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Speak Right On

A book is usually a one-sided affair: only the author reveals her thoughts and feelings. The airing of readers’ reactions typically is left to book groups. But not now, not here.

With this blog I want to hear what you have to say. Though I will use Speak Right On as a springboard and reference point for my blog entries, you don’t need to read my book to join the conversation.

Just speak right on, from the heart.

“He who does his best for his own time, lives for all times.”

African proverb

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Not so silent night

The lovely story of "Silent Night" is that the world changed—was saved—by the birth of Christ during a silent and holy night. Millions have been soothed and reassured by the carol's peaceful, hopeful message and harmonies.

But isn't it interesting that in order for the song to have effect, voices must be raised—silence must be disturbed?

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Craftmas

I've got a strong urge to make gifts by hand this holiday season. Maybe I'm tired and turned off by cyber-this and virtual-that; I want something real and tangible. But there's one big problem: I don't do any crafts. As a teenager I made long paper chains made of folded bits of gum wrappers, but I don't think that counts.


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Aggrieved

I read a lot of editorial pieces that express resentment because of a perceived injustice. Here are just a few:

  • Heterosexuals offended because same-sex couples' right to marry has been recognized
  • Jews affronted when a rabbi advocates justice for Palestinians (she advocated for several other wrongs to be righted as well)
  • Trump-ettes blaring about denying asylum, no less citizenship, to foreign workers and refugees
  • And of course, whites indignant that blacks affirm that their lives matter

In all of these issues, Dred Scott invariably gets mentioned, typically as a symbol of a man treated unjustly by an errant Supreme Court ruling.

Let's be clear: no one today suggests that Dred Scott should not have been freed. They reference the Supreme Court decision declaring him a piece of property to be unjust—to him and all enslaved persons of the day—because he had an innate, fundamental right to be free. That is not debated. What is debated is the role of the Supreme Court in deciding what rights are granted under the Constitution.

So here are my questions to those feeling aggrieved when the rights of others are affirmed:

  • Your rights are not abridged under Obergefell—why can't everyone enjoy religious and civil liberties?
  • Are your values so fragile that you cannot embrace justice for all people, even those outside your "group"?
  • Should your fears and prejudices trump everything else? Have you no tenderness toward or generosity for individuals impoverished, oppressed, and threatened?
  • Does your ignorance of the history of blacks in this country blind you so that you cannot understand that Black Lives Matter is a civil rights movement as legitimate as any this country has ever seen—and benefitted from?

We all do better when we help others do better. We all live more freely when we support others living freely.

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Silence the Guns for Christmas!

I am pleased to be part of Rhonda Parrish's Giftmas Blog Tour. She has brought together a couple of dozen bloggers, and today I'm hosting a blog from Rebecca Gibson, an author of a novel set during the First World War. I know you'll enjoy what she has to share . . . and be sure to check out the links below, because Rhonda has lined up some great raffle prizes!


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Mary Neighbour
Rhonda, you've put the connections together--thank you!
Tuesday, 08 December 2015 19:19
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Necessary first steps

Painting by H. L. Stephens

Among all the other things going on this time of year, there's an anniversary date you might be missing: December 6, 2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. By doing so, the amendment effectively righted the wrong imposed by the controversial US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. John Sanford, in which Dred Scott and his family were declared slaves who "had no rights which the white man was bound to consider."

The Emancipation Proclamation, which was passed 2 years earlier, freed only Confederate slaves. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, freed all slaves, estimated to be 4 million people. While there was a great deal of work still to be done in order to move our country toward an equal society with freedom and civil rights for all—work that is still ongoing—this Constitutional Amendment was a necessary first step.

In recognition of this often overlooked day, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation (St. Louis) is hosting the first Freedom Awards Dinner tomorrow, a fundraising event honoring fourteen individuals and organizations that have contributed to civil rights and to the improvement of society in their chosen fields.  

