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Memory business

My husband is making a documentary film about an American family and their "memory business"—for 65 years they helped communities with all aspects of photography. Sadly, actual film photography is a dying business. People today "snap" photos and roll film with their phones, and few of those gazillion pixels are even being printed anymore.

A prominent theme of this documentary is survival. The family came to the U.S. in 1939, fleeing the Nazi infiltration of Austria. As the now-deceased matriarch of the family recalled on film her experience of Vienna during the Anschluss, I felt extreme anxiety because, ever since I was old enough to understand the Holocaust, I have always believed it could happen here. And this survivor's description of Vienna under Hitler matches too closely our new political landscape. Chiefly:

"Well, I thought that the good old Viennese, they go with the wind, you know? They're typical for that, Viennese—they will do anything. When they can better their lifestyle, they will do it."

Our human capacity to turn a blind eye to others' suffering while focusing on our own aggrandizement is precisely why Holocaust-like crimes can and do persist. And now, with the Trump presidency, our democracy is vulnerable to being swept up in fascism or autocracy, systems where individual human life and rights don't matter.

Cornel West has long decried American neo-liberalism and squarely blames the Democratic Party for our current political chaos:

"The abysmal failure of the Democratic party to speak to the arrested mobility and escalating poverty of working people unleashed a hate-filled populism and protectionism that threaten to tear apart the fragile fiber of what is left of US democracy."

I have contributed to that failure. I have not demanded that my elected officials wrestle with unequal education, unequal healthcare, unequal pay, unequal opportunity. Thankfully, it's not too late to start, and I will be joining throngs of other protestors. I have felt tremendously uplifted and inspired to see the millions around the globe who have protested the Trump presidency and its policies.

In answer to the question—what is to be done?—Dr. West replies, "First, we must tell the truth." He adds that:

"Trump's neofascist rhetoric and predictable authoritarian reign is just another ugly moment that calls forth the best of who we are and what we can do."

We are all in the "memory business." We cannot forget our unifying principles. The realities of today will be the memories of tomorrow. Let us all actively be our best and do our best. 

For those of you in New Mexico, here are the names and numbers of those you need to call to make your voice heard:

Senator Tom Udall (D): Online comments or call (202) 224-6621.

Senator Martin Heinrich (D): Online comments or call at (202) 224-5521.

Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), District 1: Online comments or call at: (202) 225-6316.

Representative Steve Pearce (R), District 2: Online comments or call at 202-225-2365.

Representative Ben Ray Lujan (D), District 3: Online comments or call at (202) 225-6190.

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Power to the people

Late one night, when I was fifteen, I was driven home by the father of the children I had been babysitting. He was a very tall, broad-built man who was deaf, and we were silent on the short, two-mile drive. As we bumped over the railroad tracks and through the town's main intersection, the flashing red stoplight illuminated a group of young men by the side of the road beating, kicking, and punching another young man. Horrified, I turned to this father of three young children. His foot on the gas pedal pressed down just a bit harder, and I understood that he was pretending not to see.

* * *

In the wake of increasing harassment and abuse—perpetrated by people filled with hate (and/or terror, as Toni Morrison sees it)—against non-whites and non-Christians, I am steeling myself to defend my values. I have an uneasy sense that I will be put to the test. 

Will I stand up for what I believe in? Or will I speed on by, pretending not to see?

I don't have a great track record. I watched the civil rights movement of the 1960s unfold on television, though I had an excuse for not being a freedom rider: my age was in the single digits. But what about Vietnam? I didn't protest. What about the women's movement? I didn't speak out. I was a pretty self-absorbed teenager, and before I let myself off the hook for being a "typical teenager," let's all remember the thousands of teens who do become activists.

Today, I'm middle-aged and comfortable. I vote, I sign petitions. I speak out, mainly to like-minded people, about the things I value that are being perverted: free speech by hate speech; peace by brutality; multi-culturalism by fascism; and education by willful ignorance.

Our president-elect is like a Pandora's box, out of which many harms are flowing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 867 hate incidents in the ten days following Trump's win as president-elect. Newly painted swastikas soil high schools, churches, subways, and people's homes. 

The 100+ daily incidents in the three days immediately following the election support the notion that haters are emboldened by Trump. I'm hoping that the decline shown in this graph continues, but what if it doesn't? What will I do when confronted with hate and brutality? Will I pretend not to see?

