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Reader, beware!

Those who know a little about my research for Speak Right On know that I had no choice but to publish my book as fiction. Information about the details of Dred Scott's life simply is too scant for a work of nonfiction. Nevertheless, I was able to weave into my story many facts. This could be challenging, because I sometimes encountered varying accounts—I had to scrutinize the differences, seek supporting evidence, and critically evaluate the sources.

So it is with our news today: we have many varying accounts of a vast range of stories. Are they based in fact or in fiction? In "Americans' Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low," Gallup reported in September that only 32 percent of adults have "fair" or a "great deal of" confidence in what the mass media is reporting.

Many times in the pre-election year I felt confused and unable to keep track of what was credible and what wasn't. And now that the election is decided, the haze of misinformation grows ever thicker. In our latest elections, no matter how or whether they voted, many people agree that we were all poorly served by our media, pundits, and pollsters. It should be obvious that opinion is not fact, but it bears emphasizing. We heard a lot of opinions—a good measure of it unsubstantiated—and then we marched to the polls and cast our votes.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful to share an article by Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post: "The truth behind the rhetoric," which provides recommendations and steps for individuals to vet their online news sources.

Kessler's first suggestion: don't share a headline before you actually read the article. (Duh!) This is especially key on social media, because a whopping 59% of us never click on the links to the full information. Pause a moment to think about this; it means we are embracing as truths headlines that are designed to elicit an emotion, not deliver information.

Next: check to see if the article comes from a legitimate website. This isn't as subjective as it sounds. Legitimate sites have logos, links, and an "about us" page. Most will also have a page about corrections, because legitimate reporters sometimes get things wrong—and they have an obligation to clarify and correct their stories. The Post offers this example of an actual news site and a fake one that copies it:

  • ​"There's ABC News, the television network, with the Web address of abcnews.go.com. And there's ABC News, the fake news website, with the Web address of abcnews.com.co. The use of ".co" at the end of the URL is a strong clue you are looking at a fake news website. (It signifies the Internet country code domain assigned to the country of Colombia.)"

But don't stop there: the article lists these other litmus tests:

  • Does the site have a "contact us" page? Are names of the publisher and reporters listed? Are there news departments? Do the pictures and addresses seem hokey?
  • Consider the byline of the reporter: do the biographical details seem farfetched? Do a quick Google search on the reporter to validate whether she indeed won all the awards claimed.
  • Okay, you're reading the article all the way through, and you come upon a quote from someone that sounds implausible—check that out too. Fact-check any statement that makes you pause, shake your head, or do a double-take.
  • What sources are cited? None? Merely a re-Tweet? If there are no credible sources there is no credible information; it's just opinion or fantasy.
  • What type of advertisements appear on the site? If they're cheesy, the information on the site is bound to be likewise.

Don't accept "news" in a vacuum. Google the topic, and you'll quickly see whether other, legitimate news groups are covering the story. If they aren't, they probably have come to the conclusion it isn't reliable. If you do find additional coverage, read one or two so that you know where the discrepancies lie and which seems most reliable. 

Finally, the Post gives two other websites for learning more about fake news at Snopes.com, which offers a Field Guide to Fake News Sites, and RealorSatire.com.

We each have a civic responsibility to be informed. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned:

There is nothing more dangerous in the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

 Martin Luther King Jr.
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What this election shows, but doesn't say, about race

I've been avoiding speaking about Trump and Clinton, primarily because I feel hopeless when I read and watch election news. My stubborn heart drifts into fantasies of a first-ever, write-in win by the likes of Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Warren. This is idle escapism, but I did go so far as to google "write-in candidates," and I zeroed in on Dick Gregory's 1968 campaign. 

This reminded me of when I was living in St. Louis, in the late 1990s, researching history about Dred ScottMy husband and I attended a discussion led by Dick Gregory at a local independent bookstore. Gregory bluntly asked the mostly white audience: what is "whiteness"? I remember that I couldn't do it, couldn't articulate it—no one satisfactorily expressed what whiteness is—but the question has been indelibly imprinted on my thinking about race since that night at Left Bank Books. 

A recent article from the New York Times, originally published in the Interpreter, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, comes as close as anything I've ever read to answering that question:

Whiteness means being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion, and even food are the default norm. It's being a person who, by unspoken rules, was long entitled as part of "us" instead of "them" (emphasis mine).

by Taub and Fisher

Simply put: as a white person in America, I am not "other" in terms of race.

