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Black Speculation, Black Freedom

Many black scholars—especially those who study black life, history, and culture—would recognize an uncomfortable and familiar situation that epitomizes the trials of coming through the academy: the moment when a colleague, professor, or student questions whether or not our work truly accords with the standards and conventions of our discipline, of the academy itself. We are subtly and overtly asked if our analyses are truly objective, if our methodologies are sound, and if our subject matter is accessible with wide enough appeal. We know that words like ‘rigor,’ ‘breadth,’ ‘accessibility,’ and ‘objectivity’ in traditional academic disciplines often encode institutional racism, and that the very methodologies and analytical practices we’re urged to master were never meant to accommodate the study of black life. Yet, to depart from academic orthodoxies can have real consequences: isolation, lack of support, getting passed over for opportunities and honors, poor evaluations, promotion denials, and, in some cases, exile from academia.

Even as universities systemically generate hostile environments for black people, leaving academia—a necessary act of self-preservation for many—is additionally freighted with false notions of intellectual and personal failure. Keguro Macharia in ‘On Quitting’ writes about an inability to imagine or desire the life of privilege, access, and security promised by academic institutions. ‘I’m not sure this is “the life” I want to imagine. I worry about any life that can so readily be “imagined.” Where is the space for fantasy, for play, for the unexpected, for the surprising?’ Macharia pointedly notes, ‘We can complain—that’s part of our affective duty. But to leave is unthinkable. It is unthinkable in a place that teaches thinking.’

As black studies scholars, we have always had to improvise—compensating for the lack of institutional support by forming our own support and mentorship networks and creating our own scholarly platforms. We think and study within and without academia. We imagine new forms, genres, and approaches. In our work, we respond to scant or destroyed archives by drawing on a diverse, eclectic range of sources; learning to interpret gaps in the archive; working between and across disciplines; and reading beneath the story that’s told for the untold story. We have reclaimed forms of thought, knowledge, and expression condemned by gatekeepers of the academy as unreliable. Hearsay, rumor, experimentation, and other forms of speculation have become the bases of innovative methodologies that open up new paths for thinking about black histories and futures.

Writers and literary scholars in particular have challenged the notion that speculative, fantastical, and experimental writing is mere fabrication or flight of fancy. Toni Morrison argues in her essay ‘The Site of Memory’ that realist genres like autobiography and memoir have much in common with speculative fiction: ‘The work that I do frequently falls, in the minds of most people, into that realm of fiction called fantastic, or mythic, or magical, or unbelievable. I’m not comfortable with these labels. I consider that my single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie.’ For Morrison, fiction is a vehicle for communicating and exploring truths. Similarly, black writers and artists push us to search for the truth encoded in the speculative, fantastical, and experimental. What can we learn from such forms of thought and writing? What can they do, bring into being, or make possible?

Two recent works—Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction and Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture—take up these questions and boldly demonstrate the capacity of black speculation and experimentation to generate world-building visions that are inclusive and sustainable for multiply marginalized black subjects. Following the transdisciplinary practices of the writers they examine, their work foregrounds experimentation and speculative writing as the sites where such disciplinary collisions produce powerful rebuttals to and departures from antiblack thought.

Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined underlines that speculative fiction can serve as a space for marginalized people to ‘imagin[e] a future or alternative space away from oppression’ or ‘to imagine the worst, to think about what could be if current inequalities and injustices are allowed to continue.’ Rusert points to the methodological value of speculation, noting that ‘since forms of knowledge production and experimentation in semi-private spaces like the black parlor, the church, and the classroom often resist excavation, speculation becomes an important methodological tool.’ Speculation, in these works, is a generative practice, a site of possibility.

Schalk’s captivating and transformative study challenges us to view the fictional worlds, characters, and ‘bodyminds’ generated within black women’s speculative fiction as more than mere escapist fantasy. Instead, the genre issues ‘politically astute’ commentary on our world, challenging the ‘supposedly fixed and knowable nature’ of race, gender, and (dis)ability and helping us to imagine marginalized groups outside of the dominant social and political scripts attached to them. For instance, in the postapocalyptic world of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, protagonist Lauren Olamina lives with ‘hyperempathy’—what Butler describes as an ‘organic delusional syndrome’—in which she viscerally experiences what she perceives to be others’ bodily sensations. Lauren bleeds when her brother Keith spills red ink on himself; she is incapacitated when she is forced to kill a thief who attacks her; she vicariously experiences others’ sexual pleasure.