Many readers will remember that Lynne Jackson is the founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and the great-great-granddaughter of Harriet and Dred Scott, who recently wrote the foreword for the re-release of Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred ScottBoth Lynne and I, in our respective paths, focus on raising awareness and stimulating informed, respectful conversations about race and politics today. There are many ills in society, but each of us can do some good simply by speaking up and affirming the values of equality and justice that should be enjoyed by all.


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Yeah, it's cold out there

I've begun seeing this three-word slogan among the many signposts waved at Black Lives Matter protests. I interpret it as a pithier variation on "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" and similar sentiments.

I subscribe to the notion that we cannot be silent in the face of injustice, and I like the emphasis on white silence. If white voices are not raised against racism, then inequality is strengthened. We need unity across racial lines to combat racism.

Protestors of all skin hues are out in Seattle, Chicago, San Diego, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, marching in the cold, crying out against discrimination and intolerance—expressed through our institutions of justice, law enforcement, education, housing, finance, health, and government—and calling on all of us to speak with them.

I know it's cold out there, and something deep inside says hibernate. But resist it. Stick your head out. If enough of us come together out in that cold world, we can keep each other warm. 

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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 Neighbour
Welcome back, Jeannette. Now the challenge is to act on what rose up in my consciousness, to accept and implement my thoughts. Tha... Read More
Saturday, 21 November 2015 19:14
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Birthright wrongs

Donald Trump wants to deny the right of citizenship to some folks born here in the USA, chiefly—at least to begin with—the children of illegal immigrants from Mexico and South America. Trump doesn't stand alone in this view. With the exception of Kasich and Perry, the entire slate of GOP candidates has asserted this belief.

Two questions:

1.Do they care about history and fact?

2.Whom do they represent?

In answer to question #1, I highly recommend an article on this topic written by Damon Root, senior editor of Reason magazine and the author of Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court (Palgrave Macmillan). Titled "Trump vs. the Constitution," the essay delivers a brief history of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, anchoring its origins with the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, in which Chief Justice Taney asserted that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution considered Negroes citizens, and since they had no rights then, they have no rights "which the white man is bound to respect."

Well, the 13th and 14th Amendments went a very long way toward righting some of the wrongs of the Dred Scott decision. The 13th abolished slavery, and the 14th conferred the rights of citizenship:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Root goes on to describe how this principal has been upheld through the centuries—applied to those of Chinese and Arabic descent, among others—and it leaves little room for the likes of Trump's views.

So, in my opinion, those advocating stripping citizenship rights from those born here of illegal parents haven't got a leg to stand on.

As to question #2, I don't know the answer. Many people on the right and left of politics have been wondering how Trump has lasted this long. I lean toward the speculation that he voices ("trumpets") anger and outrage, which as we all know, typically operate in a vacuum without the benefit of history, facts, or reason.

But I'm the same: when I feel a sense of outrage or when I feel I've been unjustly treated, I too raise my voice and rev into overdrive, without benefit of calm and reason. After all, isn't  part of our birthright the freedom to speak out against the wrongs we perceive? 

Thankfully, I am not a political leader, and the only ones who hear my rants are my friends and family. That's where it's different with an office holder, and I expect of political leaders the ability to resist pandering to a base emotional frustration, the integrity to deal with history honestly, and the courage to seek and embrace facts that may not support their views.

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Getting the facts straight

It's not always easy to get the facts, no less get them straight. Few of us are engaged in original research, so most of us rely upon other sources for our information, particularly for current news. If you're like me, you don't have to look far before you encounter conflicting reports on a single event, and it's easier sometimes to just throw up my hands and be cynical.

Case in point: the much-mentioned "war on cops" and the frequent conclusion that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is advocating such a war. This time, I didn't throw up my hands; I dug around for some different views, delivered up by various news sources. I've read/watched/listened to numerous articles on this topic, as I'm sure you have.

