By Leslye Joy Allen
Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student
Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
For even the worst student of American History, the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford remains one of the easiest to remember. Many historians believe that this legal drama led to the American Civil War in 1860. In fact, the name “Dred Scott” conjures up that infamous statement by U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “Tawney”)*, who ruled that, Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Anyone can use the name “Dred Scott” as a search term on the Internet and find hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts, including reproductions of the legal documents used in this tragic and pivotal court case. If you need to read a quick summary of it, click here: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857).
Visit any online bookstore, public or university library and you will find dozens of books on the subject. There have even been a few fictionalized accounts of his life. Yet, in the main, the textbook story about him is largely about the case he and his wife ultimately lost when the United States Supreme Court ruled against them in 1857 after this couple had trudged through eleven long years of litigation. Yet, in spite of the notoriety of this Supreme Court ruling, information about Dred and Harriet Scott as individuals remains largely and primarily the interest of the serious historian or legal scholar.
Some extensive book accounts about the Scott family note certain characteristics of Dred Scott’s personality and his limitations (e.g. Like most slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, he was illiterate). The textbook and encyclopedia accounts, however, stick to the main facts in the legal case. Most people forget (or never knew) that after the Supreme Court ruled against him, Taylor Blow (a member of a family that once owned Scott) purchased him and set him free. Yet, Scott only lived another year and four months—dead by May of 1858. Even worse, his grave only received an “official marker” some ninety-nine years later when Blow’s granddaughter purchased one for his grave in 1957.**
I bring up these lesser known facts about Scott to make a point about this issue of “individuals,” and to highlight some real limitations often found in history, social commentary, and performance and visual arts—namely, that the human beings at the center of a storm often become transformed into causes, into ideas, into legends. As much as we all need causes, great ideas and legends, there is the risk of losing the individual. This is particularly true of the late Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman who is, at the time of this writing, about to stand trial for his murder. I need not retell the details about the death of Martin here. You can read my early commentary about this tragedy by reading the blogs in my Blog Archive. I only ask you to remember a few things.
For the public, particularly the African-American public, Trayvon Martin is another painful reminder of this nation’s history of judicial and social obstruction and neglect; and a long and painful history of racially motivated violence. With his face emblazoned on T-Shirts, special photos, and artwork, we do not really know who Trayvon Martin was as an individual save for what he now symbolizes to us in death. We also do not really know Zimmerman, but he too is also now a symbol—Depending on which side you are on he is either the personification of the horrors that acute racist profiling can produce or he is a symbol of every person who ever shot someone in self-defense who was unjustly accused of murder. Yet, neither Trayvon Martin (nor Zimmerman, for that matter) exists in their parents, extended family and friends’ memories in this manner.
Martin’s Mom and Dad remember his first baby steps, his first words, and yes, even the first time they scolded him. They will remember birthdays and Christmases. They will remember his favorite foods, TV shows, toys and gadgets. They will recall his smiles and his mischief; and they will inevitably remember the first time he got into some potentially serious trouble—he was, after all, an adolescent at the time of his death. Anyone with a teenager knows that those years are difficult precisely because the child is making that awkward transition from child into adult. Martin might symbolize a lot to all of us, but he ultimately belonged to his mother and father.
I will not make any predictions about the trial of George Zimmerman. I can only say that for Trayvon Martin’s parents in particular, this case is not just about fighting for the noble cause of ending racially motivated violence. It is also and primarily about finding some sense of justice and closure for the loss of their son. Yet, we must admit that with the passage of time, how most of us will eventually remember Trayvon Martin could easily mirror the way most of us remember Dred Scott. Those of us who read about him in history classes know that we studied more about the political and social significance of the court case than we ever studied or knew about Dred Scott as a man, a husband and father. We know even less about his wife Harriet Scott, an often forgotten and overlooked actor in this pivotal litigation. Years after Zimmerman’s murder trial is over, no matter the outcome, Trayvon Martin’s parents WILL NOT see him as “that case about the Black boy who was wearing a hoodie, who got killed in Sanford, Florida,” but rather as their son who they lost too soon—It is this fact that we, the public, will too soon forget. Yet, it is this fact that I hope we will somehow struggle to always remember.
Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
* Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 379.
** New York Times, “Honor For Dred Scott: Granddaughter of Man Who Freed Slave Places Marker,” 26 July 1957.
This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.