by Valerie Morales
Dred Scott lived in the state of Missouri but was not free. Because slaves were property, he was not an American citizen. With vigor in some circles and religious indignation in others, Dred Scott instantly became a cause. He was a shining example of why. Why the original sin had to be erased. Why there needed to be a war in the first place. Why the old assumption of the moral South was a fable and a farce.
The Dred Scott question was simplistic in its yearning: If you won’t fight to stop slavery then what, my God, is worth fighting for?
I met Dred Scott in high school. I was a bored senior disinterested in another typing class or sewing project. That decided I embarked upon an Independent Study in Black History partly because my high school education erased black history, genocide, and any reflection on the trauma of colonized people. Our heroes were buried with intention, spoken in families but invisible in the plurality of American and European history textbooks. Not surprisingly, my advisor wasn’t pleased and tried to discourage me by piling on a tortuous workload that most seniors would find excessive. I was only more determined to wipe the negative smirk off his face. A white man, he didn’t see the point of black history. At all. As far as he was concerned nativism was a virtue but he signed off anyway- after my mother gave him her five cents about his responsibility as an educator. Fours papers 20 pages in length, typed, he demanded. The Diaspora and Slave Trade, paper number one. Reconstruction, paper number two. Jim Crow and the Struggle for Civil Rights, paper number three. The last paper was my choice and I chose Black Women.
While my friends were ditching class and running to the beach and being nostalgic about what was about to end I was studying documents and discovered Dred Scott was an ordinary man who happened to be slave. He was a slave in Virginia. He was a slave in Alabama. He was a slave in Missouri. When his daughter was born on a steamer between two free states, he was a slave. As a 51-year-old dark-skinned man, Dred Scott attempted to buy his freedom from Eliza Irene Emerson. He offered her $300 dollars. In today’s world, that would be close to ten grand. She said no and he sued.
He lost the first round of his court battle but in the second trial the jury ruled Dred Scott should be free. When Irene Emerson appealed, the Missouri Appeals Court set aside 28 years of precedent. The earlier ruling giving Dred Scott his freedom was reversed. Dred Scott refiled in federal court.
He lost again. Then he appealed to the Supreme Court, which made the white history books.
About those books. For much of my educational life, I had white classmates who were taught a scant amount of black history, and even that much made them defiant, that they had to be quizzed about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas and the slave trade. Martin Luther King was a hagiographic fantasy, an All Lives Matter prototype to my old white private and public school teachers who clung so much to King’s I Have A Dream speech they missed the essential truth of Reverend King’s disobedience and his Christianity.
But it was what white history omitted that had me seeking my own questions and answers. Jim Crow trauma. John Lewis and SNCC. Medger Evers murdered in his driveway and four little girls bombed in Birmingham. Emmett Till’s murder. The killing of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
Rosa Parks resistance and a few paragraphs about Malcolm X were required. But the Tulsa Race Riots and black lynching and the perverted justice of the Scottsboro Boys and the Tuskegee Experiments and Ida B. Wells were noticeably absent.
That Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves was the lie history book after history book perpetrated. Even Dred Scott was a summation: slaves were property.
But the Scott’s- Dred and Harriet- were more than what they ushered in: the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments abolishing slavery, granting former slaves citizenship, and giving anyone born in the United States citizenship. That’s the problem when you edit textbooks for racial reasons. You miss knowing human flaws, drive and ambition, and black compromises.
I experienced Dred and Harriet Scott as ancestral examples of what we now call respectability politics. Be good and white folk will reward you because they will fall back upon decency and morality. But the romantic triggers we bestow upon them often are our way to shine a dull quarter. In certain circles it’s wrong to say out loud white people can be callous and hypocritical. Or, that they publicly conform even if they don’t feel it in their hearts but do so out of public shame and fear of the “r” word attached to them.
Racist is a slur. So white people do the very least, like marching in the streets for absolution. But to think that their better angels will suddenly make them undo my oppression is imaginary thinking that traveled from a Dred Scott America to a Civil War America to a Reconstruction America and a Jim Crow America, falling on its face in an Obama America.
Sentimental, the expectation has always been that our white allies would fight for the black experience but what has evolved over time is our white allies have fought for a black presence. The black experience is something that is missing from every single white history book because to write about the black experience means acknowledging racism exists which means acknowledging white people have created a culture of superiority without addressing their xenophobic crimes, which means they are racists who can whip the Black Lives Matter flag like a steward of the movement.
When George Floyd said I Can’t Breathe and when Eric Garner said I Can’t Breathe and when Ahmaud Arbery was defending himself against racists with rifles it was historical. When Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home after police broke in, black folk said to themselves “see they did it again” but we didn’t find it peculiar even as it was alarming. Police have been murdering us since we were kidnapped. Slave patrols hunted us down and then hung us on thick trees or returned us back to slave masters for a price, where we were beaten, raped, tortured, retraumatized.
History excludes black humanity and instead focuses on black obedience. History excludes black rape and half white babies white folk disown and instead focuses on black fealty. History doesn’t say the Confederacy was an amalgamation of racist traitors who wanted to destroy the United States of America, or that they were treasonous white supremacists. Instead, history calls Confederate Soldiers dead patriots because those writing the book are the same milky skin of those who hated the idea of free black people. History books omit the black families that slavery ruined and the generations thereafter that suffered violent consequences. In history books, black people are caricatures or ideas or props for white excellence or heroism. White tears are the product of black independence instead of being the consequence of black rape. If history books had done their job, perhaps our faith in good white people would not have plummeted.
White history and the telling of it is the problem. But worse than what is pressed into the ashen pages of a binder is us. We have aligned our sustenance and bound our fate with white salvation and it has reaped nothing, nor has it delivered us from bondage as Frederick Douglas opined. The roll call is bloody. Voting changed nothing. Obedience changed nothing. Integration changed nothing. Marches changed nothing. Murdering us changed nothing. Education changed nothing. Capitalistic eroticism changed nothing. A black president changed nothing. Intermarriage changed nothing. The one-drop rule has never left the fabric of American life; one black drop and your subjugation is consistent and provable
But it gets tricky because it has never been a consensual relationship with the people who used to own us and who belittle our experience and mock our intragenerational struggle and our ancestral pride.
We have to live with the providence of white lies. We have had to endure violent and despicable details. The calling of cops to hasten our death. The rewriting of the story to erase our emancipation. The stealing our breath so we cannot survive. We are not responsible for whiteness and all of its fragility and fears whenever the “r” word enters the conversation,(rape and racism). White folk run with marathon-like speed to absolve themselves. However, we are forced to live what they cannot say out loud.
Racism affects the mind and changes the psyche. It makes us fearful and not trusting and bitter about the police. White history is rife with politicians who promise a change in policy but whose very privileges are dripping in the benefits that maintain systemic racism. The sinister ground all of us walk has been shifting like the tectonic plates of a million years ago.
Lying about history only works for so long. Eventually, the truth breaks the world. Like Sojourner Truth once said. We in a fix.