The article chiefly explores concepts of whiteness that are playing out globally in national politics. America is not alone in experiencing a rise of right-wing nationalism and so-called populist ideology. Another Times article cites right-wing and far-right ideologies growing in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, and a good many more.

The Taub-Fisher report offers a cogent hypothesis for this current swing of the pendulum, examining "white identity" issues and how that plays out in political arenas, where national and racial identities are frequently conflated. All of the angst and outrage about "losing our nation" and "wanting it back" boil down to this consideration. Quoting Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London:

What does it mean to be part of this nation? Is it not "our" nation anymore, "our" meaning the ethnic majority? These kinds of questions are really front and center, even though they're not necessarily verbalized.

Eric Kaufmann

Breaking down the concept of identity into "achieved" (by personal effort) and "ascribed" (based on innate characteristics), the authors make a strong case that the weakening of "achieved identity" is leading to a strengthening of "ascribed identity." As economic opportunities shrink, those who are struggling and see their children's prospects waning—those who cannot feel pride in their personal achievements—are more likely ". . . to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity." (Kaufmann)

Describing the quest of the American Dream as waiting in a long line ascending a hill, the authors state: 

Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.

by Taub and Fisher

And here they make a crucial distinction:

The mantra [I want my country back] is not all about bigotry. Rather, being part of a culture designed around people's own community and customs is a constant background hum of reassurance, of belonging (emphasis mine). The loss of that comforting hum has accelerated a phenomenon that Robin DiAngelo, a lecturer and author, calls "white fragility"—the stress white people feel when they confront the knowledge that they are neither special nor the default; that whiteness is just a race like any other. Fragility leads to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness, even threat. And it can trigger a backlash against those who are perceived as outsiders.

[T]he struggle for white identity is not just a political problem; it is about the "deep story" of feeling stuck while others move forward.

by Taub and Fisher

And for "others," read non-whites.

Earlier this year at a book-signing event, a woman in the audience asked me if I thought Republican opposition to President Obama was based on racial prejudice. I said I believed in large part it was. If I had considered the issues of identity posed by Taub and Fisher, I might have added:

Yes, but also consider this factor: many whites, consciously or not, are motivated by wanting to belong. Yet they've never questioned or understood that their sense of belonging has been built upon racial inequality. They've never paused to explore how they can achieve that sense of belonging without putting others down.

This is what we all can strive for: establishing or restoring the sense that we all belong. It doesn't have to be us vs. them.

So this is what I have to say about the elections: our next president (who is sure to be white) must explicitly represent all of America, just as President Obama did: he didn't just represent and lead blacks. Our president must communicate and demonstrate, leading by personal example, that we all belong.

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Don't be afraid

I spend a fair amount of time reading about changes in publishing. Recently I've noticed a few articles that are addressing diversity, or rather its lack, in the industry. Publishing Perspectives offered a great article by Porter Anderson that focused on Sisters in Crime, a writers support group with chapters across the US. It seems they annually release a "Report for Change," and this year they spoke up for "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community."

Apparently, they looked in the mirror and weren't satisfied with their reflection:

Source: Report for-change-psr2016 from sistersincrime

In addition to the racial and ethnic groups identified in the chart, they also looked at groups within their ranks such as LGBT and disabled writers.

The introduction to the report begins:

Becoming a successful writer is hard work. For writers who belong to the groups often referred to as "diverse," there are factors that make it even harder. But talking about diversity can feel like walking across a minefield. Some people show angry resistance to having the conversation at all. Even those who see the need for change can be stuck because of fear: fear of getting it wrong; fear of seeming to pander; fear of being criticized; fear of making things worse. [Emphasis mine]

Sisters in Crime

I couldn't agree more: fear holds us back from the important conversations that are needed in order to better understand each other. Yet I also believe it is incontrovertible that if we can expand our knowledge of each other, we can begin to create meaningful change.

When I sought publication of Speak Right On, I was filled with fears, the worst of which was that I would be pilloried as William Styron had been for his Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron was criticized for perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes, some of which I guessed were subconscious.

In other words, I feared betrayal by my own subconscious: 

  • What ugly stereotypes might be lurking there? 
  • Had any deviously slipped into my writing? 
  • Was I exposing myself as another white person who just doesn't get it? 
  • Would this overshadow any merits the book might have? 
  • What might I discover about myself that I wouldn't want to admit?

Obviously I did publish it, and the enthusiasm and graciousness with which I have been treated as the author continues to surprise me. But it also helps me have more confidence; it helps me keep trying to have the difficult conversations. And I know this will be true for others who demonstrate curiosity and respect when they eclipse their own fears and engage in dialogs about race.

