Sojourner Truth: Itinerant Truth-Teller
Wortham, Anne, The World and I
Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear
unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears:
for I am a stranger with thee,
and a sojourner, as all my fathers were."
"When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide
you into all truth."
"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
"If the truth shall have made thee free, thou shall not care for the vain words of men."
--Thomas a Kempis:Imitation of Christ, Bk III, Ch 4
"I stand on principle, always in one place, so everybody knows where to find Sojourner."
Alexis de Tocqueville, the remarkably prescient French observer of early nineteenth-century American habits and ideas, wrote that "the political activity that pervades the United States must be seen in order to be understood. No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants."1 One of the thousand voices was that of Sojourner Truth, ex-slave, itinerant preacher, spiritualist, orator, abolitionist, feminist, and namesake for the first robotic rover to explore the surface of Mars in 1997 as part of NASA's Mars Pathfinder Project.
Sojourner Truth is one of the two most famous black women of nineteenth-century America. The other, Harriet Tubman, called the "Moses" of her people, also came out of slavery. They are often confused--they did have much in common--but the geographical location of their experiences of bondage and their activity as former slaves made for significant differences between them.
Born about 1797 in rural New York, Truth was a generation older than Tubman, who was born around 1821 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Both had been hardworking farmers as enslaved girls, and both had earned their living as household workers. However, despite her early years on the farm, Truth was every inch a northern urbanite, while the mark of southern fields was indelible on Tubman.2
If Tubman was the Moses who led her people out of the Egypt of southern slavery, then Truth embodied Pentecostalism's Paraclete, the Holy Spirit as conceived in the Gospel of John, who, sent by God the Father and Jesus the Son, comes to convince people of sin and judgment.3 From camp meetings to lecture halls she wandered the land, preaching, teaching, lecturing, and singing Methodist hymns and songs of her own creation--telling the truth as revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. Yet, despite all her wandering she could always be found in one place, as she put it: "I stand on principle, always in one place, so everybody knows where to find Sojourner."4
As an adult the very dark-skinned Sojourner Truth stood close to six feet tall. Her dress was often Quaker-like, and she always wore a turban. Tall, thin, and angular, she stood on platforms across the country emphasizing her points by gestures with her long, bony arms, stabbing the air with her long fingers while admonishing audiences for their indifference toward, or opposition to, her causes. But she ultimately won them over with quick-witted humor, sarcasm, and repartee in penetrating one-line comments that captured the heart of moral, social, political, and religious issues.
Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionist Wendell Phillips compared Truth's power over an audience with that of the renowned French classical tragedienne Mademoiselle Rachel (1820--1858), who was regarded as the greatest actress of the early nineteenth century.5 Acclaimed for her domination of the stage with her regal bearing, fiery glances, intense concentration, and the feverish excitement she brought to climatic scenes, she was said to be the idol of Sarah Bernhardt.
Sojourner Truth was illiterate all her life, but she hardly allowed it to exclude her from the moral and political discourse of her time. She read by being read to. The Bible, newspapers, and her own intuition were the major sources for the language and ideas with which she communicated with the world. She learned the Bible by having it read to her, at first by adults, then by children. She preferred children, she said, because they would reread the same passage as many times as she requested without adding comment. Hearing without comment enabled her to arrive at her own understanding of the text and not what others thought it meant. Although she relied heavily on the Bible, she viewed it as a mixture of God's words and the ideas of those who had written it. Thus, she always tested her hearing of the Bible against what she believed to be the authority of the voice of the Holy Spirit within her.6 Even as her public presentations increasingly drew their authority from what she came to call "the deeds of my body"--that is, her own lived history of resilience--her ultimate authority in everything was the "spirit of truth."7
Historians generally agree that there were three great chapters in Sojourner Truth's life. The first consisted of thirty years in slavery, and the second covered the following fifteen years, during which she made herself free through the power of the Holy Spirit. The third great chapter in her life--the career of antislavery feminism--began in 1844 when she settled at the Northampton Association in Masschusetts and ended almost forty years later with her death in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The following, necessarily abbreviated, portrait of Truth's life will summarize important elements of her biography that are basic components of scholarly and popular treatments of the life and symbol of Sojourner Truth. I rely primarily on the works by Nell Irvin Painter, and by Erlene Stetson and Linda David, as their research impresses me as grounded in the historical and cultural context of Truth's long life that the limitation of space prevents me from providing here.
FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM
Given the name Isabella at birth, Sojourner Truth, the second youngest of twelve or thirteen children of James and Elizabeth, was born a slave about 1797, in Ulster County, New York. All were owned by Col. Johannes Hardenbergh Jr., an influential rural Dutch patroon. Upon the death of Hardenbergh, Isabella's family was given to the colonel's son, Charles. When Charles died in 1806, the family was broken up. Isabella, who was nine years old, was sold to a succession of owners in the region. She lived with her last master, John Dumont of New Palz, for sixteen years. During that time she grew into a young woman, married Thomas, another of Dumont's slaves, and had five children. The names and birth dates of four of the children are known: Diana, born about 1815; Peter, 1821; Elizabeth, 1825; and Sophia, about 1826. The fifth, James, probably born between Peter and Elizabeth, died as a child.
Dumont promised her and her husband that he would free them a year in advance of the 1827 date set by the New York legislature for the emancipation of all slaves born before 1799. But when Isabella injured her hand and lost her ability to work at peak efficiency, Dumont withdrew his promise, claiming that he had lost a year of her work. So instead of leaving Dumont on July 4, 1826, as they had agreed, Isabella worked for him throughout the summer and fall of 1826. When she reasoned that she had fully discharged her responsibilities, she took her infant child, Sophia, and walked to freedom, leaving behind her other children who were still tied to servitude because they had been born after 1799, thus not benefiting from New York's State's emancipation law.
Isabella took refuge at the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen of Wagondale, whom she had also known for years. When Dumont came after Isabella, Van Wagenen, who was opposed to slavery, purchased the remaining part of her slave time. He also paid $5 for the baby, who, according to the law, was still Dumont's property. Taking the Van Wagenens' last name, Isabella lived what she called a "quiet peaceful life" for about a year with "excellent people."8
SANCTIFICATION AND SELF-LIBERATION
Although Isabella was physically free while living with the Van Wagenens, she was not yet spiritually and psychologically free of her previous status as a slave. She lacked the self-confidence, a sense of personal autonomy and independent thought, and self- assertiveness of a free person. Furthermore, she was homesick for association with the other slaves, and she especially missed the slave holidays. She realized that she had even lost the immediacy of God's presence. God had always been available to hear her complaints about a master's or mistress's mistreatment. But the Van Wagenens gave her no reason to complain, and with no complaints she had no reason to talk to God.
One Sunday Isabella told the Van Wagenens of her intuition that her old master Dumont would visit them and she would return home with him. In fact Dumont did come, but he told her he would not take her back after she ran away from him. Isabella did not believe he meant what he said and proceeded to make herself ready, dressed her baby, Sophia, and headed for the gate where Dumont's carriage waited. But as she walked toward the gate, she suddenly felt an overpowering force block her path. According to her Narrative of Sojourner Truth, "God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of light, showing her 'in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over'--that he pervaded the universe--'and that there was no place where God was not.' "9
She became afraid, because in the peaceful atmosphere of the Van Wagenens' home she had lost connection with her "almighty Friend." Now she faced God's wrath and wanted a friend to intercede and plead against her destruction. In the space between God and Isabella there appeared a vision of Jesus that beamed "with the beauty of holiness, and radiant with love." She knew that Jesus loved her, and that he would be her "soul-protecting fortress" and the source of her power to rise "above the battlements of fear."10
Walking away from slavery with the Dumonts when she thought the time was right was Isabella's first act of self-liberation. Now through the discovery of Jesus' love, she achieved a second level of liberation, freedom from fear. "The assurance of her sanctification and God's constant support released Isabella from the crippling conviction that she was nothing," writes Painter. "She discovered a new means of power, what pentecostals call the power of the Spirit, that redressed the balance between someone poor and black and female and her rich white masters."11 Empowered by her new religious faith, she was able to pursue a third dimension of liberation, the assertive use of the law toward her own ends.12
One of the first problems Isabella faced in freedom was to bring her son, Peter, back from Alabama, where he had been taken illegally. In 1828, with the help of two prominent Dutch lawyers, for whom she worked as a live-in housekeeper, she sued successfully for Peter's return and was granted custody over him. In September 1828, Isabella and Peter traveled to New York City with a schoolteacher, a Miss Grear, and her father, who were, like Isabella, Methodist perfectionists. Between 1828 and 1843 she worked as a live-in domestic for several wealthy families. She became a zealous member of the Methodists, did mission work in the Bowery, and attended many camp meetings.
