more historical periods, I feel like that’s my duty…not to be like ‘Oh, you need to think about history,’ but to actually draw attention to some of these neglected archives and figures.”