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MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Return of the Unjust Greedy Weasels

Marian Wright Edelman | 6/18/2014, 3 p.m.
This column is not about the recent story making headlines in New York City on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal ...
Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy of childrensdefense.org)

This column is not about the recent story making headlines in New York City on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to lift a ban on pet ferrets. But it is about weasels. Age-old weasels still causing Americans pain and suffering and blocking progress towards a better, safer America for all.

Sojourner Truth was a brilliant but illiterate slave woman, a great orator, and a powerful presence who possessed great courage. She challenged the racial and gender caste system of slavery by suing for the return of a son sold away from her. She got thrown off Washington, D.C. streetcars but kept getting back on until they changed the rules and let her ride. She stood up with fiery eloquence to opponents and threatening crowds who tried to stop her from speaking. When a hostile White man told her that the hall where she was scheduled to appear would be burnt down if she spoke, she replied, “Then I will speak to the ashes.” When taunted while speaking in favor of women’s rights by some White men who asked if she was really a woman, she bared her breasts and allegedly famously retorted, “Ain’t I a woman?,” detailing the back-breaking double burden of slavery’s work and childbearing she had endured. When heckled by a White man in her audience who said he didn’t care any more about her antislavery talk than for an old flea bite, she snapped back, “Then the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” And when decrying her exclusion from America’s life and professed freedoms during a religious meeting where another speaker had just praised the Constitution, she said:

 “… Now I hears talkin’ about de Constitution and de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold of dis Constitution. It looks mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says, God, what ails dis Constitution? He says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.’”

The version captured here in an 1863 edition of the National Anti-Slavery Standard shares a flaw with many existing accounts of her speeches—they were often written down in the mock Southern dialect that 19th-century readers identified with all slaves, despite the fact that Sojourner Truth was born and raised in rural New York as the slave of a Dutch-speaking family, spoke Dutch as a child, took pride in speaking correct English as an adult, and reportedly sounded like White New York peers.

But the point still comes across very clearly. Since Sojourner Truth’s day, Black and White and Brown and other excluded and marginalized women—and men—have been trying to ferret out the unjust and greedy weasels still eating away at the core of the Constitution and the promise of equal opportunity in our national life, gain the rights and freedoms they know they have been promised, and build a just America for themselves and their children. The struggle for a fair playing field for all Americans and their children must accelerate and reach a mighty roar today when these core values are so much under attack.