During the summer of 1834, the height of the millennial second advent movement known as Millerism, Isabella became involved with a millennial community called the Kingdom, in Sing Sing, New York. When the Kingdom failed she was accused by the principal financial backers of the experiment, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Folger, of trying to poison them. To clear her name, Isabella sued the Folgers for libel and won a settlement of $125 and costs. Her success was due in part to the assistance of Gilbert Vale, editor of the radical New York newspaper Citizen of the World. Vale took it upon himself to vindicate Isabella in his book Fanaticism: Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella.13
The next major move in Isabella's life occurred on June 1, 1843, when she decided to leave New York City to go east to lecture and took the name "Sojourner Truth." The new name signified the new person she had become in the spirit, a sojourner dedicated to speaking the truth as God revealed it, testifying to the hope that was in her, and exhorting the people to embrace Jesus and refrain from sin.14 Obeying a call to "travel up and down the land," she worked and walked her way across Long Island, then through Connecticut and on to western Massachusetts--"a dignified wanderer in her neat gown and bright bandanna, striding along the sandy roads. Wherever people would listen, she spoke. Where they would take her in, she slept. When they needed help, she stopped to work."15 All along the way, those who heard her preaching responded by recommending her to others. "Please receive her," wrote one person, "and she will tell you some new things."16
Sojourner Truth ended her first season of pilgrimage in the late fall of 1843. At the suggestion of her Millerite friends in Springfield, she took up residence at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian cooperative community begun by George Benson, brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. While at Northampton, Truth met some of the distinguished visitors to the community: Garrison, editor of the Boston Liberator and president of the American Anti-Slavery Society; Frederick Douglass; the English abolitionist George Thompson; Wendell Phillips; and David Ruggles, a New Yorker who was the first Negro to edit an antislavery newspaper and a veteran of the Underground Railroad. Ruggles had come to Northampton at the suggestion of Lydia Maria Child, antislavery author and editor of the New York National Anti-Slavery Standard, who had moved her base there.17
The Northampton Association dissolved in late 1846. Truth stayed on, first trying to make her own way, then lodging with the Bensons as their housekeeper. Although she was with people who cared for her, Truth longed for her own home. It is likely that the success of Douglass' 1845 autobiography, which sold forty- five hundred copies in less than six months, suggested a means of affording a house of her own. A year after Douglass published, Truth began dictating her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, a Connecticut friend of the Bensons' and the Garrisons', who completed it three years later. Garrison, who had published Douglass' narrative, put Truth in touch with his own printer, who printed Narrative on credit.
Once Narrative was printed, Truth had the means to fulfill her dream of acquiring a home of her own for the first time in her life. In 1854 she discharged the mortgage and, at last, at fifty- seven years old, owned her own house, free and clear. Her daughters, who by then had acquired their freedom, joined her there. Her husband had died in the Ulster County, New York, poorhouse, not long after his emancipation in 1827; and Peter had been lost at sea. She kept the house until the fall of 1857, when she moved to another associationist community, settled by Quakers involved in spiritualism, in Harmonia, Michigan, just outside Battle Creek. In 1867 she settled in Battle Creek.18
As Truth's first effort in deliberate self-representation, Narrative marks a turning point in her biography. The 1850 edition, published simultaneously in Boston and New York, included an introduction by Garrison, in which he used Truth's character--"her moral integrity ... the religious sentiment of her soul ... [her] mind of no common order"--to condemn that system of oppression that placed her "on a level with cattle and swine ... which seeks to cripple the intellect, impair the understanding, and deprave the hearts of its victims--a system which has subjected to its own foul purposes, in the United States, all that is wealthy, talented, influential, and reputedly pious, in an overwhelming measure!"19
Although Truth's personal appearances created a steady market for Narrative in audiences she reached directly, she lacked the national visibility to reach a wider public. Garrison's introduction to the first edition had helped Truth reach greater readership. But in the wake of the unprecedented sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, and the worldwide fame it brought Stowe, Truth concluded that Stowe's endorsement would bring her even greater visibility and sales. In 1853, she journeyed to Andover, Massachusetts, and asked Stowe directly for a blurb, which was called a "puff" in the literary market. Stowe consented and wrote by hand that the "true and faithful" narrative "is the history of a mind of no common energy & power whose struggles with the darkness & ignorance of slavery have a peculiar interest. The truths of Christianity seem to have come to her almost by a separate revelation."20
Stowe's puff, which became the introduction to the 1853 edition of Narrative, boosted Truth's sales. Thereafter the two women went their separate ways. However, a decade later Stowe used Truth's visit with her as the basis of a condescendingly appreciative, but carelessly written, magazine profile of the former slave.