I wanted to know:

  • Are there groups and citizens advocating attacks on cops?
  • Does Black Lives Matter support this?
  • What incidents/facts are cited to substantiate something as widespread and coordinated as a "war"?
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Mary Neighbour
Very thought-provoking, Jeannette—always a good and welcome thing. Thank you. I’ve seen the video you’re referring to, and the ch... Read More
Wednesday, 11 November 2015 15:43
Mary Neighbour
Hi Ann, and thanks for your comment. Who do you turn to for "ethical and responsible" journalism. I could always use another good ... Read More
Monday, 09 November 2015 19:37
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We are not the same

Blacks and whites in this country live very different lives in many regards. Some aspects of this difference are reported in the news every day. Others barely see the light of day and go unrecognized.

Here's just one example: As a white woman of European descent, I can trace my family history back to the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam. It's really cool to view my ancestors' intersections with important milestones in the country's development. I've learned about geography, history, art, and culture throughout five centuries.

But many—probably the majority—of blacks in America can't do this, and the cause is obvious, even if the effect isn't: centuries of enslavement eradicated family and kinship ties. An enslaved child typically was alienated at birth, without record or documentation, separated from his mother, and often without a father present in his life. Here are just some of the ways slavery could disrupt a black family:

  • Women were raped
  • Women were forced to bear children
  • Marriage was not permitted
  • Adult couples could be sold apart
  • Parents couldn't name their own children
  • Parents might be sold away from their children
  • Children might be sold away from their parents
  • Children might rarely see their parents if they were assigned work in different areas of the plantation
  • The systematic attempts to dehumanize slaves left many so emotionally and physically drained, what an adult could offer a child was diminished
  • If family history was retained, it was shared orally; fewer than 250 slave narratives have ever been published.
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Let's talk

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is doing it. FBI Director James Comey is doing it. President Obama is doing it. Many in communities across the nation are doing it too. So I'm in good company when I say: let's talk about race.

I recently blogged about Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement. Today I read about Holder referring to a 2009 comment he made—that we are a nation of cowards, and he said the country remains afraid of race discussions:

"Talking about racial things, especially given this nation's history when it comes to racial matters, is a very, very difficult thing to do from both sides. We've become quite adept at finding ways not to deal with racial issues, and I think that is to the detriment of our country and our ability to make progress."


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Obama Speaks-Right-On about Black Lives Matter

"[T]here is a specific problem that's happening in the African-American community that's not happening in other communities.… We, as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously."

Barack Obama

I read this quote in Newsweek, which favorably covered President Obama's remarks about the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. The article was cogent and uplifting, plainly stating realities of history, race relations, and current affairs that have been said by others and need to be repeated by those with influence, like Obama. It wasn't, in my opinion, a "roadmap" for Democrats (as the headline suggested), but it was a clear affirmation many could embrace.

And then I read the commentaries. I thought: how does anyone reach people whose views are cast in cement? My first reaction was to shut down my browser, erase the offending page and hateful words. I hesitated.

Are my views equally etched in cement?

Obama went on to recommend that we avoid "the politics" and "just [step] back for a second and understanding that the African-American community is not just making this up."

Step back: What do you know about African Americans? If you descend from Africans, do you know the history of Africans in this country and how they became citizens? If you descend from Europeans, do you know the history of Africans in this country and how they became citizens? If you descend from aboriginal peoples, do you know how your history has intertwined with descendants of Africans and Europeans?

I think most of us don't care about how we all got here, in this place, this time. I think too many of us are focused on what-I-have—materially, historically, and conceptually. I think too many of us never asked or talked, heart-to-heart, with someone on a different side of our conceptual views.

I'll have more to say on this topic. For today, I want to hypothesize what Dred Scott would say. I think he might say, as he did say:

"My ancestors were free people of Africa."

Dred Scott
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Reader Views

By Debra Gaynor 

"Speak Right On" by Mary E. Neighbour is one of the finest books ever written. I must admit that I knew little about Dred Scott. The name was vaguely familiar. Neighbour's does an excellent job of depicting the life of the slave. I was brought to tears as I turned the pages. Dred and his family come to life on the pages of this book and I desperately wanted to know what happened. The slang makes it more authentic but was easy to read. Mary Neighbour's plot flows smoothly; this would make an excellent movie. I would never have guessed that this was her first novel. I believe we will hear a lot more from Neighbour. This is a must read and I'm glad I did. 

