Britt RusertDec 9, 2021
Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture
NYU Press 2017
Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017), by Professor Britt Rusert (UMass-Amherst), has already earned accolades from the American Studies Association and the MLA following its publication in 2017. Now book is also getting traction in the fields of STS, history of science, and history of medicine. It’s easy to see why.
At the level of documentation, the book chronicles the empirical work, rhetorical strategies, and material worlds of Black and African American scientists (avant la lettre) during the US antebellum period. The book connects a lineage of Black naturalists, ethnologist, and physicians who were creating and circulating empirical evidence of the moral and political equality of Black Americans relative to White people to argue against the institution of slavery, racist discrimination and violent dispossession. And they were pursuing their own empirical research questions—not only working in response to White racist science—about the pasts and potential emancipatory futures of Black Americans. The documentary work of the book is indispensable it its own right.
For scholars in STS and in history of science and medicine the book is important for anyone interested in speculative methods and speculative histories; anyone who takes seriously theories of history and wants to—or already is—practicing transformative justice through their own narrative craft. The book models one way of creating an anticolonial, antiracist “counter-archive” through an intentionally magpie accrual of material culture and through the rigorous use of imagination as interpretive method.
In the interview we also talk about Saidiya Hartman’s method of critical fabulation, Donna Haraway’s method of critical speculation, and Marissa Fuentes’ technique of “reading with the archive bias” – as well as why HBCUs are the places where transformative fugitive science is happening in the present day. Rusert also published with Whitney Battle-Baptiste W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America – another important book for STS scholars and historians of science and medicine, enthusiastically reviewed in the New York Review of Books (Aug 2021).
This interview was a collaborative effort among Professor Laura Stark and STS scholars at Vanderbilt University: Kaelee Belleto, Hannah Crook, Aaron Hunt, Will Krause, Dionne Lucas, Esther Park, Grace Smith, McKenzie Yates, and Jaehyeong Yu. Please email Laura Stark with any feedback on the interview or questions about the collaborative interview process.
Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.