In 1875, with the help of Frances Titus, her friend in Battle Creek, Sojourner reprinted Narrative, supplementing it with her "Book of Life," compiled by Titus, which included personal correspondence, testimonials from longtime friends, newspaper accounts of her activities, and autographs of notable reformers and politicians, including Abraham Lincoln. This expanded edition was reprinted in 1878, '81, and '84 under the title Narrative of Sojourner Truth; A Bondswoman of Olden Time, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn From Her "Book of Life." The 1884 edition was reprinted, one year after Sojourner's death, with an additional memorial chapter by Titus.21
Sojourner's stay at Northampton was a turning point in her development, as it remade her public persona, notes Painter. "Having been an itinerant preacher along Methodist and Millerite lines since she had taken the name Sojourner Truth in 1843, after Northampton Truth began to speak up for anti-slavery and feminist causes. Without her stay at the Northampton Association, Sojourner Truth probably would not have become any better known than other black women preachers of the antebellum era."22 As Stetson and David point out, "What Truth found at Northampton was an entry into the organized network of middle-class antislavery agitation, with its access to lecture halls, churches, private homes, and publicity."23
Encouraged by Garrison to go on her first tour on the antislavery and women's rights circuit, Truth gave her first antislavery speech in Northampton in the fall of 1844. Following that engagement her lecture tour took her to meetings in New York City, New England, and western New York, where, in Rochester, she made her headquarters for several months.24 It was during this period that she met Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Rochester abolitionist Amy Post. Middle-class white women like these--as well as Olive Gilbert and Lydia Maria Child, who also transcribed the recollections of former slaves--saw their production and promotion of the stories of black women as an expression of their antislavery protest; they also used the voices of black women as mechanisms through which their feminist interests could be served.25
Sojourner was the perfect vessel for these women because she was truly fascinating. The invaluable assets that she brought to the antislavery cause were her wit, energetic intelligence, personal presence, and the story of her life. "The cause would have found her soon enough," note Stetson and David. "By coming to Northampton she saved everyone that trouble."26 Historian Margaret Washington provides a succinct overview of the communicative skills that so impressed Truth's new associates:
"In her speeches, sermons, and lectures Sojourner Truth took parables from everyday life to explain important political and social issues. Her words were peppered with biblical metaphors, symbols, and quotations. In the extemporaneous "stump" speaker tradition popular in antebellum America, few could match Sojourner Truth. Whether trying to persuade farmers in western states on antislavery, communing with her eastern abolitionist friends, detailing her own bondage experience with other blacks, or addressing her favorite audience, the children who often flocked around her, Sojourner captivated her hearers. Her communicative capacity and personal magnetism were subjects of conversation wherever she went.27"
TRUTH'S PUBLIC PERSONA
Those who associated with Sojourner Truth were almost unanimous in their characterizations of her personality and manner. They saw her as the exemplification of the basic goodness, wisdom, strength, and decency of the idealized common man. Stanton wrote of "the marvellous wisdom and goodness of this remarkable woman."28 One writer described "the kind, strongly outlined face, in which intelligence and force of character were written in every lineament."29 Stowe said of her: "I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman. ... There was both power and sweetness in that great warm soul and that vigorous frame."30
Observers often commented on the strangeness of her manner and presence. Frances Gage described her as "the weird, wonderful creature, who was at once a marvel and a mystery."31 Eliza Leggett wrote: "Those who have heard Sojourner will never forget her power, never forget how they sway'd with her will--she leaning on her Staff her tall figure bent a little with ever looking keen & tender yet pitiful--a far off look as tho she caught the future, then rising she would ... speak in words so searching, so true, that pale faces would brighten and flush in response."32
In Painter's interpretation of such descriptions of Sojourner Truth, she points out that although Truth became quite sophisticated through her long association with well-educated people, her reform associates and audiences insisted on perceiving a flawed causal connection between Truth's illiteracy and her wisdom. "This desire to see Truth as natural and uncorrupted, an exotic among middle-class white Americans, fed the fascination that sustained Truth's attractiveness as a truth- telling entertainer," says Painter.33