Take courage, speak right on.

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Slave patrols and modern police

Photo by vnyberg at Morguefile.com
Someone reminded me recently that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, explained his shooting by saying that Brown looked "like a demon." Wilson also compared Brown to Hulk Hogan and said of himself, "I felt like a five-year-old." Reading the transcript of Wilson's testimony I found a number of these bizarre characterizations that reduced Brown to something either subhuman or superhuman.

I also read Wilson's explanations about why he didn't use mace, an asp, or a flashlight to defend himself from punches delivered by Brown, but I was left wondering why he didn't use his car to create distance between him and Brown. According to Wilson's account, Brown stood outside the driver's door, punching Wilson through the open car window. When Wilson drew his gun, Brown wrestled him for control of it. Brown never got the gun, he was unarmed, and the patrol car was running the whole time, so why couldn't this officer pull away?

I return to this 2014 incident because it remains an unsolved mystery—no, not who killed Michael Brown, but why he is dead. I believe the clues trace back to our history of slavery and racism. The centuries of American slavery, from the 1600s to the 1800s, seem distant to most of us, but the truth is that slavery's ravages continue to afflict us today. And one of the ways we live with its legacy is evident in current-day policing activities.

Though the National Law Enforcement Museum website and Wikipedia don't touch on this connection, other sources, like the National Institute of Justice and Eastern Kentucky University, are quite frank that precursors of the modern police department include groups that were organized and paid to protect whites and white property against slaves, Indians, and other minorities. Part of this protection of "property," of course, included slaves. Slaves were the property of white men, and they could not question the authority of the system that contained them, denied them freedom, and subjected them to cruelty.

Slave patrols and slave catchers were organized to ensure that slave "property" was securely under the control of the white owners. Not only were blacks excluded from the ranks of those considered to be deserving of protection, they were vilified and believed to be subhuman, violent, treacherous, and murderous—and these all-white, all-male police forces were backed up by state and federal laws and institutions.

Significantly, it was a given in Dred Scott's world that any white person was in a position of authority over any black person. In Speak Right On, Dred Scott encounters a group of white circus performers who physically harass him and humiliate him with impunity, knowing that society will not stop or sanction them (p. 131-132). Not long thereafter, he argues with Gran in their hottest disagreement in the book, and the argument is sparked by the fact that Master Peter Blow did not give Dred papers for his safe transport over Alabama roads patrolled by slave catchers (p. 140-147). Had he been stopped, he might easily have been beaten, kidnapped, or killed. Later, while still a newcomer to St. Louis, Dred witnesses the physical and emotional abuse of slaves who pause to watch a building being erected (p. 179-180). The only objection raised from the whites in the crowd toward the white abuser is that his words and actions have distressed white ladies.

Of course, the reality is that slaves weren't like any other class of property. Owners didn't hate their crops or fear their jewelry; there were no cautionary tales told about demon cattle or evil pigs. 

So when blacks ceased being property, the prejudice about them remained intact. Whites continued to regard blacks with fear and loathing. Throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, blacks were routinely beaten, lynched, or burned off the land for minor infractions against whites—even for the "offense" of simply being black. Police, vigilantes, the KKK, and all-white "citizens" councils perpetrated this murder and destruction of property. History is absolutely clear that this abuse continued from the nineteenth century, through the twentieth, and still exists today.

Yes, there are fewer vigilantes, the KKK has been driven into shadowed corners of society, and many groups that are mostly white strive to include one or two "persons of color." In many modern police forces, there is a conscious commitment to having officers "look" more like the communities they serve and protect. This means black officers in black neighborhoods. Sometimes it even means civilians sit on the police review board.

This is a step in the right direction, but applying makeup to the complexion of a group will never cover the ugly truth of unequal treatment. Blacks today continue to face prejudice, irrational fear, and retaliation or even death when they question law enforcement and the justice system. They face it at the hands of trained officers and elected officials, and they face it at the hands of vigilantes.

One solution, I believe, is to promote equality among racial and ethnic groups—in ways we may not be thinking of. For example, until America more fairly educates, houses, feeds (and here I include water), and cares for the health of blacks, we will not have blacks equally in positions of authority. White citizens, how many black teachers have you had? How many black doctors have cared for you? How many black officers have you interacted with? How many black judges do you know? Was the person who married you black? Have you ever consulted a black lawyer? Have you ever met a black farmer? Did you ever have a black boss? How many black authority figures can you count in your life?

