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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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Reader, beware!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Martin Luther King Jr.
Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
It takes more work to be informed and check for reliability, but as you say, with increasing bias it becomes more important than ... Read More
Sunday, 27 November 2016 22:34
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Don't be afraid

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

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

Source: Report for-change-psr2016 from sistersincrime

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

The introduction to the report begins:

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

Sisters in Crime

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

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

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

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

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

Take courage, speak right on.

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Jeannette, I share your dismay. I am reminded of the Jewish entreaty: Never Forget. This phrase reflects the atrocities of the Hol... Read More
Tuesday, 16 August 2016 05:02
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Slave patrols and modern police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Hi Jeannette - I'm really glad this phrase/idea struck a chord with you, because it's not something I hear much about in discussio... Read More
Monday, 01 August 2016 13:44
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What might Dred say?

Dred Scott has been mentioned in the news again, in connection to the Louisiana legislature last month. A bill introduced by state Rep. Valarie Hodges (R) would have required school students to recite a passage from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on a daily basis. It was withdrawn and tabled after opposition from two state representatives.

I was curious to know who objected to the words all men are created equal—and why. The leading voice of dissent was Rep. Barbara Norton (D), and I had to read several reports before finding some answers to my questions.

First I read a Forbes article, which laid out the who, what, where, and when—but not the why. As quoted, Norton's complaint and argument were hard to understand:

One thing I do know is, all men are not created equal. . . . When I think back in 1776, July the 4th, African-Americans were slaves, and for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think is a little bit unfair to us to ask those children to recite something that's not the truth.

Barbara Norton

The Declaration of Independence is not the truth? Surely a state representative knows the difference between an ideal and a reality—right? Possibly, I thought, her real intent was obscured by her confusing syntax and weak delivery.

Clicking on links within the article, I learned more at the website of the Independent Journal, which added this part of Norton's argument:

In 1776, Dr. King was not even born. African-Americans were in slavery, so since they were in slavery, the Declaration of Independence say we are 'all created equal,' we were not created equal because in 1776, July the 4th, I nor you nor any of us were born, nor was Dr. King born, so we were in slavery, and to have our children repeat again and again documents that were not even validated, I don't think that that's fair.

Barbara Norton

This was singularly unenlightening, only adding to my confusion. What had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to do with this? I later learned that Rep. Hodges had invoked Dr. King's praise of the Declaration of Independence, but still, it's unclear why his birth is tangled up with 18th-century slavery. Besides, being enslaved doesn't establish that we aren't created equally, just that we aren't treated equally. And documents not being validated—what does that mean?

I was leaning toward the conclusion that Rep. Norton lacked the ability to make a cogent argument; whether or not she actually had one still intrigued me. It seemed plausible that the reporting on Norton's argument was biased, especially since the article's wrap-up merely added a vague and belligerent call to action, quoting from "Fox and Friends":

For her [Norton] to be attacking the Declaration of Independence, that is attacking liberty, that is attacking freedom. People should not let her get away with this.

Deneen Borelli
Deneen Borelli

This notion that we cannot criticize our Constitution or government without being unpatriotic is another red herring, adding nothing but vitriol.

Still seeking clarification about Norton's position on this matter, I wound up at the Breitbart website, whose article interpreted Norton's statements as an argument "that school children should not be required to recite words that were written during a time in history when slavery was prevalent." That's clear, but I'm not sure that's what the Representative was actually saying, or trying to say. If indeed that was part of her argument, why didn't someone point out the illogic of abandoning ideals simply because we fail to live up to them?

Illumination was finally shed by Rep. Pat Smith (D), who sided with Norton and described how the Declaration of Independence was used against millions of black citizens in so-called "voter eligibility" tests:

They [blacks registering to vote] had to recite this [the Declaration] at a poll place in order to be able to vote. That was unconscionable that individuals could not vote without having to repeat parts of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. That was a requirement by the southern states. It was used against them.

Pat Smith

Now, that's an argument I can make sense of. Up until reading this paragraph, I was not taking into account this unsavory piece of our history. But I could see Rep. Smith's point, that for some people, reciting the Declaration of Independence carried this taint from a time in history when the words of the Declaration were used to disenfranchise citizens. Moreover, I read on at The Times Picayune and learned that Norton offered an amendment to this bill that proposed students recite instead from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship and equal protection to those born in this country—a seemingly reasonable and justifiable alternative.

Yet Rep. Hodges chose to withdraw the bill and table it, without hearing argument on Rep. Norton's amendment (or anyone else's). So my final question became: are these people who are interested in educating students in history and civics, or are they using the education of children for a perverted aim?

This episode is a terrible example of democracy in action, reflecting badly on our elected representatives and our journalists. Maybe I shouldn't be spending time trying to parse this poorly argued debate, but I'm motivated by something disturbing: the prevalence of rhetoric that is purely reactionary, steeped in ignorance, expressed in politics, with real consequences that are usually detrimental to citizens.

The take-away lesson for me is that we Americans need better education. We need to learn to think more comprehensively and critically, and we need to learn to articulate our positions in a clear and unambiguous manner. 

We don't need to be eloquent; we just need to be honest. As Dred Scott said in Speak Right On

Sure 'nough, freedom's skinny. Skinny and sickly and weak. But I reckon there may yet be ways to feed it and fatten it and make it grow strong.

Dred Scott, Speak Right On (p. 230)
Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Hi Jeannette, Thanks for taking my call to action seriously. I am certain that you do all you can to fatten equality, freedom, an... Read More
Sunday, 03 July 2016 20:17
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More thoughts on empathy

Xray of bound feet (Wikimedia Commons)

Warning: empathy is not for the squeamish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

  • How would you conceal who you are?

  • Where would you turn to satisfy your innate curiosity and unbidden, forbidden insights?
  • What happens to an agile mind that is deprived of literacy?
  • What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue?
Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Jan, your comment demonstrates why it's important to exercise the empathy muscle, despite our own discomfort: we can make things b... Read More
Monday, 28 March 2016 15:21
Mary Neighbour
I heard a disturbing story the other day, about a family in a restaurant. There were two small boys--one was "beautiful" and the o... Read More
Wednesday, 30 March 2016 15:21
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  5 Comments

Can we empathize with slaves?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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. 

Recent Comments
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
  4503 Hits
  2 Comments

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"?
Continue reading
Recent Comments
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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  4 Comments

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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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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