But many others, including the venerable Frederick Douglass, who did his share of truth-telling entertaining, saw little about Truth's self-presentation that was attractive. In the essay "What I Found at the Northamption Association," written near the end of his life, Douglass (1817--1895) included a portrait of Sojourner Truth that Painter believes reveals his grasp of "the key to Truth's ... success among white reformers, the qualities that made her memorable and were so widely described in print."34 Revealing his resentment, Douglass condescendingly said Truth was
"[a] strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense, who seemed to feel it her duty to trip me up in my speeches and to ridicule my efforts to speak and act like a person of cultivation and refinement. ... She was a genuine specimen of the uncultured negro. She cared very little for elegance of speech or refinement of manners. She seemed to please herself and others best when she put her ideas in the oddest forms.35 "
Although Douglass could not deny the fact that Truth was "much respected, honest, industrious, and amiable," he clearly objected to her uncultured ways and resented her benefiting ("Her quaint speeches easily gave her an audience") from the ignorance due to slavery that he had worked so hard to overcome. However, Douglass saw as a clever ignoramus what many in Truth's audiences saw as the embodiment of the clever, experience-savvy "common man" that was popular in American literature at the time and remains so today. This kind of "horse sense" or "fool sense" character "who does not have to look into a book to find the answers, does not have to ask anybody on earth what to do," was a staple in the fiction of writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Farrar Browne, Marietta Holley, and Frances Miriam Whitcher.36
Whether Douglass approved or not, Truth treated her illiteracy as an asset, not as a mark of bondage. Carlton Mabee believes that the reason she never learned to read was that she was able to use her illiteracy as a mechanism of moral elevation and even transcendence "from which she could more effectively scold an audience."37 She seemed to relish any opportunity to make the point that illiteracy is not equivalent to lack of intelligence or lack of moral character by showing her superiority over more learned people. "You know, children," she is reported to have said, "I don't read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations." Making literacy a qualification for voting was "a narrow idea," she said. "I know and do what is right better than many big men who read."38
In their study of Truth's use of rhetoric, Suzanne Fitch and Roseann Mandziuk point out that "part of Truth's appeal resided in her evocation of the 'horse sense' character to set herself apart from her audiences as one who is superior to them because she has common sense and can see through their empty rhetoric and posturing."39 Another source of her projection of superiority was her belief that the slave will be with God, but "where will the slaveholder be when eternity begins?"
AR'N'T I A WOMAN?
The most often quoted speech by Sojourner Truth, the one by which she is best known today, was delivered at the second annual Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron on May 28, 1851. It was a version of the speech, recalled twelve years later by activist Frances Gage, that activists used to transform Truth into the standard-bearer of antislavery feminism and the icon of black womanhood. In an article published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on May 2, 1863, Gage, who had acted as president of the convention, was responding to Stowe's article "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl" in the April 1863 Atlantic Monthly. Gage was particularly interested in correcting "Mrs. Stowe's remarks on Sojourner's opinion of Woman's Rights," which gave the impression that Truth was opposed to women's rights.
In Stowe's article Truth is an intriguing, innocent exotic who speaks in the southern slave dialect of Stowe's characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and whose "chief delight" is "to talk of 'glory' and sing hymns." Stowe's Truth disdains feminism and wonders what women want: "Ef women want any rights more 'n dey's got, why don't dey jus' take 'em, an' not be talkin' about it?"40
To reclaim Truth as the voice of both abolitionism and feminism, Gage attempted to reproduce the speech she gave at the Akron convention and its impact on the audience. Gage reported that when Truth appeared there were vocal objections by those who thought her presence meant that convention leaders like Gage would forge a linkage between abolition and women's rights. According to Gage, Sojourner cowed a disruptive, unruly crowd by her practical eloquence and persuasive powers. "The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eye piercing the upper air like one in a dream," recalled Gage. Truth reportedly saved the day for the women's cause with her oration, which Gage presented in the same southern slave dialect that Stowe had attributed to Truth as the "Libyan Sibyl."
