Convergence / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

Dred Scott’s Blues: Three Meditations

Shelia Anonzier, lora

Image Credit: Shelia Anonzier, lora, (2018), 16 x 20, mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.


In 1853, perhaps twenty-five minutes away from where I write this, the case that became Dred Scott v. Sanford began deliberations in what we now call the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, not only does the Old Courthouse sit near the banks of the Mississippi River, but it is also framed, especially as you look at it from the Illinois side of the river, by the iconic Gateway Arch, the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere, constructed in 1965 and designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen. The Dred Scott case was ultimately concluded in 1857 in a decision by the Supreme Court. Scott, enslaved in Missouri by a John Sanford, was taken by Sanford to Illinois, a free state, as well as to the remnants of the Wisconsin Territory, which included the relatively new states of Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, before returning with Sanford to Missouri. Today, the Arch marks St. Louis as the “Gateway to the West,” symbolizing American expansiveness, opportunity, and exceptionalism as emphasized by the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But inexorably, part of that sensibility is the deeper history that also lies shrouded by the Arch’s western shadow: the Missouri Compromise; Bleeding Kansas; the Trail of Tears; the Exodusters; Elaine, Arkansas; the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and so many more events, named and unnamed, as to shame any effort to construct a full list to contain them. (In this vein, I am intrigued by the fact that contemporary images of the Arch so often appear to either omit or diminish the Old Courthouse situated beneath it.) If you can harness the temporal disjuncture that this next contention demands, the great Arch, as it towers above the tiny courthouse, stands like Mount Rushmore as one of the enduring images of the American ironic sublime, seen across the Mississippi from what was once understood as the free state of Illinois.

The question before the court in 1857: Was Dred Scott slave or free? In other words, did Scott, by virtue of crossing into territory where slavery was unlawful, become a citizen, irrevocably? Well, as we know, the short answer was no. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority (7-2) opinion, considered today perhaps the worst opinion in the court’s history. Part of Taney’s argument rests on the notion that Indigenous peoples, still in the process of being dispossessed of their lands, rights, and personhood, were nevertheless citizens in ways that African-descended peoples could never be; it’s an argument predictably based on tortured logic and blatant untruths:

The situation of [the black] population was altogether unlike that of the Indian race…. But although they were uncivilized, they were yet a free and independent people, associated together in nations or tribes, and governed by their own laws. Many of these political communities were situated in territories to which the white race claimed the ultimate right of dominion. But that claim was acknowledged to be subject to the right of the Indians to occupy it as long as they thought proper, and neither the English nor colonial Governments claimed or exercised any dominion over the tribe or nation by whom it was occupied, nor claimed the right to the possession of the territory, until the tribe or nation consented to cede it. 

These Indian Governments were regarded and treated as foreign Governments, as much so as if an ocean had separated the red man from the white; and their freedom has constantly been acknowledged, from the time of the first emigration to the English colonies to the present day, by the different Governments which succeeded each other. Treaties have been negotiated with them, and their alliance sought for in war; and the people who compose these Indian political communities have always been treated as foreigners not living under our Government. It is true that the course of events has brought the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States under subjection to the white race; and it has been found necessary, for their sake as well as our own, to regard them as in a state of pupilage, and to legislate to a certain extent over them and the territory they occupy. But they may, without doubt, like the subjects of any other foreign Government, be naturalized by the authority of Congress, and become citizens of a State, and of the United States; and if an individual should leave his nation or tribe, and take up his abode among the white population, he would be entitled to all the rights and privileges which would belong to an emigrant from any other foreign people.

Pants on fire, to be generous, but let’s also briefly turn back the calendar to 1776 and a portion of the Declaration of Independence (the “he” referred to, of course, is the British king George III):

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

That’s not very complimentary to a group of people upon whom you will have bestowed so much autonomy, so much “citizenship” by 1857. More than it expresses pique at the king for his decree, it speaks for itself in depicting the group you choose to denigrate. But this isn’t all there is to the crafting of American independence, as the clause should be paired with this next, appearing some several clauses before the one preceding:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

And this clause gives fuller dimension to the colonists’ dissatisfaction. It refers to George’s Proclamation of 1763, issued after the defeat of the French by North America in the French and Indian War. Drawing a dividing line along the Appalachian Mountains between the thirteen colonies and what was known on many maps as undifferentiated “Indian Country”—the vast territory that stretched from the Appalachians to the Mississippi—George sought to separate colonists from Natives, keeping peace by reducing nighttime incursions into Indigenous lands by marauding whites. The colonists were unhappy because they were thus rendered unable to attract immigration; consequently, they were also somewhat restricted in generating more slavery. But of course, we now know that the success of the Revolution made the Proclamation moot as well as how it did so—by expanding slavery and laying waste to Indigenous lands. So much for Roger Taney’s reading of American history.



