Image: Mary E. Neighbour, author of Speak Right On
Photo credit: Andrew Neighbour
My interest in Dred Scott began in 1997, when I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with my husband (and our dog and cat).As I visited the local historical sites, Dred Scott's name appeared often, yet the information overwhelming addressed legal matters—and I wanted to know more about the character of the man who had triggered an infamous Supreme Court decision and pitched the country into civil war.
Frustratingly, 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, occurs when Dred Scott referred to 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: as much as 15 years older than these boys.Was his phrase a colloquialism?Or did it represent affection and intimacy?
Of course, these two brothers would prove indispensable in his 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.
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—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 deprived an education, he was articulate, even eloquent.Though he was enslaved, his voice reached the US Supreme Court.
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 wondered if he 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 the more I explored this rich legacy, the more I understood the roots of much of our current wealth of myth and lore, and the more I began to resent those who would rate oral traditions below written traditions.
It took only one more ingredient to launch me on writing this novel.I read a brief parable, the satchels tale, and it 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. . . .
When you grow up with the surname Edsell, you learn to have a sense of humor. I like to joke that I came out the same year as the beleaguered car.
I've always loved to read, and I studied literature and creative writing in college and psychoanalytic psychotherapy after that, doing a short stint as a therapist before returning to writing. I wrote in technical fields until 1994, when I began my own business: interviewing individuals and writing their memoirs, family histories, and organizational histories.Having authored two dozen such books, I developed an ear for first-person narrative and an abiding interest in depicting the fully-lived experiences of a past era that remain relevant today.
Prior to Speak Right On, I wrote poems, short stories, and—always—a private journal.My short fiction has won awards and been recognized by the Sacramento Public Library, ByLine Magazine, the Mid-American Review, the Alligator Juniper magazine, as well as the Whidbey Island Writers' Association. My story "Gray" won the 2009 William Van Wert Short Fiction Award.
Speak Right On is my first and only novel. The Pacific Northwest Writers' Association honored it in 2004 for being among the best unpublished first novels. In 2006 it found an enthusiastic publisher in Matthew Miller, of The Toby Press (now Koren Publishers, Jerusalem). The novel and my writing received a good deal of praise from major review publications as well as individual readers. In 2008, rights reverted back to me.
In the nearly ten years since Speak Right On was published, I have watched silently as society challenges the civil rights gains of the mid-twentieth century. And I do believe the maxim, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. I need to take my own advice and speak out.
There is much in Speak Right On that touches upon this country's racial strife, so I am re-releasing it, hoping to have many honest, respectful conversations about the divide between white and black. With a new foreword by Lynne Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Harriet and Dred Scott—who also has much to contribute to this national dialogue—I am emboldened to ask others what they are thinking, what they are feeling.
A book doesn't usually do that; it's usually a one-sided affair, with only authors revealing their thoughts and feelings. The airing of readers' reactions typically is left to book groups. But not now—now I want to hear what you have to say. In my blog I will use Speak Right On as a springboard and reference point, but you don't need to read my book to join the conversation. Just speak right on, from the heart.
I have been married since 1991. Andrew, my husband, is a scientist and now retired university administrator, currently working as a painter, photographer, and videographer.I have no children, though I am fortunate to include Andrew's daughter Hannah as one of my closest relationships.I work at home in Santa Fe, and I love words and books almost as much as I love our little family: cats Scout and Jem (named for the characters in my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird) and dogs Max and Honey (who named themselves).
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A selection of websites containing information about the Dred Scott Case
1.Video overview of Dred Scott v. John Sanford
2.National Archives and Records Administration
3.Facts and images compiled by Washington University in St. Louis
4.Facts compiled by the National Parks Service
5.The Library of Congress, multiple pages of related information:
A selection of articles about the Dred Scott Case
Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote a letter to Caleb Cushing on November 9, 1857, thanking Cushing for his support of Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case.
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.
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
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.
I recommend this interview to all who want to understand some cultural perspectives on using the n-word. Armour also advocates feeling uncomfortable about these issues. I agree: we need to grapple with what makes us uncomfortable. Our unease works like a wall, keeping us separate from what is different.
Armour: As the US Supreme Court said in the Dred Scott decision, “Blacks have no rights that a white man has to respect.” It continued into Jim Crow, and then ...
If you're like me, you read about subjects from various sources. I've read numerous articles over recent months about how the Obergefell decision is like the Dred Scott decision. In many of the articles, the authors quote Lincoln and the Supreme Court and legal opinions from the day and legal opinions from today . . . and without researching all those quotes, all I can know is that all of these authors can't be correct.
I do know, from my own research on Dred Scott and his times, that to equate Obergefell to Dred Scott is to express ignorance about the issues represented by these cases. And now, from an excellent article by Corey Robin, I understand more about the nuances of some of those Lincoln's quotes.
Read the article and let me know what you think.
I'm wondering how many whites reading this article will stop and reflect, trying to imagine what it would be like if we were surrounded each day by people of a different skin color--a people, taken as a whole, with a long history of hating us and killing us because of our skin color?
This article expresses the wonder of black men united, surrounded by other black men, expressing joy in being together. Let it affect you . . .