The rhetorical question that Gage alleged Truth asked repeatedly in her speech--"and ar'n't I a woman?"--became the de facto title of Truth's oration.
"Dat man over dar say dat woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have de best place eberwhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud- puddles, or gives me any best place; [and, raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked], "And ar'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm!" [And she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing its tremendous muscular power.] "I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me--and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as man, (when I could get it,) and bear de lash as well--and ar'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern and seen 'em mos all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none by Jesus heard--and ar'n't I a woman? Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head--what dis dey call it?" ["Intellect," whispered some one near.] "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do with women's rights or niggers' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"41 "
Appearing together in the 1878 edition of Narrative, Stowe's and Gage's accounts contributed equally to Truth's legend until well into the middle of the twentieth century. A second version of Gage's speech--in which "Ar'n't I a woman?" was changed to the harsher "Ain't I a woman?"--was published in the History of Woman Suffrage. This establishment version of the speech is the version that appears in most anthologies, and it is at the heart of the Truth legend.
Recent historians like Painter have challenged the accuracy of Gage's speech. The famous question "Ar'n't I a woman?" was Gage's invention, argues Painter. "Contrary to legend, Truth had not braved a hostile white crowd, for the crowd was friendly. She had not stopped a malicious male attack on women, for the men supported women's rights. Nor had she saved a mass of cowering white women, for the women spoke with confidence. But Truth did see her presence in the meeting as a rousing success."42 Truth was especially pleased that she was able to sell many copies of her Narrative during intermissions.
Painter and others argue that the more reliable version of the Akron speech is the Anti-Slavery Bugle's June 21, 1851, on-the- scene account written by its editor, Marius Robinson, who was also the recording secretary of the convention. Robinson wrote:
"One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward and addressing the President [Frances Gage] said with great simplicity: "May I say a few words?" Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded: "
""I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint, and man a quart--why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,--for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and buzzard."43 "
Robinson introduced Truth as an ex-slave, but without the use of southern slave dialect or other rhetorical techniques to emphasize her blackness, as is the case in Gage's account. He presented Truth's words in standard English, though he mentioned the impossibility of capturing all her dimensions in print. Painter believes that Robinson's account is more reliable because unlike Gage, who had not met Truth before the convention, Robinson and his wife had been hosts to Truth for several days. She made her northern Ohio base the offices of the Salem Anti- Slavery Bugle, which Robinson edited.
"Had Truth said ["Ar'n't I a woman?"] several times in 1851, as in Gage's article, Marius Robinson, who was familiar with Truth's diction, most certainly would have noted it. If he had an unusually tin ear, he might have missed it once, perhaps even twice. But not four times, as in Gage's report.44"
Painter lists the following additional reasons why Robinson's uneventful, less dramatic reportage should be judged as more reliable than Gage's twelve-year-old recollections.
"While Gage was busy chairing--and this was her first time as a chair--Marius Robinson was the designated recording secretary. His report of Gage's keynote address captures spoken English and demonstrates his ability to take down what people said as they were talking. Above all, Robinson published his report within weeks of Truth's speech, while Gage waited twelve years. We also know that in verifiable details, her account contradicts the historical record. Finally, Gage was in competition with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whereas Robinson did not write against anyone else. This competition supplied her a motive for heightening rhetorical effect.45"
It is generally agreed that what made Truth's speech a defining moment in the women's rights movement was that "she redrew the triangle of white woman-black slave-white man to reposition some blacks as women, a hard position, which would in the end have separated these white women from many of the white male abolitionists on whom they depended, who were working for the emancipation of slaves, not slaves as women."46 But what was a defining moment in the women's rights movement was not widely known around the country. Although Truth's speech was reported in other newspapers than the Anti-Slavery Bugle, those reports did virtually nothing to increase Truth's visibility beyond the abolitionist and feminist networks in the 1850s. It took several social changes, as well as the Stowe and Gage profiles, to make that possible.
The transformation of the Civil War into a crusade against slavery, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the acceptance of blacks into the Union Army all raised the national consciousness about the situation of blacks, and northerners eagerly read about "the Negro" in the popular press. Stowe, always in need of funds to support a lavish lifestyle, tapped into this interest by publishing "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl."
