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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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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 It was withdrawn and tabled after opposition from two state representatives.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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  2 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
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  5 Comments

Not so silent night

The lovely story of "Silent Night" is that the world changed—was saved—by the birth of Christ during a silent and holy night. Millions have been soothed and reassured by the carol's peaceful, hopeful message and harmonies.

But isn't it interesting that in order for the song to have effect, voices must be raised—silence must be disturbed?

Continue reading
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