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Burn down the icons

Prison-wall art: NM State Penitentiary

We humans create icons in many ways, representing numerous and varied ideals. In its strictest sense, an icon is a depiction of Jesus or Mary or other Christian figures. Broadly, however, we use the word to refer to someone or something that is a symbol of what is valued morally, culturally, and historically.

Dred Scott has been called an icon of American history, and I understand this to mean he is emblematic of a particular chapter of our history—namely, enslaved people's struggle for freedom. Without having to be told, we understand that he is not a symbol of all US history, just what is reflected from his life upon our history.

In contrast, Chief Justice Taney, who ruled against Dred Scott and declared that descendants of Africans were "so far inferior [to descendants of Europeans, i.e., white Americans] that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," is not often referred to as an icon. His 1857 opinion—and its consequences—are almost unanimously reviled today. Nevertheless, there exists a large, prominently situated statue of him in front of the State House in Annapolis, Maryland.(Taney was born and raised in Maryland.)

The removal of Taney's statue is being debated, much as many other national symbols of slavery are being contested—such as flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State House. The objection to the Taney statue rests on the question: why should Maryland and the nation memorialize a man whose Supreme Court decision upheld slavery? While scholars have pointed to other, admirable judicial accomplishments of the man, it remains true that he is remembered only for the 1857 decision in Scott v. Sanford.

So how do we answer the question surrounding his statue?

In a guest column for the Annapolis Gazette (March 7, 2016), Joe Slaughter wrote about the circumstances in 1872 giving rise to the statue:

It was the height of Reconstruction, as Americans fought (literally) over the integration of newly freed slaves and previously free persons of color into the American polity. Just months after Maryland dedicated Taney's statue, 105 African-Americans and three white Americans died in the infamous Colfax Massacre, when white vigilante Democrats attacked black Republican freedmen and militia over the results of a contested election in Grant Parish, Louisiana.

Noted historian of the 19th century Eric Foner considers Colfax the "bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era" (and there were many to choose from during Reconstruction). Within this context, Maryland was making a clear political statement about the project of racial integration by choosing to memorialize the chief justice of Dred Scott in front of the seat of state authority. (Emphasis mine.)

​Joe Slaughter
Roger B. Taney

Knowing the historical context of the erection of the statue would lead a reasonable person to conclude, as did Slaughter, that the Taney memorial was emblematic of Maryland's adherence to slavery and its racial prejudices. What is commemorated is racism. This is the argument of those who favor removing the statue.
And now the debate gets heated:


    • removing the statue is "white-washing" history
    • keeping the statue is paying tribute to a lie, i.e., that Taney was a man to be esteemed, a fine representative of 19th-century Maryland
    • all who have made history have their flaws
    • yes, but we don't venerate their immorality
    • slavery is a thing of the past; no one reasonably believes the statue represents a call to revive it
    • slavery's consequences are still very much with us, and they need to be understood and discussed
    • making this about slavery ignores the other, proud aspects of Southern culture
    • etc.

A compromise position is reported in another interesting column in the Annapolis Gazette (March 4, 2016), by Phil Davis. Annapolis architect Chip Bohl proposes keeping the Taney statue and erecting a new statue of Frederick Douglass (another Maryland son). Douglass, of course, was an enslaved black man who escaped slavery and became an icon of abolitionism. (Watch a brief video of his concept.)

Stained glass window: NM State Penitentiary

This third argument champions education: Understanding what we are ashamed of and what we are proud of. Learning what really happened and who stood for what. Weighing the historical perspective of yesterday and of today. Let it all hang out.


I favor the compromise position, except—and many of you who know me will anticipate where I'm headed—why not erect a statue of Dred Scott opposite to and in opposition of Taney? Scott, too, is emblematic of the struggle against slavery, and he's been overshadowed and all but lost to history because Taney declared him a piece of property. There would be poetic justice in having them square off again.


Speaking of poetry, there is an unyet extinguished corner of idealism in me, which whispers: beyond teaching history, let's find ways to teach unity, respect, justice, and peace. One of my favorite collections of poetry from my college years was Grace Schulman's Burn Down the Icons:

. . . Unsanctify me.
Erase my feast day from the calendar.
Shatter the stained-glass windows of my mind.

Grace Schulman (1976)
More thoughts on empathy
Sold down the river

Comments 2

 
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Monday, 11 April 2016 19:17

I favor the compromise position and support your idea of erecting a statue of Dred Scott opposite to and in opposition of Taney. Furthermore, I think education is very important--from grade school through college and even more so beyond. I appreciate how through Mary's efforts this website does such a good job of educating each of us about this ongoing dilemma. Keep up the good work!!

I favor the compromise position and support your idea of erecting a statue of Dred Scott opposite to and in opposition of Taney. Furthermore, I think education is very important--from grade school through college and even more so beyond. I appreciate how through Mary's efforts this website does such a good job of educating each of us about this ongoing dilemma. Keep up the good work!!
Mary Neighbour on Monday, 11 April 2016 20:10

Thanks, Jeannette, and welcome back to this blog. I agree that education is key, and yet it seems our educational system is worsening year by year. Interestingly, I recently heard about the Way of Council, a practice that draws upon ancient wisdom traditions and is unique in its capacity to enrich our communication with more understanding, awareness and heart--clearly something we need in this world! If you know anything about this, please let me know.

Thanks, Jeannette, and welcome back to this blog. I agree that education is key, and yet it seems our educational system is worsening year by year. Interestingly, I recently heard about the Way of Council, a practice that draws upon ancient wisdom traditions and is unique in its capacity to enrich our communication with more understanding, awareness and heart--clearly something we need in this world! If you know anything about this, please let me know.
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