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Book Pleasures

By Sue Vogan 

If there ever was a book that explained what it was like to be torn from your birth land, shipped as if you were a piece of lumber and dropped into an unknown world, Mary Neighbour's novel is at the top of the reading list. If there ever was a victim of slavery that could personally convey what it was like being owned, mastered, beaten and sold, you will find the recounting here in the direct and easy tongue of Dred Scott. …

Mary Neighbour captures details that enables the reader to feel the emotions, hear the whip crack, and touch history as if you were there. The history and traditions depicted in Speak Right On are very different than those we learn from American history books. The tale will, if nothing else, open your eyes and perhaps offer a better understanding of what slavery was really like. In that understanding, there can be hope that this history will never again be repeated.


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Front Street Review

By Sabrina Williams 

Mary E. Neighbour has picked up where history leaves off … [with] such a skill for breathing life into characters, the reader sees through the eyes of Dred Scott as if reading from Scott's own journal. Had he been literate, Scott himself could have written the book as an autobiography. It is both a celebration of tradition and family, and an outlet of mourning of lost love and freedom.… 

As the book progresses, the author moves back and forth between Scott's words and the elaboration of a narrator. The two flow so smoothly together the reader really doesn't notice the transition between the two. The reader has no trouble at all deciphering the slang and vernacular that would have been used during the time period. It is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, which shows that Neighbor has proficiently fused them together to create the image of one man's experiences…. 

The reader is not spared from the injustices slaves endured. Brutal beatings, rapes, and torture are woven in to the chapters as they would have been in Scott's daily life. Neighbour provides some relief in the form of Gran, Scott's grounding force and mentor. … 

The reader will be surprised to find this is Neighbour's debut novel, as the writing style is that of an accomplished author with years of experience and published works. Not surprisingly, her short fiction has won numerous awards. In SPEAK RIGHT ON, she has given voice to an inanimate name in the pages of history. Through her words, the reader becomes privy to the thoughts and emotions of an historical icon. History truly comes alive, thanks to Mary E. Neighbour.

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Armchair Reviews

By Julie Failla Earhart 

I give it a "you gotta read this" nod. It's a fine piece of fiction from well-cared-for slaves point of view that is reminiscent of Toni Morrison. . . . Armchair Interviews says, in Gran's words, "A story! A story! Let it go, let it come."

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GoodReads

By Kathryn Atwood 

Armed with a few biographical facts but plenty of Southern (and African) history, Neighbour has sought to flesh out a portrait of the man behind the ruling and in the process has created a powerfully moving portrayal of the psychology of slavery. [Th]e immorality of slavery wasn't about the quality of life, it was about the basic human craving for freedom and it is this point that Neighbour brilliantly illustrates again and again - in often breathtakingly beautiful prose. "Speak Right On" is a work of such power - at once disturbing and uplifting -- that even if you are familiar with the story's outcome, you absolutely won't be able to put it down.

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Financial Times (London)

By John Sutherland 

Four new novels revolve around the American Civil War: The March by E.L. Doctorow, Canaan's Tongue by John Wray, The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant, and Speak Right On by Mary E. Neighbour. Each has a strikingly different take, and each aims to revise or inform received thinking on what the conflict did, or did not do, for the condition of the African-American.… Neighbour's novel purports to be the fictional autobiography of Dred Scott…. [I]n my judgment Neighbour pulls off her portrait of a good, simple, unassuming man who will - for reasons entirely beyond his doing - be forever famous.

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Publisher's Weekly

Neighbour imagines Scott as a small, quick-witted, storytelling man who speaks in wise aphorisms: "When I think on running, it ain't 'cause I see myself as a slave—it's 'cause I see myself as a man." Scott and his wife, Harriet, petition Emerson's widow (née Sanford), for freedom. Denied, the Scotts use the "once free, always free" doctrine (Scott lived in free states with Emerson) to launch his famous court battle, a legal dispute Neighbour treats with conscientious detail.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch

One-fourth biography and three-fourths fiction, Neighbour takes the reader on an incredible journey of dignity, accomplishment, and bonds of the mind, spirit and heart.

