Emil Guillermo: SCOTUS, Dred Scott, Filipino American history, and Ishmael Reed's new play
October 2022 marks the coincidence of the new Supreme Court session, the start of Filipino American History Month, and the opening of a new satirical history of race in America by the esteemed African American writer Ishmael Reed.
All of them are connected. Read on.
First, the Supreme Court. No matter how much we hail and praise Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s arrival, the first African American woman to serve on the court will not be able to mitigate the foulness we are about to experience.
Affirmative action, gay rights, abortion rights, voting rights, we are almost certainly assured that the hits will keep on coming.
But if you think it’s bad now, you should have seen SCOTUS in 1857.
That’s when the high court rendered by a 7-2 vote what some have called the worst SCOTUS decision ever, the Dred Scott opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.
Most people know of the case from history, if history hasn’t been banned from your school yet (if you’re young). Or if the history has been totally forgotten (if you’re older). I dread if you stop any American today at random and ask about Dred Scott, you might be amazed how many will say something vague like, “It’s about slavery, right?”
To refresh, the case involved Scott, a slave who had been allowed to move from Missouri to a free state (Illinois), and then sued his owner for his freedom in Missouri.
Taney’s majority opinion ruled for Scott’s owner primarily because African Americans couldn’t be citizens, and that Congress couldn’t prohibit slavery in new U.S. territories like Missouri in the first place. More startling was the finding that people of African ancestry had, to quote Taney, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Whites were simply seen as superior.
So what does this have to do with Filipino American History Month?
Chief Justice Taney based his terrible Dred Scott opinion on an 1840 case in which Taney himself wrote the opinion regarding one Lorenzo Dow.
Dow was a Filipino-born sailor on an American ship, who had been accused of murder and tried in Maryland. In the U.S. v. Dow decision, Taney used for the first time the notion that whites were a master race (“the race of which the masters were composed”) and used that as proof of superiority since only those of European backgrounds could be part of political society in the colonies. Therefore, the only question Taney saw as significant was whether Dow was a person who had any rights at all, meaning “a white Christian person.”
He was not. Dow’s conviction of murder was upheld.
It is from this case that Taney reasoned that non-white, or essentially all people of color, could be reduced to slavery for the white man’s benefit.
For Taney, it made his Dred Scott decision forever indebted to Dow, a Filipino in America at the heart of what is arguably the worst Supreme Court decision ever.
Dow was the basis for the racist view that “inalienable rights” under the Constitution were indeed whites only and did not include us.
Ponder that as you wish people a happy Filipino American History Month.
It’s for all of us.
ISHMAEL REED’S “THE CONDUCTOR”
When it comes to Filipino American history, I’ve written about the first Filipinos to reach the U.S. in 1587; the saga of the Filipino veterans of WWII denied equity pay by the U.S. for more than 60 years; and the merger of civil rights and labor rights with the Great Delano Grape strike begun by Larry Itliong in 1965.
But Filipino American history is also personal history. And this month I honor the noted African American novelist, essayist, poet and playwright Ishmael Reed.
I met Reed when I was in graduate school at Wash U. in St. Louis, where my aspirations were to be a funny novelist like Philip Roth. But I had too many Filipino characters and one of my profs told me to take them out. It was Reed, the visiting writer from California, who told me to put the Filipinos back in.
Reed taught me the importance of inclusion, which is the whole point of Filipino American History Month. We’re in it. We matter. Leave us in.
I’ve stayed friends with Reed through the years and now he’s written a new play called “The Conductor.” It’s Reed’s satirical view of America’s race situation that takes aim at the recent recalls of progressive politicians in San Francisco led by conservative Asian Americans, notably Chinese Americans and Indian Americans.
Reed adds a twist with a fictive Indian prime minister who creates an international scene. But it means Indians in America are forced to flee the country, including Shashi Parmar, one of the Indians who led the recall effort, who happens to have been a college roommate of the prime minister at an Ivy League school.
Parmar is now on the run and seeks help from a new “underground railroad” to get to Canada. And the conductor? It’s a fired progressive columnist Warren Chipp, who now finds himself helping his former nemesis escape.
Chipp is the mouthpiece for Reed’s views on race and history, and in the dialogue between Chipp and Parmar, you’ll learn a lot about everything from Asian American history to African American history to the current status of women in India.
It is informative, provocative, and entertaining.
New York’s Theater for the New City is presenting the play as a virtual reading only Oct. 13-16. (You can get tickets here.)
Reed has also taken his own advice. He left in some Filipino parts in the show. Me.
I have a very small role playing against type. I am a commentator for a Fox News type station who likes white colonialism and Lord Mountbatten.
But “The Conductor” really is Reed’s vision of how people of color have been treated historically in America. As a reading, it’s definitely worth seeing as the esteemed writer’s satirical views on America’s culture wars are loud and clear.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.