Not only would the Dred Scott decision teach America, according to Taney, again for the majority, that “They [the black enslaved] have no rights that the white man is bound to respect,” but this pronouncement would also further enshrine and make subterranean the erasures of black citizenship and personhood well into our own time. So thoroughgoing was Taney’s calumny, Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen notes, that some of her liberal peers actually continue it by omitting the most scandalous portions of the opinion in their teaching of it. Perhaps well-meaning, Gersen’s colleagues nevertheless ignore the pathology of race as an embedded entity in American history and society; the best one might say is that they wish to uphold the liberal notion about race once vital to American cultural and postcolonial studies in the 1980s and ‘90s—that racial difference is nothing more than a social construction, a notion easily provable by the fact that whiteness, despite its immemorial depredations on nonwhite life, had never securely planted its flag at the peak of the cultural ultramontane. What they missed, however, is that this social construction was—is—the very means by which our racial politics are fashioned. The denial of both personhood and due process, through everything from quotidian and quasi-legal exclusion to extrajudicial killing, then and now, is how Euroamerican culture manages to both preserve and justify itself in these United States and around the globe. 

As Jelani Cobb observes, this long black song always remains the same. Nearer the 2020 elections, Patrice Cullors and Alicia Garza each received death threats for their work in creating and sustaining Black Lives Matter. In that same week, Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning introductory essay in The 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine, itself a clarion call for the teaching of critical race theory, was threatened with arson along with her family. These women and other activists have been targeted for violence for their efforts to speak truth to power, and the wild anger that generates these threats was most baldly expressed during the insurrection of 6 January 2021. “Trump is a dangerous man,” Cobb writes, “but he is not nearly as dangerous as the history that animates him.”



I recently downloaded an app to my phone. That’s not news, except perhaps in the way I felt the terror of doing it, but I did it for the purpose of writing this last meditation. After I’m done, I’ll happily delete it, only partly in due avoidance of the $39.99 I’d be paying at the end of a free thirty days for my immolation. You may have heard of the app called Citizen: It’s a neighborhood security (read: surveillance) app—in fact, it touts that it protects you wherever you are by, well, protecting you from whatever neighborhood you happen to be in. Citizen sends “relevant safety alerts” to wherever you are, but can’t do so if you don’t select Always On. It’s pretty good about informing you about the progress of COVID-spread in your area (although this feature is likely useless to anyone who voted for Trump), but it also gives you a rundown of robberies, assaults, shootings, stabbings, and everything else you live to avoid, not only in your area but also elsewhere, with information siphoned from police dispatches around the country. (This particular feature may help you in Seattle when you’re all suited up to fight crime in Philadelphia.) Otherwise, you can send instant messages to law enforcement if you see what appears to be a crime occurring near you, and by now you know what that means. Named “Vigilante” in an earlier iteration, the app and its uses may remind you of another Citizen—namely, Claudia Rankine’s: “And you are not the guy. But still you fit the description. Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” 

The app’s potential for misuse is also reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 “wrong man” film, Minority Report (although Philip K. Dick’s 1956 story on which it’s based is better). The app’s opening screen is that of a woman of indeterminate race (does her dark, shaggy mane give her away?) walking away from us as the scene around her changes from subway station to dimly lit street to darkened park lane; her confident stride throughout assumes for us that the app has much to do with that confidence. But ultimately, the app as crimefighting tool is just the most outstanding and contemporary representation of the hoary fears nurtured in the time of Taney and before, of Jefferson, of Washington, and before; in considering the contemporary fear of the racial other that Rankine depicts, it is also fear mixed with loathing, now doubled, and magnified.1 Dred Scott may have thought he was free as he traveled through Illinois and the vast Wisconsin Territory. But he was always marked, surveilled, captive to the law of the land. One may have hoped that for a short time he did walk in a freedom to be found just across a river: a freedom of the soul, a capacious serenity of mind, with his Ojibwa sisters and brothers, the Miami and the Chippewa, Shawnee, and Lenape. But again, they, like him, like us, are subject to the unjust and enduring dictates of colonial law: Freedom, despite the greatest pain you may bear in seeking it, can only be untrusted and insecure, even unto the ground beneath your feet.

Our pandemic always rings twice in certain neighborhoods, but if you’re sending your mail-in ballot, the postman almost never does. Essential worker, subminimum wage. School is out, but your kids are hungry until September. AI, military-style policing in urban locales, Tim Scott, Mitch McConnell, Joe Manchin, and the fetid sigmoid colon of racism and capitalism are how our laws, presumably written for us, are enforced against us. The times we share today imprison our entelechy; again, the resignation, the abnegation once molded for our mothers and fathers is reshaped in a new age to scar our souls. But to see, to feel the question before us now is to know; with knowing, to act; with action, to prevail. And with these, one may have hope—even unto the ground beneath our feet.



1 Following Simone Browne and Eduardo Moncada, R. Joshua Scannell writes in “This Is Not Minority Report” (in Ruha Benjamin, ed., Captivating Technology: Race Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life [Duke UP, 2019]) that race, technology, and policing are, and always have been, inexorably connected: “Algorithms cannot ‘code out’ race from American policing because race is an originary policing technology, just as policing is a bedrock racializing technology” (108).

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