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ABA Booklist

By Vanessa Bush 

Dred Scott's legal challenge to slavery, reaching the Supreme Court and prompting the infamous ruling that led to civil war, made him the most famous slave in U.S. history. This novel offers . . . an absorbing look at the relationships—voluntary and involuntary—as well as the nuances of slavery that provoke human emotions from nobility and loyalty to greed and selfishness.

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The Coming of the Civil War: Sean Wilentz Strays Off-Course Here Too

He and his fellow Republicans complained that the court's Dred Scott decision undermined the antislavery aspirations of the Founding Fathers and ...
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The Socialist Review Magazine (London)

By Brian Kelly

Three new novels demonstrate … how different, but more familiar, the early US looks when it is reconfigured with slavery at its centre. In Speak Right On, Mary E. Neighbour builds a poignant, nuanced narrative around the life of Dred Scott…. Following Scott on his forced march across the South, Neighbour illuminates how slavery worked its way into every corner of human relations, constricting the lives of all those it touched … [and] offer[s] powerful renderings of the precariousness of black life in a country committed to slavery … concentrated in the life of Dred Scott.

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Q & A for the media

Q:  So little biographical data for Dred Scott remains—how did you build your story?

A:  What I could learn about Dred Scott, the man, was scant.Scant, but tantalizing. The few news reports about him that were published after the Supreme Court decision were wildly contradictory. I decided to focus on quotes that were attributed to him.Such as:

There is not a drop of the white man's blood in my veins. My ancestors were free people of Africa. …

I responded strongly to the pride and eloquence of this statement, to the solid sense of identity, as well as the implicit sophistication regarding any notions of white superiority. 

Another magnetizing quote, just a fragment, occurred when Dred Scott was asked about Henry and Taylor Blow, the sons of his original slave owner.He referred to the Blow brothers as:

… them boys I was raised with.

I became confused as further research informed me that Dred Scott was considerably older than Henry and Taylor: as much as 15 to 20 years older.Was this phrase a colloquialism? Or did it express an abiding affection and intimacy?

Of course, these two brothers would prove indispensable to Dred Scott's struggle to win his freedom. History is clear about that. They found him lawyers, put up the bond money, helped sustain the Scott family through the tedious years of litigation, and they ultimately were responsible for the manumission of Dred, his wife, and daughters. This relationship between Dred Scott and the family who owned him fascinated me. It became a strong motivation to learn more.

A final quote attributed to Dred Scott sealed my fate as a researcher into the life and times of Dred Scott:

I thought it hard that white men should draw a line of their own on the face of the earth and on one side of which a black man was to become no man at all, and never say a word to the black man about it until they had got him on that side of the line….

I began to "hear" the voice of Dred Scott. He was engaging, a man with a nimble mind and a fluent tongue. Though he was denied an education, he was articulate, even eloquent. Though he was enslaved, his voice reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

And I wondered: what happens to an agile mind that is deprived literacy? What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue? The paradox fascinated me. At first I questioned if he perhaps pretended to be illiterate.Stories exist of slaves who did just that, for fear of punishment. But it was the first quote, the expression of pride in his African ancestors, that swayed me toward believing that his power with words came from his African heritage, from the griot tradition of storytelling and history keeping, and that the power of this legacy lived in Dred Scott independent of both literacy and slavery. The more I explored this rich heritage, the more I understood the roots of much of our current wealth of myth and lore.

It took only one more ingredient to launch me on writing this novel. I read a brief parable, the satchels tale, that became the crucible in which I could mix all the ingredients I had researched, and blend in the many more I would need:

At the beginning of the world god set down two satchels. The white man come along, opened the one, and claimed the paper and pencil. The black man come along, opened the other, and brung up the hoe and reed flute. Some say this explain why the black man be slave to the white man . . .

Q:  What element of history do you think is most relevant today?

