Speak Right On


Historical Fiction Based on the Life of Dred Scott

A Novel by Mary E. Neighbour

  About Mary E. Neighbour  


I was born in 1957, in a small, working-class neighborhood in southern New Jersey, the sixth of seven children of Eileen and Clark Edsell. I moved to New York City for college, attaining my baccalaureate degree in literature and creative writing from the City University of New York. I pursued a post-secondary education in psychotherapy, but I barely started practicing before deciding to return to writing. I wrote in technical fields until 1994, when I began my own business interviewing individuals and writing their memoirs and family histories. Having authored a dozen such books, I developed an ear for first-person narrative and an abiding interest in depicting the fully-lived experiences of a past era that remain relevant today.

I have been married since 1991. Andrew, my husband, is a scientist and retired university administrator, now working as a painter and photographer. I have no children, though I am fortunate to include Andrew's daughter, Hannah, as one of my significant relationships. I write full-time at home in Santa Fe, and I play with words and books almost as much as I play with our little family of cats: Scout, Jem, and Cal, named for the characters in my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Prior to Speak Right On, I wrote only poems and short fiction and a private journal. My short fiction has won awards and been recognized by the Sacramento Public Library, ByLine Magazine, the Mid-American Review, the Alligator Juniper magazine, as well as the Whidbey Island Writers’ Association.

Speak Right On is my first attempt at writing a novel, and I still can't believe the reception it's getting. It won third prize in the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association contest for unpublished first novels; found an enthusiastic publisher in Matthew Miller, of The Toby Press, and is now in bookstores across the nation. In the words of one African storytelling tradition: A story! A story! Let it go, let it come.

Photo by Andrew Neighbour©, 2005

You may write to the author at:

[email protected]




  The Author's Interest in Dred Scott    

My interest in Dred Scott began in 1997, when I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with my husband (and our dog and cat). As I visited the local historical sites, Dred Scott's name appeared often, yet the information overwhelming addressed legal matters—and I had been a legal secretary too long, I guess, to be satisfied by that information alone.

I wanted to know more about the character of the man who had triggered an infamous Supreme Court decision and pitched the country into civil war. Frustratingly, what I could learn about Dred Scott, the man, was scant. Scant, but tantalizing. The few news reports about him that were published after the Supreme Court decision were wildly contradictory. I decided to focus on quotes that were attributed to him. Such as:

There is not a drop of the white man's blood in my veins.  My ancestors were free people of Africa.…

I responded strongly to the pride and eloquence of this statement, to the solid sense of identity, as well as the implicit sophistication regarding any notions of white superiority. 

Another magnetizing quote, just a fragment, occurred when Dred Scott was asked about Henry and Taylor Blow, the sons of his original slave owner. He referred to the Blow brothers as:

… them boys I was raised with.

I became confused as further research informed me that Dred Scott was considerably older: as much as 15 to 20 years older. Was his phrase a colloquialism? Or did it express an abiding affection and intimacy?




Painting by Andrew Neighbour©, 2006

Of course, these two brothers would prove indispensable to Dred Scott's struggle to win his freedom. History is clear about that. They found him lawyers, put up the bond money, helped sustain the Scott family through the tedious years of litigation, and they ultimately were responsible for the manumission of Dred, his wife, and daughters. I found the relationship between Dred Scott and the family who owned him fascinating.

A final quote attributed to Dred Scott sealed my fate as a researcher into the life and times of Dred Scott:

I thought it hard that white men should draw a line of their own on the face of the earth and on one side of which a black man was to become no man at all, and never say a word to the black man about it until they had got him on that side of the line….

I began to "hear" the voice of Dred Scott. He was engaging, a man with a nimble mind and a fluent tongue. Though he was deprived an education, he was articulate, even eloquent. Though he was enslaved, his voice reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

And I wondered: what happens to an agile mind that is deprived literacy? What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue? The paradox fascinated me. At first I questioned if he perhaps pretended to be illiterate. Stories exist of slaves who did just that, for fear of punishment. But it was the first quote, the expression of pride in his African ancestors, that swayed me toward believing that his power with words came from his African heritage, from the griot tradition of storytelling and history keeping, and that the power of this legacy lived in Dred Scott independent of both literacy and slavery. The more I explored this rich heritage, the more I understood the roots of much of our current wealth of myth and lore, and the more I began to resent those who would rate oral traditions below written traditions.

It took only one more ingredient to launch me on writing this novel. I read a brief parable, the satchels tale, that became the crucible in which I could mix all the ingredients I had researched, and blend in the many more I would need:

At the beginning of the world god set down two satchels. The white man come along, opened the one, and claimed the paper and pencil. The black man come along, opened the other, and brung up the hoe and reed flute. Some say this explain why the black man be slave to the white man….

©2006 Mary E. Neighbour
Webdesign by Andrew Neighbour