Fighting Racism in Science

By Pennamon, Tiffany | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

Fighting Racism in Science


Pennamon, Tiffany, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Dr. Britt Rusert's new book. Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture, sheds light on the Black artists, scientists, clergy and activists who critiqued and challenged 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' engagement with science as a field for social and intellectual mobilization.

"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.

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 supported slavery and exposes 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 about the field.

Rusert also writes about 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. "Through their shared hatred of Jefferson," she says, figures including David Walker, James W.C. Pennington and Hosea Easton began to create a body of Black scientific writing throughout the mid-19th 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."

Engaging with the Black artists' and scientists' work and looking beyond the traditional science and medicine archives were essential to 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 [were] 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. …

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