This matters, because black authority figures can help whites pull away from dread and hostility—for the simple reason that it's difficult to sustain hatred for the teacher that opens up possibilities; for the doctor who delivers your baby; for the officer who protects you from a mugging; for a judge who rights a wrong; for the preacher who marries you. 

Had officer Wilson pulled away, Michael Brown might still be alive.

Toward the end of the transcript, someone asks Wilson why he didn't use his car to defend himself, why he didn't pull away. He answered, "We're trained not to run away from a threat. . . . That never entered my mind to flee." Presumably, police are similarly not trained to see themselves as a threat, or to understand how they are perceived by others as a threat, or to anticipate how they themselves escalate situations until the outcome is tragic.

Slavery's legacy of physical and emotional abuse toward blacks is not peculiar to our police—many whites contribute to the dynamic—but in a just society our law enforcement officers especially should be prohibited, through training and sanctions, from unfair treatment based on racial stereotypes. 

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More thoughts on empathy

Xray of bound feet (Wikimedia Commons)

Warning: empathy is not for the squeamish

Readers of Speak Right On often want to know how I was able to write in the first person as an imagined enslaved person. The differences between Dred Scott and me are enormous. I'm a 21st century-educated-free-white woman, writing about a 19th century-illiterate-enslaved-black man. As I mentioned in my last post, few of us today know what it means to be enslaved, so it takes empathy.

What was the connective tissue, though, that I massaged in order to find empathy? There were several things I drew upon in my personal life—pains, injustices, fears—but the best way I think I can help others understand is to try to elicit empathy from you.

I will tell you a story, and it will make you cringe. This is a true story about very young girls in China, and like the practices of American slavery, these horrors are rarely perpetrated today. But for centuries, girls as young as four were deliberately deformed so that they would be considered more beautiful.

That probably makes you shake your head, but I doubt the empathy is flowing yet. The devil is in the details, and if you can bear to face the devil, read on.

How long do you think your foot is? I measured mine: from heel to big toe, it's about 10 inches long. So I did a double-take when I read that the desired foot length for grown women was less than 5 inches. The ideal was 4 inches. Presumably women in China 100, 300, 500 years ago were smaller than I, but that small?

Obviously not; otherwise, binding the feet wouldn't have been necessary. So how was this "ideal" foot size obtained?

  • First the toes were broken. Some variations stretched the big toe up instead of bending it under.
  • Cloth bindings were next wrapped tightly around the foot, pulling the toes toward the sole of the foot.
  • But of course, that doesn't take off enough inches, so the arch of the foot had to be broken.
  • Pushing the foot so that it was in straight alignment with the leg, a sturdy cloth was wrapped around the foot and sewn shut so the girl would not, could not, loosen it.
  • Finally, you repeat these steps with the other foot.

I don't know what they did about the crying and screaming. 

But I do know that the broken toes, the broken arch, the tiny foot bones, the sinews and yes, the toenails, continued to grow. So daily—and in wealthier homes, several times daily—the girl received a pedicure. Her nails were carefully trimmed to avoid ingrowing, and the broken feet were kneaded. And the soles and arch and joints were beaten, beaten to make them more flexible.And the broken toes were folded back to the sole and rebound, and with each binding the cloth was pulled tighter.

Eventually, for most, the feet became numb. For the most unfortunate, they did not go numb.

Toes sometimes fell off, and that was considered a good thing, because the foot could be bound even tighter. Other times, septic shock and gangrene claimed the life of the poor girl. Older women not infrequently incurred broken hips and other broken bones, because they could not balance themselves in a standing position.

If you're cringing, then you're empathizing.


Now imagine growing up in a world that didn't want your mind to grow; it wanted you to remain childlike; it was happiest when you were stupid.

It hated your personality, any characteristic that made you you—your nature. Imagine the world used restraints as rigid as foot bindings, and it punished you if you ever dared try to loosen those bindings.

Imagine a world that beat your soul in order to soften you, deform you, limit you.

This is how I began to empathize, and I'm thinking most who read this post will also be able to—if they can bear to spend just a few minutes more pondering these questions:

  • How would you conceal who you are?

  • Where would you turn to satisfy your innate curiosity and unbidden, forbidden insights?
  • What happens to an agile mind that is deprived of literacy?
  • What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue?
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Can we empathize with slaves?