A:  There are several, quite different, aspects of the Dred Scott history that remain relevant today:

1 – U.S. slavery ended; racism didn't. Dred Scott struggled to end his enslavement, and in so doing sparked a war to end slavery for all Americans. That's quite a legacy, but racism continues to be an issue for all Americans, whether they're aware of it or not.Each individual needs to become aware and speak out—as Dred Scott did.

2 – The course of the legal controversy in the Dred Scott case demonstrates the wisdom of our Constitution's division of powers, the importance of an independent judiciary, and the dangers when a single political party dominates all three branches of government.

3 – Today some advocate the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which is directly tied to the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which pitched America into bloody Civil War by denying citizenship to Dred Scott and all descendants of Africans. The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 to rectify that injustice by granting citizenship to all persons born on U.S. soil.

Q:  Writers are often extolled to "write what you know"; what did you know about Dred Scott?

A:  In my case, the phrase should be "write what you'd like know/understand"; it was what I didn't know that got me interested in Dred Scott; it was what I couldn't find out that set me to writing about him.

Q:  What was your biggest challenge?

A: From the start, I was apprehensive about crossing racial and gender boundaries to create a persona for Dred Scott. The controversy that confronted William Styron with his Confessions of Nat Turner, literally gave me sleepless nights.

In Playing in the Dark, Morrison writes: "The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious.It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity."

While this may be true of writing in general and the fabrication of any persona, I think it is especially true for me, a white woman, fabricating a persona of an enslaved black man. At the outset, I expected to write a dark story, an expression of my often bleak view of humanity and of a universe that seems to insist on demonstrating human insignificance and meaninglessness. I expected to wind up with a story about our human inability to control our aggression and greed; about how trauma isolates the individual and makes real relationship and communication impossible; how difficult it is for any individual to rise above the constant message, "you're worthless." What system better represents all these dark forces than slavery?

So I was truly astonished to wind up with a hero in Dred Scott: someone who struggled out from under imposed obscurity to find meaning and possibilities. For me, my character's triumph was not so much securing his and his family's freedom—rather, it was his success in managing to define himself and declare his truth and his reality to a world that was largely indifferent at best, antagonistic/murderous at worst.Hence, the Nigerian proverb:

A chicken says why she is crying is not for the kite carrying her to leave her, but for others to hear her voice.

Storytelling is on the surface and at the heart of this book, crystallized in the notion of stories having two sides: "upriver and downriver." 

Q:  Explain this concept and why it was important to you.

A:  I became fascinated by the idea that Dred Scott was an articulately powerful person—after all, his voice reached the US Supreme Court—yet he clearly was denied literacy.What happens to someone like that?

At first, I imagined how he suffered; then I became much more interested in seeing how he succeeded, and I believed that he plausibly could have derived much of that verbal power and ability from African oral traditions of storytelling and history keeping. ["My ancestors were free Africans…"]

So I researched anthologies of African folklore and mythology which had been derived from oral tradition; and I came to resent how these styles are often unfairly assigned a "second-class" status compared to written literary styles; I wanted to work against that bias in the novel.

Q:  Many writers shy away from using dialect; why did you choose it?

A:  I needed to hear him, his voice, and that's how I heard him; I'm sure I was influenced by reading so many slave narratives that were set down in dialect, and then that became a curiosity itself:did the person really speak that way? How much of what was transcribed was influenced by the stereotypes of the transcriber or of the culture of that time?

Language was a very crucial part of what I wanted to address; not head-on, but insidiously: how we speak doesn't always represent who we are, but it usually represents who we want others to think we are; this was particularly a conscious process for many slaves, who often hid their true personalities to protect themselves

For myself, I'm often frustrated by my inability to find words that strike the right tone and meaning. I sometimes become self-conscious that I sound very academic; but I also know that I "wear" the academic style because I typically don't want to be vulnerable emotionally. But then there are times when I'll unconsciously slide into an accent if I'm around someone talking that way, and if I trust that person and I'm not feeling self-protective;there were many times after writing in Dred's voice that I came away from my desk talking like him—in ways, at certain times, that feels more genuine than the academic voice. 

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Cover image for Speak Right On

This is the working cover design; a final, downloadable cover image will be coming soon . . . 

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