Practical Truths: Black Feminist Agency and Public Memory in Biographies for Children

By Vanderhaagen, Sara | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Practical Truths: Black Feminist Agency and Public Memory in Biographies for Children


Vanderhaagen, Sara, Women's Studies in Communication


Biographies are an influential, though understudied, aspect of Western educational culture and American public memory. This essay examines how juvenile biographies about Sojourner Truth portray her as a model

of human agency for young readers. Specifically, the essay argues that biographies published in the United States between 1967 and 2009 rhetorically construct versions of Truth's life guided by the agential tropes of consciousness, self-determination, and resistance. These tropes reflect values espoused by African American Jeminist traditions while also rendering Truth's story accessible to a wide variety of young American readers.

Keywords African Americans, agency, feminism, juvenile biographies, public memory, Sojourner Truth

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Biographies for children and young people are meant to be memorable. For instance, in their 2009 biography for children, Sojourner Truth's Step-Stomp Stride, author-illustrator team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney provide this striking introduction to their larger-than-life protagonist: "She was big. She was black. She was so beautiful. Her name was Sojourner. Truth be told, she was meant for great things. Meant for speaking. Meant for preaching. Meant for teaching the truth about freedom. Big. Black. Beautiful. True. That was Sojourner" (1). Constant repetition of these words--big, Black, beautiful, and true--throughout the text embeds an image of Truth in the mind of the reader. Each word both identifies a physical characteristic and evokes associations with that characteristic. Big describes Truth's unusual stature, yet it also connotes an exaggerated strength that codifies this story as a kind of tall tale, not unlike that of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The combination of Black and beautiful depicts aspects of Truth's appearance and summons the "Black Is Beautiful" slogan popularized in the 1960s. These unique physical and psychological features, the narrator implies, have destined Truth for "great things." According to this interpretation, Truth had only to act in accordance with who she was (big, Black, beautiful, true), and the world would respond. Yet Truth lived in a time when "Blackness" meant enslavement, oppression, or, at best, invisibility. She lived in a time when "womanhood" meant limited opportunities, disenfranchisement, and dismissal. And "Black womanhood" meant an even more difficult existence than the sum of these challenging parts.

How does Truth emerge as such an unquestionably powerful figure, despite the numerous constraints on her agency? How do biographies like Pinkney's construct Truth as a compelling model of agency and bolster her role as a fixture of American public memory? In this essay, I argue that creators (1) of these biographical texts select and arrange scenes, anecdotes, facts, and quotations from Truth's life, guided by the tropes of consciousness, self-definition, and resistance. These three tropes of agency are both integral to Black feminist traditions and accessible to a broader audience of young Americans. By using values espoused by the African American feminist tradition (2) to promote appropriation of Truth's memory, such biographical texts possess the capacity to establish a unique transhistorical identification between Black women of the past and Black women of the future. (3) Yet the stories about Truth also encourage young readers who do not share aspects of Truth's identity to appropriate her legacy. In these biographies, she represents a historically marginalized group (i.e., African American women) while also speaking (or being made to speak) to members of dominant groups.

Although biographies for children have not been widely studied by communication scholars, such texts serve as powerful vehicles for circulating the stories of historical figures and the values believed to animate those stories. (4) By foregrounding the historical agent, biographical texts teach children about their own relationship with the past, the values of the present, and their responsibility to become the agents of the future. …

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