I watched the first episode of Underground (Wednesdays 9:00c on WGN America) and was not surprised that Dred Scott was mentioned in the opening few minutes. The show begins in 1857, the year the Supreme Court decided adversely on Scott's plea for freedom, and it centers on a particular plantation where slaves are contemplating running away.

Like many new and ambitious shows, Underground may need a few episodes before it hits its stride. Overall, I felt the depictions of slaves and masters were a bit stale, and I wasn't touched emotionally, though the story and characters seem promising.

I've been questioning my own depictions of slavery. It's difficult to talk about this subject without employing some well-known tropes: field hands in dirty, tattered clothes vs. clean, gloved servants in the big house; or impunity on the faces of slave owners vs. despair and defiance in the guarded eyes of slaves. Given the familiarity (thanks in large part to the television series Roots) of such motifs, when I wrote Speak Right On, I felt challenged to chisel out—what?—something that would make these necessary elements of the story, of the history, fresh and relatable.

Although I wasn't always successful, I realized I needed to develop the knack of personalizing the experience I wrote about; that is, I wrote about the emotional and psychological aspects of, say, daily wearing inferior clothes:

  • How would I feel about myself? I remember feeling shame when I was given hand-me-downs that I needed but thought were ugly.
  • How would I feel when I saw or sensed the reactions of others? I remember feeling hopeless and ugly. 

While few readers guess that my characterization of Dred Scott is autobiographical in significant ways, many authors recognize that this is what is required of the writer: dredging up sometimes painful memories so that readers feel what the characters are experiencing.

I've heard from readers who exclaim I helped them understand slavery in entirely new ways, and I believe it comes down to realizing that we are the same, in fundamental ways. White or black, privileged or deprived, we share common human reactions when we are debased: it hurts. When we are humiliated, we feel worthless. When we are stripped of opportunities that are laid out like a smorgasbord for others, we yearn.

But the writer doesn't stop there, because of course there are individual differences that matter greatly, which are rooted in each individual's circumstances and constitution. Depicting these variations is how we build memorable characters. When Joe is beaten in my story, young Dred perceives how it galvanizes the old man, as if the torn-open flesh released his opressed humanity and dignity—and the reader understands, in part, that Joe is suppressing his pain and fear, so that his agony does not add to Dred's trauma.

I believe good storytelling happens in the balance between what is universally human and how individuals exercise their will and talent to live through their ordeals. And empathy hangs in that balance: writers evoke it, readers feel it. This is especially true for a topic as historically remote as slavery, since few alive today empirically know what it feels like to be enslaved. But from our own empirical experiences, we do know what fear, rage, and shame feel like—as well as liberation, union, and triumph.

I look forward to seeing the emotional lives of the characters emerge in Underground, because its story, history, and legacy are important. We all need to be reminded that we need to empathize, so that we can better live with all the differences in our lives.

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Speak Right On: Author reading on the 159th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Sanford

On March 6, 2016, I was on stage at Santa Fe's Jean Cocteau Cinema with Maxine Neely Davenport, author of Love Is a Legal Affair. We both read from our books and answered questions, and then we signed books. It was a great event, and I thank everyone who came out that day. 

This film clip is the first of several, taken by my husband, Andrew. Here, I read from "Chapter 1, Upriver, Downriver." I hope you enjoy it. 

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A good road is walked on twice

If a road is good, you walk it twice (Igbo proverb)

I have been well-and-truly sick for several days, and it's been a blessing. The enforced hiatus has allowed me to realize that I've been pounding compulsively on a single track for months now—and for me, that's never a good or healthy thing.

The track I've been on is, as you all know, re-releasing Speak Right On. I feel loved that so many have been enthusiastic about my efforts and outcomes. And I'm proud of it, proud that it's back in print; I believe it's a good thing.

But I tied re-releasing the book to this holiday book sales idea, and that's where things went haywire and I came down with marketing fever, the symptoms of which include:

  • Not quietly sitting and reflecting on my day, my actions, my interactions
  • Not reading anything that isn't advice on marketing
  • Not really listening to and participating in my husband's ideas and activities
  • Not initiating a conversation that isn't task/goal oriented
  • Not walking the dogs or taking a walk
  • Not maintaining my afternoon time with the cats
  • Not calling my friends and family, just to say hi
  • Not taking a scenic drive to see our amazing aspens turn golden or even noticing the sunsets through the window
  • Not filling the birdfeeders, no less bird watching

No wonder I got sick!

So what's my new outlook for the next, nearly two months remaining of the holiday sales season: Bah Humbug! I read an article today that convincingly asserted that all marketing is about getting a reaction. Hmmm. But the fine print was about getting a reaction that leads to sales.

