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Ways of Knowing

On Dear Science and Black interdisciplinary thought

Dear Science and Other Stories by Katherine McKittrick. Duke University Press, 240 pages.

When I was twelve, I wanted to be a theoretical physicist, so I took all the steps that I could to turn that dream into a reality: I built a line-tracking robot, a CO2 car, and I even became president of the engineering club at my middle school. At the time, nothing could prevent me from inquiring, collecting, or building. Chasing after science filled me with purpose: to find the essence of light, the medium that impacted the speed of sound, and the tools to confront my uncertainties through empiricism.  

By the time I went to college, I had slowly moved away from my ambition as a physicist into the world of biology, eventually examining neurological underpinnings of motility through protein analysis of the egg-laying hormone of Aplysia californica, a sea slug found along the California coast. My partner at the time, an Asian American professionally trained chef who was studying anthropology, fueled my curiosity by framing my research as a product of biopolitics, leading me into my personal journey about who had been left out of the sciences. Reading The Wretched of the Earth was a turning point. I was enamored with how Frantz Fanon vividly documented colonialism’s horrors—of capture, of imprisonment, of torture—while remaining attentive to the moral politics of what it means to be a medical practitioner under a regime that was active in abusing power. His text articulated an intimate rage that still sits with me today. Fanon resisted, and that has stayed with me.

Shortly after graduating from college, I worked in a microbiology laboratory that sought to find a cure for multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy—which unfortunately we were unable to accomplish. After a year of working in a laboratory where I was the only Black person, I left the field of microbiology altogether. Although I had often found myself as the only Black face in a laboratory space, leaving the sciences didn’t necessarily mean that I would find more people who looked like me in my new field of study. When I began my PhD program in history, there were thirty students, and I was the only Black person. In 2017, the year that I earned my PhD, only 5.4 percent of doctoral recipients—according to the National Science Foundation—were Black, far below the percentage of Black people in the United States. In some fields, there wasn’t a single Black doctoral student who earned a doctoral degree. The figures were especially low in STEM fields. The universities that I have attended, for all their proclamations of celebrating surface-level diversity, have had massive asymmetries in who studies science and its adjacent disciplines.

Early in her latest book, Dear Science and Other Stories, the scholar Katherine McKittrick smartly sketches the intervention she has set out to make: “black worlds are not always wholly defined by scientific racism and biological determinism.” McKittrick, of course, notes that science is profoundly racist, but she wants to deepen our understanding of Black studies and science by reframing the stories we have come to know. The book has a simple argument: Black people have always been interdisciplinary. They have done so by making their own way, adopting daring methods and composing narratives that supersede the racial logics trying to shrink them.  Dear Science consists of nineteen chapters; McKittrick explains that this project began in 2004 as a curiosity in her first chapter, “Curiosities (My Heart Makes my Heart Swim),” which draws its title from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Similar to the younger versions of myself who wanted to understand the aesthetics and science behind a star’s halo, the curiosity summoned in Dear Science advocates for using multiple methods off explaining the world, going a step further by offering an autobiographical tableau of how to reimagine Blackness through the poetics of Black cultural production.

McKittrick, who teaches at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, is also the author of Demonic Grounds. Published in 2006, it chronicles the revolutionary potential of mobile Black women through the diasporic literary imagination of such authors as Octavia Butler, arguing that, “black matters are spatial matters.” Where Demonic Grounds is more conventional in its approach, Dear Science is an experiment: an epistemological commitment to connect Black knowledge systems to Black liberation. The book sheds light on the status of knowledge through the arts, as science, and more specifically, through Black creatives. Method is a melodic salve, the coded and intellectual enterprise to solder—according to McKittrick—a path to liberation. “Black studies and anticolonial thought,” writes McKittrick, “offer methodological practices wherein we read, live, hear, groove, create, and write across a range of temporalities, places, texts, and ideas that build on existing liberatory practices.” Black studies is embodied fully, harnessed, by sharing, collaborating, thinking, writing, and rewriting. McKittrick herself models this practice by reengaging with anti-colonial theorists including Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and her mentor Sylvia Wynter.