Yet, the dominant assumptions that coalesce around (dis)ability—as the obverse of pleasure, as life-ending affliction, or conversely as superpower—do not align with Lauren’s experience of hyperempathy in the novel. As Schalk compellingly argues, Lauren experiences hyperempathy as both painful and pleasurable, useful and obstructive, and as informing her lived experience and perspective in important ways without overdetermining it. Parable of the Sower, then, moves away from either ‘purely celebratory’ or wholly desolate narratives about disability and toward ‘understanding disability as a complex experience’ that demands that we remain ‘attentive to positive, negative, and ambivalent aspects of disability (physically, mentally, and socially) as well as the relationship between all three.’ Schalk upholds Parable of the Sower as a text that ‘imagines (dis)ability, race, and gender as important parts of our future’ against the grain of speculative writing that imagines a future where technological advancement and the diversification of life forms render disability, race, and gender obsolete as meaningful categories.

As a lover of speculative fiction and film, I immediately felt the power and impact of Schalk’s analysis. I read Bodyminds Reimagined shortly after watching the 2018 futuristic thriller Upgrade, where a man recently paralyzed in an accident caused by a malfunctioning driverless car is offered an experimental spine implant that not only fully restores his ability to walk but also grants him superhuman strength, reflexes, and reasoning capacities. Schalk’s work called to mind the celebrated cyberpunk manga and anime series Ghost in the Shell, which depicts a near-future where partial and full-body prostheses are commonplace. The protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg whose brain is transplanted into a full-body prosthesis after a childhood accident and who has superhuman physical and reasoning abilities.

In both Upgrade and Ghost in the Shell, the mark of the future is the elimination of disability through technological advancement. However, as Schalk notes, black women’s speculative fiction ‘rejects cultural assumptions about the inherent value of a technologically created, disability-free future in ways that directly implicate issues of race, gender, and class, thereby insisting on diversity in visions of the future.’ By representing race, gender, and (dis)ability in their futurist narratives, black women writers insist on our importance, survival, and longevity; they refuse to allow us to be imagined out of existence.

Schalk’s study and analytical language strive to honor the complexity of marginalized experience and to point out the muddiness and artificiality of categorical distinctions and totalizing metanarratives. Her use of the parenthetical ‘(dis)ability’ and the compound word ‘bodymind’ points to the inextricability and ‘shifting, contentious, and contextual boundaries’ between ability and disability, and of body and mind. Further, Schalk shows, race, gender, and (dis)ability are co-produced in a way that makes one unthinkable in the absence of the others. In her examination of Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata, for example, Schalk points to the ways able-mindedness is leveraged against marginalized peoples. Perry’s black woman protagonist, Lizzie, is misdiagnosed, institutionalized, and inappropriately medicated because she shares her consciousness with her ancestors. Mental instability is attributed to those who resist white supremacist order and deployed as a way to discredit marginalized perspectives. Put simply, Schalk writes, ‘race and gender are important factors in who gets labeled mentally disabled and how a person is treated as a result of such a label.’

As a whole, Bodyminds Reimagined avoids attempting to make a corrective statement about what the experiences of black (dis)abled women are or aren’t; instead, Schalk’s work elucidates how (dis)ability, race, and gender are intertwined categories that are produced by, and produce, one another in context.

Black women’s speculative fiction is a precious and underutilized archive of intersectional theory. She offers precise and strong language for articulating the power of these speculative worlds to shape the contemporary political imagination.‘Speculative fiction is often considered too easy, too fun, and therefore too pleasurable to be serious or political.’ While Bodyminds Reimagined challenges this notion, it also calls for us to rethink the assumption that the pleasure of enjoyment is escapist. In a political discourse that can feel overdetermined and overburdened by loaded language circulated indiscriminately, it is often in the realm of the speculative where we are freed to ask new questions and to pry open debates that have stalled and sedimented in our own worlds.

Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science similarly mobilizes experimentation and speculation in order to challenge, complicate, and reinvigorate debates about black being and futures. In her finely crafted and eye-opening work, she argues for increased scholarly attention to the ways black people in the nineteenth century critiqued and destabilized the scientific racism of the period. Drawing on a wide-ranging archive of black writing, art, and performance, Rusert coins the term ‘fugitive science’ to allow for the diversity of such critiques, treating ‘science’ as a ‘purposefully broad’ category that ‘veers closer to “praxis” and “experiment” than to the specialized study of the natural world in institutional and academic contexts.’ Her turn to the language of ‘fugitivity’ points to the ongoing necessity—even, or especially, in the aftermath of emancipation—of modes of black innovation, creativity, and improvisation in the face of ongoing social, economic, and intellectual oppression.