As flawed as it was, "Libyan Sibyl" reached an audience of thousands. "The power of Harriet Beecher Stowe's prose, the fame of her name, and the prestige of America's leading intellectual journal transformed the persona of Sojourner Truth," notes Painter. "From a little-noted evangelist and reformer, she became a celebrity; her presence, of itself, was now news." The Gage profile added to the interest generated by Stowe. Mainstream newspapers like the Boston Commonwealth, the New York Tribune, and the Philadelphia Bulletin became interested in Truth as the well-known symbol among liberals that she was, as well as a particular person with her own history. But their reference point was always Gage and Stowe.47
Sojourner Truth also contributed to her increased visibility. From the time of Narrative's 1850 publication, Truth carried copies of it to sell, and during the war she sold photographs of herself, dressed in expertly tailored Quaker-style clothing and seated with the bearing of a respectable middle-class matron. The caption of the photographs, "I sell the shadow to support the substance," speaks volumes. As Painter points out, the photographs themselves were another form of communication in which Truth challenged the commonplaces of nineteenth-century American culture with the image of "black woman as lady."48
CIVIL WAR, RECONSTRUCTION, AND JOURNEY'S END
During the Civil War, despite advancing age and infirmities, Truth worked tirelessly on several fronts. At the beginning of the Civil War she gathered supplies for Negro volunteer regiments, and in 1864 she went to Washington, D.C., where she helped integrate streetcars and was received at the White House by President Lincoln.49 That same year she accepted appointment with the National Freedmen's Relief Association to counsel ex- slaves, particularly in matters of resettlement. In 1865 she moved on to work at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C.
After the Civil War, Sojourner's interests turned to women's suffrage, temperance, religion, and a crusade to secure land in Kansas and Missouri for freed slaves. In 1875 she returned to Battle Creek, where she remained until her death on November 26, 1883. She was survived by her daughters Sophia, Elizabeth, and Diana and several grandchildren. Her funeral, attended by a thousand people, was one of the biggest Battle Creek had witnessed. Obituaries came from veteran abolitionists, educated blacks, and women suffragists.
In his 1883 obituary on Truth in the New York Globe, T. Thomas Fortune identified a puzzle that surrounds Sojourner Truth to this day: Many people know Sojourner Truth's name without understanding why. Painter writes that even admirers often admit their ignorance of whatever she might have done. Her identity, observes Painter, has been blurred by her own means of communication. "She was preeminently a speaker, and we remember her for spontaneous commentary, not deeds," writes Painter. Unlike Harriet Tubman, who acted and "stayed rooted in the historical contingencies of slavery," Truth talked, and "the talking figure of Truth was portable." Although she has endured as a necessary commentator on American racism and sexism, as Painter further points out, "the spoken word is notoriously unstable. Truth depended upon the disparate amanuenses [public secretaries] for the preservation of her identity. They represented her according to their own lights, often in dialect of their own invention. Depending on the reporter, Truth can appear as a northerner or a southerner, an insightful commentator or an ignoramus."50
Despite the fact that Truth's words were so often dressed in what she called someone else's "beautiful garments," and she herself so abstracted from history that the symbol of Truth is more meaningful to contemporary Americans than the historic person, she knew who she was and what her purpose was. This is exemplified by an incident that Frances Titus credited to Parker Pillsbury. When a heckler commented on a talk Truth gave against slavery by saying, "I don't care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea," she answered, "Perhaps not, ... but the Lord willing I will keep you scratching."51 If Truth is recognized for nothing else, it must be said that she succeeded in causing many nineteenth-century Americans to do a lot of scratching.
SOJOURNER TRUTH TODAY
What is Sojourner Truth's relevance to us? To be sure, by following the contours of her long life and the paths of her sojourn, we will be disabused of the unfortunate notion that slavery in the United States was exclusively "southern," and we can obtain a close-up perception of the struggle of black and white nineteenth-century Americans to realize the promise of their nation's founding. But we can also learn from Sojourner Truth, as her life exemplified a timeless lesson that Jacqueline Bernard has articulated best: "Only very slowly, through the stubborn personal effort that characterized all her struggles, did Sojourner teach herself to separate truth from the falsehoods around her. In that struggle, she found her courage and her freedom, and with these the strength to help free others."52 In Sojourner Truth's life we learn that freedom is not merely social and political, and that those external forms of freedom are of little use to us if we are enslaved intellectually and spiritually.
1.Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Richard Heffner (New York: New American Library, 1963), 108.