Dear Science is an experiment: an epistemological commitment to connect Black knowledge systems to Black liberation.

The book is an intervention that calls for “a rebellious methodological moment that enunciates black life outside of crude biologized identity claims.” As a historian of science who engages with people and histories whose actors have different categories of race, often social—sometimes biological—I acquiescence to McKittrick’s proclamation. On the one hand, I agree that we should be dubious of racial identities that are purely framed in terms of biology. But on the other hand, racial identities frame the value that the world places on knowledge systems and the hierarchies of life, and for many people who have been left out of the university, that inequality is strongly felt.

 McKittrick points out that scholarship is not just about what we know, but who and how we know. “Black women are radical theory makers,” she writes. For McKittrick, Black theory is predicated on reading Sylvia Wynter radically and lovingly. It is no surprise that she is McKittrick’s muse; she has written on neurology, poetry, politics, nature, cartographies, and much more. Wynter is largely cited by a wave of Black scholars who seek to trouble the human. “We must now collectively undertake a rewriting of knowledge as we know it,” she argues in an interview with McKittrick collected in the anthology Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, insisting that it is essential that Europe and North America reckon with how they have changed the world: the cultural and psychic side effects of causing centuries of harm. There is something affirming about acknowledging the power of the African diaspora: the points of discomfort, and the theories that give Black people a sense of place even when they are displaced. For some Black Americans, this condition is dynamic; as New York Times Magazine critic at large Wesley Morris put it, “Blackness was on the move before my ancestors were legally free to be.”

That freedom is prodigiously deployed in what we hear. “Black music in general,” writes scholar Fred Moten in Black and Blur, “ is trying all the time to get us not just to want something else but to want differently.” In “The Kick Drum Is the Fault”—a chapter titled after Prince’s Housequake— McKittrick offers a community-generated rhapsodic catalogue, a sonic escape from the text, paying homage to the punk band Bad Brains, Brooklyn rapper Leikeli47, and Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodríguez. She invites us to navigate between the world of classical, pop, Motown, and hip hop and reflect on the power of listening to high art, low art, new music, and nostalgic oldies.

Throughout Dear Science, McKittrick blesses readers with footnotes that carry shards of aphorisms and vignettes; they form an artillery of pendants, suspended on the page like ornaments, a composition in their own right. The footnotes take the liberty of letting us glimpse McKittrick’s thought process; beyond explanatory citation practice, which she warns against, these notes represent the collaborative process of her intellectual community. If you escape into the subtext and sit with this Black intellectual thought, the footnotes are a reminder that a communally produced body of work is shaped by every person’s voice. For McKittrick, it is essential to exercise a politics of gratitude to the fellow intellectual travelers who fuel our curiosity.

Writing, then, becomes a way of applying her curiosity and attending to the political commitment of Black creatives who rewrite knowledge as we know it. And storytelling becomes a way for Black life to evade destruction. McKittrick deduces that it is not enough to speak about the physicality of things, the flesh that houses our heart and tethers our souls. Racial and gendered identities on their own, she argues, cannot predict or indicate what is happening to people’s bodies; we have to go beneath the surface and look at who and what is harming the body in medical spaces. For McKittrick, despite racial identity erroneously being associated with the body and biology, it should not be conflated with flesh. But at the same time, she admits that the body tells a story: “we tell and feel stories (in our hearts).” The danger arrives when race and gender categories render Blackness as non-human. To this end, she evokes the work of a colleague in her acknowledgment, the scholar Simone Browne, who outlines in Dark Matters that racism is embodied and mediated through surveillance technologies. But it doesn’t end there.