While attending to the valuable contributions of well-known black men writers and intellectuals, Rusert points out that they ‘often reinforced, rather than complicated or critiqued, the androcentrism of racial science.’ Thus, Fugitive Science makes the invaluable contributions of both highlighting black women practitioners of fugitive science and acknowledging the absence of gender analysis in histories of racial science itself. Afro-Native sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis’s neoclassical sculptures of black and Native subjects marked a radical departure from what Rusert calls ‘the visual archive of degeneration in racial science and popular culture.’ Black science educator Sarah Mapps Douglass’s watercolor paintings of flowers and insects—included in private ‘friendship albums’ that circulated among her friends—echoed the meticulous detail of renderings found in natural science textbooks. Black women were treated ‘as the mute experimental subjects of nineteenth-century science,’ but Rusert engages them as figures who actively engaged with and shaped the science of the period.

Black studies scholars have recently begun calling into question the predominance of ‘resistance’ as an interpretive lens. In Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, he questions the ‘practically unconscious … equivalence between blackness and resistance’ that ‘thwarts other ways of reading.’ Quashie explains,

As an identity, blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness. The determination to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life, is racist.

The goal of such a critique is not to dismiss the power and importance of resistance within ongoing black freedom struggles but to ask what subtlety, complexity, and richness of human experience is lost when black life is understood exclusively as a resistance project. Is there room in our scholarly examinations for black interiority, forms of community, joy, frivolity, or contradiction?

Rusert uniquely and productively approaches this concern by asking an inverse question: Given the work that scholars like Quashie have done to problematize the tendency to read black life exclusively through the lens of resistance, what do we make of the moments when that viewpoint has inexplicably failed to take hold? Rusert explains,

while scholarship that highlights “agency” and “resistance” had thoroughly shaped the study of slavery and its aftermath, accounts of racial science have been largely untouched by that model. Rather, the history of racial science has been understood primarily as one of unchallenged regimes of violent exploitation and near total subjection.

Fugitive Science goes beyond merely ‘chronicling examples of resistance to racial science,’ underscoring that many black practitioners turn to natural science as a ‘springboard for complex meditations on being, subjectivity, and existence.’ Even as some of the figures Rusert studies actively critiqued scientific racism’s claims of black inhumanity, many refused to engage on the terms scientific racism insisted upon. Rusert stresses that they ‘not only critiqued scientific racism, but also constructed their own anti-racist science,’ mobilizing science to open up new avenues of inquiry on being and act as a practical tool of liberation.

Importantly, Fugitive Science discusses the emergence of racial science in the context of the specific political objectives it buttressed. For example, Rusert highlights that the racist American school of ethnology emerged just as the abolitionist movement was gaining support and visibility. Following the genocide and displacement of Native peoples, racial science abandoned ‘comparative ethnology’ and turned more exclusively and specifically to antiblack theories of racial inferiority, which reinforced efforts to maintain the institution of slavery. Fugitive Science reminds us that emerging scientific theories and practices were not, and are not, immune to the political imperatives of the moment.

Both Schalk and Rusert forge conversations between fields that are rarely in explicit communication. Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined argues for increased and sustained dialogue between black feminist and disability studies scholars. Black feminist theorists, she highlights, often study (dis)ability without explicitly adopting a disability studies lens or linking their work to the disability rights movement. And disability studies scholars often overlook race and racism, and rarely recognize black feminist theorists’ work on (dis)ability as ‘properly (dis)ability studies.’ Rusert’s Fugitive Science pushes against the scholarly tendency to suggest ‘a rigid divide between cultural and scientific production’ and issues an ‘appeal for new, transdisciplinary, and perhaps also undisciplined approaches to the study of black literature and culture.’

The demand for interdisciplinary study in the academy has gained much traction in recent years; however, Schalk and Rusert remind us of the source of that impulse. Transdisciplinary and undisciplined work has long been a mainstay of black thought and liberation politics. Even as the urging toward interdisciplinarity encourages many exciting interventions, the very sense of its newness elides the centuries of discredited black cultural, scientific, and intellectual production that already traversed those artificially fixed boundaries Schalk and Rusert re-center this work, issue urgent and brilliant challenges to their fields, and thus blaze novel, historically and ethically grounded methodological paths for a new generation of scholars.

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, ‘Black Speculation, Black Freedom’, by Petal Samuel, was originally published by Public Books on 19 October, 2018.