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. . . .