McKittrick is sensitive to past racialized terrors. She opines, “The purpose of this story is to worry rather than replicate violence.” One can examine the violent history of medicine where Black women’s bodies were “a site of experimentation.” Such was the case when J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” operated on enslaved Black women in between 1845 and 1849 without anesthetics. While not ignoring the spectacle and racial violence that we continue to witness in the African diaspora, McKittrick asks the reader to imagine Black embodied knowledge outside of this brutality, noting that “to be black is to live through scientific racism and, at the same time, reinvent the terms and stakes of knowledge.”

Reinvention is part of what is going on in Dear Science, but so is the refusal of a narrow mode of thinking. McKittrick embraces the possibility of radical interdisciplinarity: radical thought and radical ways of being that situate knowledge practices into the everyday. Again drawing on Wynter, McKittrick veers from the trope of racist violence by offering different language, a composition that claims a Black future. She embarks on the task of freeing herself from the biological determinism of race by attempting to practice science herself. Directly engaging in data science and computing, as outlined in her chapter “Failure (My Head Was Full of Misty Fumes of Doubt),” McKittrick tries to resist the racist biocentric logic of algorithms by coding her own. But by her own admission, her “curiosity diminished” when she was deeply soured by self-proclaimed defeat.

McKittrick asks the reader to imagine Black embodied knowledge outside of this brutality, noting that “to be black is to live through scientific racism and, at the same time, reinvent the terms and stakes of knowledge.”

Failure is heavy. And Black failure carries the weight of an entire community, often comprising intergenerational acts of prudence. In her lack of success in understanding the algorithmic code work, McKittrick nonetheless points out that “algorithms are undemocratic and racist.” Given the representation of Black people in science and the academy altogether, the racism that she affirms in computer science echoes the racism we see in universities at large. While McKittrick’s text is mostly a celebration of Black creativity, I wanted more on the rubric of refusal broached in this chapter, where everyday Black life is unglamorized, exhausting, uncertain, and to be frank, difficult. McKittrick is committed to Black livingness, Black creativity, Black imagination, and futures, but I wonder: What does Black theory look like beyond the classroom, especially where Black people move outside of the privilege of academic, poetic, or tender spaces?

McKittrick’s prose is beautiful and timely, and she demonstrates that there is a cost to reducing Black life to any description without deep thought. Her readers—no matter their relationship to science—are pressed to question what we know, how we know, and who we know. Dear Science urges us to be cautious of a single narrative, to articulate our thoughts with exacting labor, and it provides insight into how we can create a universe beyond Black suffering. That’s the message, in some sense, that she wants us to absorb and to participate in. The last chapter, “Notes and Reminders,” is an opportunity for the reader to write, sketch, or pontificate in Dear Science. We are offered the space to write our own story.

Whether the griot who turns our ancestral ghosts into thespians on a stage, or the street corner lyricist engaged in a rap battle, Black people are a storytelling species. Yet, one has to ask: How do Black storytellers work under conditions when they are constantly confronted with Black death? In the absence of reconciliation for the aggrieved, this question hovers in the background of Dear Science. In her article, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” Toni Morrison insists that during periods of distress, artists shouldn’t remain silent. She writes, “It is important not to ignore [the world’s] pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom.”

We are alive in an era where Black radical thought is a constellation scattered globally, where Black women are writing about science in and out of the discipline itself, with a dexterity and ease that affirms Black scientists, philosophers, and visionaries. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s recent book The Disordered Cosmos complements McKittrick’s by directing us towards an autobiographical journey into theoretical physics. And Prescod-Weinstein and McKittrick don’t just exist as planets from remote galaxies; they are directly in conversation in this universe. In a recent Public Books interview that Prescod-Weinstein conducted with McKittrick, the latter remarked of Dear Science: “I hope this book generates wonder. I hope it signals a love of reading and theorizing, while also offering the invitation to live with what we cannot know.” McKittrick’s affirmation is a reminder of what is possible: the pursuit of understanding that which we do not know. I wish I could look back to the younger version of myself, the curious, tenacious Black girl who wanted to understand the inner working of the stars.