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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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  2 Comments

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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  2 Comments

I'm discouraged

That whites and blacks have vastly different cultural experiences of being American is well established, with blacks generally getting the worst of the bargain. Significantly, our differences remain caged off. Opportunities for experiencing anything outside the cage are locked away, precisely because we are all conditioned to react to skin color; we can't not react to this otherwise meaningless factor.

In this blog, I have tried various approaches to stimulating conversations on race, looking for keys that will open our cages. Starting with Speak Right On, I've tried to point out how Dred Scott remains relevant today, and why.

I have posted comments to online articles and then reported on those "conversations"—a nice word for what amounts to, in most cases, people barking from behind a metal grill that blocks broader perceptions and understanding (me included).

I have reiterated news reports and statistics, because we need to know the facts before we engage in meaningful talk.

And I have tried to understand some of the emotional and psychological underpinnings of what works and what doesn't.

But I get discouraged. News on this topic is typically depressing, horrifying—and it's overwhelming in its frequency and magnitude.

In any given week, I read articles from a variety of sources that report (progressively and conservatively) on racial issues. I watch documentaries and "town hall" meetings when they're aired. I buy books, like Keeanga-Tamahtta Taylor's From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (which I recommend). And I often have discussions with others in my personal circle.

This week, I watched President Obama on ABC answering questions directly pertaining to recent killings of black citizens and white police officers. He seemed a bit overwhelmed himself. I guess he was trying to be balanced, trying to avoid stoking emotions that are tender and volatile. But he seemed vague and evasive, and I felt disappointed by the absence of two things I've often admired in him—leadership and inspiration.

I'm left feeling, today, at this point in time, that maybe words and talking just aren't a strong enough tool for the job. Worse, I don't know that there is a tool that can do the job of creating more unity and less divisiveness when it comes to race.

Thankfully, I'm pretty confident this mood will lift; I've been down this rabbit hole before. 

Part of me realizes that this bleak perspective also belongs to the conversation. . . .

And as soon as I accept this thought and this feeling, room is made for more creative thoughts: imagine how often black people have felt this way, exhausted from the effort of trying to make the world accept that they matter?

I mean it: try to imagine just that. 

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Ah, the support and the wisdom of the Dalai Lama are very uplifting. I am grateful. And this morning, like a prairie dog, I am pok... Read More
Sunday, 17 July 2016 16:51
Mary Neighbour
Hi Jeannette, I just went to the Journal's website and read that article you mentioned. Thanks for sharing that. I respect the per... Read More
Sunday, 17 July 2016 19:47
Mary Neighbour
Oh my, Jan, you raise a number of good points. It is heartening to learn how others deal with racism constructively. And you're ri... Read More
Sunday, 17 July 2016 20:43
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  6 Comments

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
  3708 Hits
  5 Comments

Aggrieved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today?

Hardly a day goes by without someone invoking the name of Dred Scott. Take a look at the news feed scrolling at the top of this blog page, and you'll notice that people of all stripes and beliefs use his name in a host of social justice issues, from abortion to incarceration, from citizenship to marriage equality, from Black Lives Matter to judicial overreach. 

Dred Scott's name is tossed about so frequently that I'd like to state some facts. Dred Scott was

  • a 19th-century American, born into slavery in Virginia
  • held as the slave of Peter Blow until 1832, then held in slavery by John Emerson
  • held as the slave of Emerson's widow, Irene, all through the historic court case, Dred Scott v. John Sanford, which ultimately reached the US Supreme Court
  • officially declared by the Supreme Court to be a slave without any rights of citizenship

Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today? Excuse my cynicism, but I believe the answer lies with our typical ignorance of our own history. When I moved in 1996 to St. Louis—where Dred Scott's legal case began—I saw a plaque in the pavement dedicated to Dred and Harriet Scott. I recognized the names, but I couldn't remember whether they had won or lost that case, and I guessed wrong. Having talked to others through the years, I know my failure is shared by many.

Within a few months, I was learning more history at the Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, where I read that the sons of Peter Blow manumitted Dred Scott after the Supreme Court decision declared him a piece of property. Intrigued, I embarked on a fruitless search for a biography on Dred Scott.

Within another few months, I was standing in the rotunda of the Old St. Louis Courthouse, where papers in the case were first filed on April 6, 1846. The courthouse is now a National Parks museum, and a ranger held up a single sheet of paper with print on both sides—perhaps five hundred words, at most. She said, "This is all that is known about Dred Scott."

You could have knocked me over with that sheet of paper.

I spent the next three years researching everything I could find about Dred Scott, including contacting his descendants who lived in the St. Louis vicinity. Of course, there was nothing I uncovered that would extend that single-sheet biography, but the Dred Scott story—the Dred Scott mystery—wholly captivated me.

In this blog I will share what I learned. And I will comment on current news items relating to Dred Scott from the perspective that he remains relevant today as an enduring symbol of social injustice and racial discrimination.

I think it's important that we find some way in this country to have reasoned, respectful conversations about race and politics.

Please comment on this blog—I'd like to know your thoughts. 

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Jeannette, your comment is much appreciated. It is the daily headlines that have prompted me to write this blog. I hope you'll com... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:08
Mary Neighbour
Hi Claudia - I watched the "60 Minutes" piece just last night (I taped it). My impression is that your recall is not faulty but th... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:15
Mary Neighbour
Welcome, back, Jeannette. Adding your voice and your awareness to these issues is, I believe, crucial to the journey we are all on... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:12
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