By Perry Mann
“A charismatic speaker with a commanding presence, she was six feet tall, and illiterate all her life. Sojourner Truth became a powerful voice against racial oppression and for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1851, at a women’s right convention in Ohio, she delivered her most famous speech in which she repeatedly asked, ‘Ain’t I a woman?’” –— from “Americans Who Tell The Truth,” by Rob Shetterly.
Dear Sojourner: December 28, 2007
I have read avidly and widely most of my life but I must admit that, although I have run across your name from time to time and remembered it for its oddness, I didn’t know about you until we appeared together in a book. I am happy to make your acquaintance. What I have learned about you makes me wonder about the propriety of my being included in the same book with you. But since I have been, I will enjoy the fellowship and the distinction I gain from appearing with you.
I write as if you were still alive. I do so because I know that such a spirit as yours, such spunk and stamina as yours, is not likely to die but is more likely to live and incarnate somewhere sometime. So I will write as if you will receive my words somehow.
The goods news first: Your people were freed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 legally but not actually until the Civil Rights Acts signed by President Johnson a hundred years later. A sister of yours Rosa Parks began the real liberation of your people by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man and moving to the back of it. She died recently and lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a farewell honor reserved ordinarily for deceased presidents. If you had lived long enough, I suspect, that you would have lain in state, or should have, for you were a champion of African-American rights and women’s rights almost a 100 years before Ms. Parks was born.
You’ll be happy to know that the Constitution has been amended and that the amendments have ferreted out some of the weasels in that document. The 13th Amendment declares that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States. The 14th Amendment was designed to prevent the states from, in effect, nullifying the 13th Amendment. The 15thAmendment gave the Negroes the right to vote but the South by various means circumvented it. The 16th Amendment gave the vote to women but mostly white women voted until the Civil Rights Acts of the Sixties. The 24th Amendment prohibited the payment of a poll tax in order to vote, a tax that was designed to prevent your folks from voting.
But the Constitution, I am sorry to say, is still a den for a multitude of weasels. One weasel that worries a lot of chickens, so to speak, is the law that a corporation is a person. Anyone knows that a paper entity has no conscience. The upshot is that corporations do with relative impunity that which is often unconscionable. Further, a corporation can spend millions of dollars, by hook or crook, to elect a candidate and the courts say it’s OK. Money is speech, they say, and the use of it to buy, in effect, votes is legal. Thus a rich man who spends a million in an election has a million to one advantage over a poor man who votes once and hasn’t a dollar to spend to persuade another voter.
Also, the biggest weasel is still dere and will be dere so long as corporate and personal wealth rules the nation. The Constitution is a document composed by the bourgeoisie or those of the landed gentry, commercial and mercantile classes. It was designed by them to benefit them and it has. Once the Constitution had been ratified, an army of land speculators, entrepreneurs, frontiersmen, and men hot to convert the natural wealth of this Eden into coin began a frenzied and unscrupulous rape of Mother Nature, a violation of her that continues. The more rapacious became fabulously rich and later become known as Robber Barons. The result of this rape of the land and the slaughter of the wildlife has been a pillaged, polluted and plundered Eden and a wealthy class of few and a poor class of many. With the exception of a few decades in mid-20th century, when a hardy middle class evolved, this greedy weasel in the Constitution has denned dere and conduced to making the rich richer and the poor poorer and this Eden a stepchild.
Many of your people have prospered but for the most part they have aped the white man with their wealth, shamelessly surrounding themselves with luxury. But many more of them are poor, desperately poor, in a land of incredible wealth. And the worst is that thousands of black males languish in prisons, a fate often more chance than choice. Centuries of slavery are a part of fate.
There is hope, Sojourner. Once, the Robber Barons and their accomplices motivated by greed and hubris wrecked this nation’s economy causing the loss of jobs to millions and great hardships to all but the wealthy. Men of the same ideology as the Robber Barons have been in power for 25 years now and it appears that they have learned nothing from history and are pursuing policies that are not only making the divide between rich and poor an unbridgeable chasm but are pursuing policies that seem to be a prelude to the previous debacle. Their arrogance may be their demise and the nation’s salvation from an ideology that is the antithesis of the highest aspirations of this nation’s best spirits.
I want you to know that I will never think of the Constitution again without the thought that there is a weasel in it. I thank you for it. Even without the help of being able to read and write you could discern that the Constitution provided few rights for you. Some still discern so much.
With admiration for your help in making this nation more civil and charitable, Perry Mann.
Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He turned 90 earlier this year; he was born in Charleston, WV in 1921.