2.Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 201.
3.John 16:7--16, in Painter, Sojourner, 75.
4.Quoted in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Sojourner Truth on the Press," History of Woman Suffrage, eds. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, vol. 2 (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1882), 927. In Suzanne Pullon Fitch and Roseann Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story and Song (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997), 94.
5.Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl," Atlantic Monthly, April 1863, 476--77. Stowe mentions Phillips' alleged comparison of Truth and Rachel, 480. Cited in Erlene Stetson and Linda David, Glorifying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth 48(East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1994), 121, Fn 9.
6.Painter, Sojourner, 86.
7.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 120.
8.[Olive Gilbert], Narrative of Sojourner Truth , edited with an introduction by Margaret Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 48.
9.[Gilbert], Narrative, 49.
10.[Gilbert], Narrative, 53.
11.Painter, Sojourner, 30.
12.Painter, Sojourner, 22.
13.Gilbert Vale, Fanaticism: Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella in the Case of Matthias, Mr. and Mrs. B. Folger, Mr. Pierson, Mr. Mills, Catherine, Isabella, Etc. Etc., 2 vols. (New York: G. Vale, 1835). In Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 14--15.
14.[Gilbert] Narrative, 80.
15.Jacqueline Bernard, Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth , (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990), 126.
16.Quoted in Stetson and David, Glorifying, 95
17.Painter, Sojourner, 70.
18.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 103.
19.In [Gilbert], Narrative, 119.
20.Quoted in Painter, Sojourner, 130--131.
21.Margaret Washington, "Note on Editions of Sojourner Truth's Narrative," in [Gilbert], Narrative, 125--27.
22.Nell Irvin Painter, Introduction, in Bernard, Journey, xviii.
23.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 106.
24.See Fitch and Mandziuk, "Chronology of Major Speeches," Sojourner Truth as Orator, 223--26.
25.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 105--106.
26.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 14.
27.Washington in [Gilbert], Narrative, xv--xvi.
28.Stanton, History, 928.
29."Sojourner Truth," Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago] 13 Apr. 1879, 3. In Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 90.
30.Stowe, "Libyan Sibyl," Atlantic Monthly, 473.
31.Frances Gage, "Sojourner Truth," National Anti-Slavery Standard, 2 May 1863, 4. In Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al., eds, Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 199--201.
32.Eliza Leggett, "Sojourner Truth," Leggett Family Papers, n. p. n.d., Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich. In Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 91.
33.Painter, Sojourner, 147.
34.Painter, Sojourner, 98.
35.Frederick Douglass, "What I Found at the Northampton Association," Charles Sheffeld, ed., History of Florence, Massachusetts (Florence, Mass.: Charles A. Sheffeld, 1895), 131-- 32.
36.Walter Blair, Horse Sense in American Humor: From Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), vii. Quoted in Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 40.
37.Carleton Mabee, "Sojourner Truth, Bold Prophet: Why Did She Never Learn to Read?" New York History, January 1988, 55--77.
38.Stanton, History, 926.
39.Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 82.
40.Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Painter, Sojourner, 154.
41.Gage, "Sojourner Truth," 199--201.
42.Painter, Sojourner, 171, 129.
43.Quoted in Painter, Sojourner, 125--26. Robinson's version does not appear in the official History of Woman Suffrage (1881). However, editors of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature have chosen to include Robinson's version alongside Gage's account.
44.Painter, Sojourner, 171.
45.Painter, Sojourner, 282. One striking detail that Gage erroneously gives Truth to say is that she had given birth to thirteen children.
46.Stetson and David, Glorifying, 117.
47.Painter, Sojourner, 163, 177.
48.For the meaning and function of Truth's photographs, see Painter, Sojourner, 187--99.
49.For an analysis of the myths surrounding Truth's meeting with Lincoln, see Carleton Mabee, "Sojourner Truth and President Lincoln," New England Quarterly 61:4 (Dec. 1988):519--529. Henry Chase, "Memorable Meetings: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions: The Magazine of Afro-American Culture (Feb.- Mar. 1995):30--31.
50.In Painter, Sojourner, 257, 261, 272, 261.
51.Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator, 26.
52.Bernard, Journey, x.…
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Publication information: Article title: Sojourner Truth: Itinerant Truth-Teller. Contributors: Wortham, Anne - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 15. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 2000. Page number: 291. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.