The history of American racial science shares an important genealogy with the history of performance. Throughout the antebellum period, the popular stage routinely doubled as a scientific laboratory, where theories of race were produced and disseminated to a mass audience. 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, musicians and lecturers regularly forged creative responses to the popular performance of race science. Following the bold leaps and experimental engagements with history that characterize the field of performance studies, this essay stitches together a counterarchive of racial science on the antebellum stage from what is a necessarily partial and elusive history. Following a paper trail of ticket stubs, newspaper announcements, broadsides, and other ephemera, I chronicle how a number of antislavery agents, including Henry “Box” Brown, Sarah Mapps Douglass, William Wells Brown, and a set of lesser-known figures, countered the widespread circulation of racist science in popular entertainment and print culture through dynamic performances of “fugitive science” in both the U. S. and Britain. Far from rejecting science as a whole, these figures sought to link “scientific revolution” to race revolution by incorporating phrenology, mesmerism, ethnology and other fields into their acts and lectures. The dynamic, restive movements of early black performance simultaneously refused race science’s attempt to “fix” nonwhite bodies within racist evolutionary taxonomies. Drawing on recent scholarship, the essay goes on to consider how the concept of fugitivity unsettles the history of empiricism, and turns our view to a broad field of experimentation traversing African American science, art, and expressivity while suggesting new transdisciplinary approaches to the study of black performance, the Black Atlantic, and the history of racial science.


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pp. 291-308
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