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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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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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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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