A friend recently introduced me to the term "collective complicity" and the idea that if we do not stand against injustice then we are complicit. Similarly, this is expressed by the slogan, silence = violence. I have always believed this to be true, even in times when I failed to stand up for my values and fell into being complicit. When I rode past the scene of a young man being beaten, I felt—and I was—complicit. What should we have done? Yes, yes, a grown man responsible for a fifteen-year-old shouldn't entangle her in violence. And yet--

What might we have done if we hadn't dismissed the possibility of intervening? If we had taken time to consider our options, we might have realized that a car is a pretty powerful thing. I bet if we had just turned around, locked our doors, trained the car's headlights on that gang, and blared the horn, we would have ended the beating.

For me, this is the crux of the matter: will I have the courage of my convictions? I hope so, but I have doubts. I don't know how strong my spine is—I haven't put it to the test.

Well, as with any test, one needs to prepare. 

As unsavory as it is, preparing oneself to put oneself at risk seems like a timely idea. So to bolster my confidence and strengthen my spine, I am going to prepare to be prepared. And in case you, too, are having similar doubts, here are a few suggestions, courtesy of Hollaback!, as reported by Anna North of the New York Times. (Hollaback, whose purpose is ending street harassment, teaches anti-harassment activisim.)

Imagine being in a supermarket, and a white man is leveling insults at a woman wearing a hijab.

Option 1. I could intervene by addressing the white man, attempting to make him stop. Some people might carry this off, but I don't think I'm one of them. My fear and anxiety likely would just throw fuel on the fire.

Option 2. Instead, I could try ways of removing the oxygen from the flame, like talking to the Muslim woman and ignoring the harasser. I could ask her if she would like help. I could ask for the time of day, just to create a diversion.

Taking the focus off of the harasser can make him or her retreat. In addition, approaching the person being harassed gives that person control over the situation — he or she can choose to accept or decline your help or ask you to do something specific. If you don't talk to the person experiencing harassment, you may not know what, if anything, he or she needs from you.

Hollaback!

Option 3. Seek someone else's help—a clerk, a bystander, the store manager, or as many others as you can find—to create strength in numbers.

Option 4. Sometimes the harm is so fleeting, like a sniper attack, that the harasser is out of the picture before anyone can do anything. In such instances, I can still take a stand against the offender by offering to help. I can be a witness. I can affirm that the abuse was unjust and wrong. I can console and even help the Muslim woman feel safe by offering to walk with her to her car.

***

In broad daylight in Central Park, when I was about twenty-one, a man grabbed my breast. My knee-jerk reaction? I chased him for half a mile—I was in good shape, I was strong, I was outraged. I didn't catch him and I don't know what I would have done if I had, but the natural power that I possess kicked in, and it felt right. When I stopped chasing him, I called after his retreating back: "Run, chicken, run!"

I do have power; each of us does. Let's prepare to use it for good.

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"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." Marie Curie

Many people have written about the presidential election results. In lieu of repeating here ideas that surely someone, somewhere has already expressed, I'm going to share a bunch quotes—cherry-picked, because I want to put my energy into constructive statements of compassion and real possibilities of change. And I want to give my gratitude to my husband, Andrew Neighbour, who endlessly brings beauty into my life, especially through his photographs.

Hannah Neighbour

FaceBook post, November 9, 2016

It's been a hard day. A surreal day. There's an energy in NYC that, to me, feels reminiscent of some time after 9/11 when I very first moved here. There's a sense of shock and defeat but also a connectedness. I saw a lot of kindness today and a sense of shared experience. I feel lucky to have been in NYC on this day. I myself was kinder, gentler today. . . . This is an opportunity to trust my fellow human beings and my adult self instead. This is a chance to become more deeply grounded in my own inner authority because the authority in power does not feel like my authority.

This image is courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

Rheanni Lightwater

Mind Exercises (newsletter)

The truth is, thoughts are only concepts and have no power unless we give it to them. So, in the simplest terms, whenever we try to fight, control, or sweep negative thoughts under the carpet, we are actually causing ourselves more suffering. . . . we actually limit ourselves and stay locked into the past. Our decisions and projections become fixated and immovable. This preoccupation with how real we think our thoughts are, actually cause us to miss opportunities to be present and happy.

Louis C.K.

Live performance at the 10th annual Bob Woodruff Foundation benefit for veterans, reported in The New Yorker by Sara Lawson, November 6, 2016

There's no greater contribution you could make than to be a public-school teacher. . . . What we need you to do is make children know math. Wow. Do they want to know math? They don't want to know it. You make them know it against their will.

