Academic journal article African American Review

The Science of Freedom: Counterarchives of Racial Science on the Antebellum Stage

Academic journal article African American Review

The Science of Freedom: Counterarchives of Racial Science on the Antebellum Stage

Article excerpt

The history of American racial science shares an important genealogy with the history of performance. Throughout the antebellum period, the popular stage doubled as a scientific laboratory, where theories of race were produced and disseminated to a mass audience. Race science was not an academic or state science, nor was it monolithic. It was, rather, a popular and diverse field of inquiry, composed of investigations in a number of different fields, including craniology, ethnology, physiology, mesmerism, and phrenology. Indeed, the cultural power of racial science derived not from its status as a hegemonic or institutional science, but from its widespread popularization through print and performance. (1) For example, Samuel George Morton's 1839 Crania Americana, routinely cited as a central text in the history of scientific racism, was a huge and expensive book: Morton struggled to secure subscriptions for the volume and eventually resigned himself to distributing complimentary copies to friends, colleagues and various learned societies. (2) Despite the limited circulation of Morton's original text, his theories--and skulls--were widely disseminated through more popular forums throughout the 1840s and after Morton's death in 1851. The public could view Morton's skull collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the craniologist's friends and allies presented his work in print and on stage, most notably in George Gliddon and Josiah Nott's 1854 publication Types of Mankind, and through Gliddon's wildly popular mummy lectures, in which the ethnologist-adventurer would showcase skulls, offer theories on the polygenic origins of the races and the Caucasian roots of Egyptian civilization, and unwrap mummies ransacked from Egyptian tombs before a public audience.

Indeed, American race scientists often doubled as scientific showmen, traveling with ethnological charts, human skulls, and other comparative specimens in tow. Other nineteenth-century entertainments, from the minstrel show to the freak show, contributed to the popular dissemination of racial science through the representation of black and other nonwhite peoples as evolutionarily degenerate and inferior beings. Operating in the same cultural milieu, and in many cases, on the same performance circuits as race scientists, quack doctors, and scientific showmen with questionable credentials, black performers and lecturers regularly forged creative responses to the popular performance of antebellum race science. In fact, scientists often had to compete for audiences with abolitionist lectures and various forms of black performance. This essay rethinks the history of racial science through the lens of performance, chronicling how African American performers and lecturers rejected racial science's attempts to categorize and fix their bodies through a counterarchive of black performance. It also begins the work of retrieving an important history that has been too little recognized: the history of exchange between the abolitionist and scientific lecture circuits in both the United States and Britain.

Because of the ephemeral nature of performance as well as the invisibility of African American science before the Civil War, this essay takes a necessarily creative approach to the archive. Following the bold leaps and experimental engagements with history that characterize the field of performance studies, this essay stitches together a genealogy of early black performances and lectures from what is a partial and elusive history. Following a paper trail of ticket stubs, pamphlets, newspaper articles, announcements, broadsides, and other ephemera, I chronicle how Henry "Box" Brown, Frederick Douglass, and some lesser-known figures, countered the widespread circulation of racist science in popular entertainment and print culture through dynamic performances of what I call fugitive science. Far from rejecting science as a whole, these figures sought to link "scientific revolution" to race revolution by incorporating phrenology, mesmerism, physiology, and other fields of popular science into their acts and lectures. …

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