Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story, by Mark L. Shurtleff

I graduated from college with a degree in history, and have taught American history and written numerous test questions over various issues in American history. But I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Dred Scott before I read Mark L. Shurtleff’s Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story, newly released by Valor Publishing Group. (Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s edition of the book from the publisher, with the expectation that I would review the book.)

I knew the basics—the kind of thing you read in American history textbooks. Dred Scott was a slave in the years before the Civil War, and lived with his master in a free state for several years. Because slavery was illegal in the free states, he sued for his freedom on that basis: once free, always free.

At first this was granted by the court. But then—as we see in the opening chapter of Am I Not a Man? --his owner had that decision reversed. Eventually the case Dred Scott v. Sanford went all the way to the Supreme Court. Here the court delivered a stunning verdict that slavery could not be outlawed in any state, because to do so would be to deprive owners of their property. The American ideal that all men were created equal did not apply to blacks. As a result, the Missouri Compromise, which had been keeping the slave and free states in an uneasy balance for the last few decades, was unconstitutional. The slave issue continued to spiral out of control from that point, and the Civil War began only a few years later.

So that’s what we get in the basic history books. But Am I Not a Man? shows us Dred Scott and his family as real people, torn apart by injustice. It shows some of the background of the slave question, the history of Dred Scott’s family and the first family who owned him (who were shown to be good and caring people, by the way). It shows Dred’s faith in the American system of justice all the way to the point where it completely betrayed him by declaring that as a black and a slave he had no rights.

The book does not quite read like a history book, although it is full of information and quotes from real individuals. Neither does it really read like a novel. It’s something in between: something a reader can learn from, and something with historical information, but probably not something a scholar can definitively quote from because scenes have been dramatized and to some extent fictionalized. Chapter notes would definitely have been helpful; in any given scene, I wondered how much dramatization had occurred. However, there are also long strings of narrative that simply explain background situations; these are the parts that read more like a history book and less like a story.

The action of the book begins at the crucial event of Dred’s being arrested and returned to slave status. The pivotal event is a great place to start. Then it explores several backstory lines, and returns periodically to the “real” story of Dred trying to regain his freedom. Dates are given at the beginning of each chapter, and I understand a chronology is available in the final printed version. Still, there is a dizzying array of events and people spanning multiple centuries in non-chronological order for the reader to keep track of. That said, it creates a nice effect of showing the contributions of many individuals to Dred's final triumph--or defeat.

The story of Dred Scott, slavery, and the conflicts that led to the Civil War are important for Americans to understand, and this book does a fine job of laying these out. Yes, these things are in our past, and there are few people who would support slavery today. But it did happen. It is a part of our past and we need to understand what went wrong. Besides explaining the ongoing issues of civil rights and other difficulties blacks encounter and overcome today, it reminds us that Americans—even those who consider themselves enlightened, pious individuals—can support causes that are terribly wrong. And no amount of legislation and trying to keep the peace can change whether something is wrong.

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