Garrison Keillor

Reported in The Daily Kos, by Leslie Salzillo, November 10, 2016

Back to real life. I went up to my home town the other day and ran into my gym teacher, Stan Nelson, looking good at 96. He commanded a landing craft at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and never said a word about it back then, just made us do chin-ups whether we wanted to or not. I saw my biology teacher Lyle Bradley, a Marine pilot in the Korean War, still going bird-watching in his 90s. I was not a good student then, but I am studying both of them now. They have seen it all and are still optimistic.

Aaron Sorkin

A statement to his fifteen-year-old daughter, published in Vanity Fair, November 9, 2016

The battle isn't over, it's just begun. Grandpa fought in World War II and when he came home this country handed him an opportunity to make a great life for his family. I will not hand his granddaughter a country shaped by hateful and stupid men. Your tears last night woke me up, and I'll never go to sleep on you again.

David Brooks

The New York Times columnist, November 11, 2016

The job for the rest of us is to rebind the fabric of society, community by community, and to construct a political movement for the post-Trump era. . . . I've been thinking we need a third party that is social/open. This compassionate globalist party would support the free trade and skilled immigration that fuel growth. But it would also flood the zone for those challenged in the high-skill global economy — offering programs to rebuild community, foster economic security and boost mobility. It would integrate the white working class and minority groups by emphasizing that we are all part of a single American idea.

Master Mingtong Gu

Shared in an email from the Chi Center, November 11, 2016

This current, collective experience is not just about one person or party or this moment in history. It is about many things, including the opportunity we have right now for individuals and humanity to come together, learning and healing our longstanding discord and misunderstandings, together.


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Proverbs are not always right

The young cannot teach tradition to the old.

Yoruba proverb

Hmmm. The proverb seems reasonable, but the times they are a-changin'. 

Tradition is not always right. Traditions of greed, war, guns, hatred, and brutality have not left us, collectively, in a good place. 

I'm excited and hopeful when I read about millennials supporting Bernie, youth protesting the treatment of blacks by police, young people all over the globe who are less isolated within their own heritage and more representative of a confluence of cultures. I'm feeling old myself these days. Time is in short commodity. But I do take heart from the young. I think they have much to teach us about both tradition and change.

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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 new review of Speak Right On

I feel proud to share with you all a new review of my book, from a well-respected industry publication, the Midwest Book Review:

"A deftly crafted work by an impressively talented writer, Mary Neighbour's Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred Scott is an inherently fascinating read that is as thoughtful and thought-provoking as it is fully absorbing and illustrative of one man's struggle to be perceived as a human being with all the rights and responsibilities that slavery would deny him and all who were like him. A fact-based work of historical fiction, Speak Right On is very highly recommended for both community and academic library American Fiction collections. It should be noted for personal reading lists that Speak Right On is also available in a paperback edition and in a Kindle format." -Mary Cowper, MBR Bookwatch: February 2016

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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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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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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 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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Author Photo

Image: Mary E. Neighbour, author of Speak Right On

Photo credit: Andrew Neighbour

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How I Became Interested in Dred Scott

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. . . .

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About the Author

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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Learn More: Links & Resources

[Please let us know if a link is not working--just use the contact tab to send an email. Thank you!]

A selection of websites containing information about the Dred Scott Case 

1.Video overview of Dred Scott v. John Sanford

http://www.c-span.org/video/?327711-1/supreme-court-landmark-case-dred-scott-v-sandford

2.National Archives and Records Administration

Our Documents, Dred Scott v. Sanford

3.Facts and images compiled by Washington University in St. Louis

The Dred Scott Case

4.Facts compiled by the National Parks Service

The Dred Scott Case

5.The Library of Congress, multiple pages of related information: 

A selection of articles about the Dred Scott Case

  • Article re: the relevance of the Dred Scott case to today's cultural and political discussions

http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2015/10/dred-scott-decision-still-resonates-today-2/

  • Article from Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society

Landmark Cases, Dred Scott v. Sandford,

  • Findlaw's article and links

Landmark Decisions, Scott v. Sandford,

  • New-York Daily Tribune. (New York, New York), March 9, 1857

The Dred Scott Case

  • Anti-Slavery Bugle. (New Lisbon, Ohio), March 21, 1857

The Decision of the Supreme Court

  • Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio), April 16, 1857

The Original Dred Scott a Resident of St. Louis--Sketch of His History

  • The following collection presents 396 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1822 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics.

The slavery question. Dred Scott decision : to the free voters of Ohio.

  • In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff has selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

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.

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