I sat back and quietly asked myself: what reaction do I want?

I want:

  • Ideas to be stimulated
  • Voices to be listened to
  • Conversations to be sparked
  • Lives of all creatures to be exercised freely and joyfully
  • Relationships to be strengthened
  • Compassion to be buoyed
  • Experiences to be shared
  • Connections to be discovered
  • Birdfeeders to be filled, and birds to be watched and admired

It's this experience I want to share now: don't make yourself sick. Stop. Just stop and take a moment to quietly reflect on your day, your actions, and your interactions. What questions have arisen during the day that you'd like to explore? Who comes to mind when you think of picking up the phone?

And don't forget to fill the birdfeeder. You'll be so glad you did. 

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Mary talks at the Library of Congress

Let's talk about humbling experiences, because by all indications, Dred Scott was a humble man. He struggled to protect his family from the predations of slavery, and he did that quietly, respectfully—doggedly—seeking justice through one of the bulwarks of slavery itself: the judicial system.

One hundred fifty years after the US Supreme Court declared Dred Scott a piece of property with no rights a white man was bound to honor, I entered the Library of Congress to talk about my research and my book about Dred Scott. On March 6, 2007, with the humility I imagine Dred Scott may have felt walking into the Old Courthouse in St. Louis to mark his X on the petition that would begin his suit, I entered this great center of culture and learning. I felt honored to be among the many the Center for the Book has honored over the decades.
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Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today?

Hardly a day goes by without someone invoking the name of Dred Scott. Take a look at the news feed scrolling at the top of this blog page, and you'll notice that people of all stripes and beliefs use his name in a host of social justice issues, from abortion to incarceration, from citizenship to marriage equality, from Black Lives Matter to judicial overreach. 

Dred Scott's name is tossed about so frequently that I'd like to state some facts. Dred Scott was

  • a 19th-century American, born into slavery in Virginia
  • held as the slave of Peter Blow until 1832, then held in slavery by John Emerson
  • held as the slave of Emerson's widow, Irene, all through the historic court case, Dred Scott v. John Sanford, which ultimately reached the US Supreme Court
  • officially declared by the Supreme Court to be a slave without any rights of citizenship

Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today? Excuse my cynicism, but I believe the answer lies with our typical ignorance of our own history. When I moved in 1996 to St. Louis—where Dred Scott's legal case began—I saw a plaque in the pavement dedicated to Dred and Harriet Scott. I recognized the names, but I couldn't remember whether they had won or lost that case, and I guessed wrong. Having talked to others through the years, I know my failure is shared by many.

Within a few months, I was learning more history at the Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, where I read that the sons of Peter Blow manumitted Dred Scott after the Supreme Court decision declared him a piece of property. Intrigued, I embarked on a fruitless search for a biography on Dred Scott.

Within another few months, I was standing in the rotunda of the Old St. Louis Courthouse, where papers in the case were first filed on April 6, 1846. The courthouse is now a National Parks museum, and a ranger held up a single sheet of paper with print on both sides—perhaps five hundred words, at most. She said, "This is all that is known about Dred Scott."

You could have knocked me over with that sheet of paper.

I spent the next three years researching everything I could find about Dred Scott, including contacting his descendants who lived in the St. Louis vicinity. Of course, there was nothing I uncovered that would extend that single-sheet biography, but the Dred Scott story—the Dred Scott mystery—wholly captivated me.

In this blog I will share what I learned. And I will comment on current news items relating to Dred Scott from the perspective that he remains relevant today as an enduring symbol of social injustice and racial discrimination.

I think it's important that we find some way in this country to have reasoned, respectful conversations about race and politics.

Please comment on this blog—I'd like to know your thoughts. 

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Fact and fiction

Notes from my research
There is very little written in the historical record about Dred Scott, the person. Details and analyses of the court case bearing his name fill libraries, but no one bothered to register his biographical data--probably because the Supreme Court declared him an item of property. In fact, the court said that he and all descendants of Africans had no rights which the white man was bound to consider. 
However, we do know that Dred Scott was a flesh-and-blood man who lived much of his adult, enslaved life seeking freedom for himself and his family. We know he is the beloved ancestor of real people alive today. So, though we know little about him, we know this: he was a family man. It is from that certain truth that I began writing about him and his times, and the most frequent questions readers have is: "What is fact, and what is fiction?"  

So here are notes from my research. I think you'll find it fascinating . . .
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