Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song

By Suzanne Pullon Fitch; Roseann M. Mandziuk | Go to book overview

5
Conclusion: Folk Legend

Sojourner Truth continued to speak, sing, and amuse audiences until the end of her life. Throughout her rhetoric she employed her characteristic sharp wit and her engaging narrative style as she sought to influence her hearers. Truth addressed many causes in her long public career, primarily slavery, woman's rights, and her proposal to devote western lands to the freed slaves. She spoke mostly throughout northern states, often sharing the platform with the wellknown reformers of the time. Late in her life, she also adopted the cause of temperance, speaking out against both drinking and smoking, even though she had smoked earlier in her life. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton reported, Truth said that she took up her pipe in "self defense--she would rather swallow her own smoke than another's." 1 As she continued to speak in public in later years, however, Truth's ire turned toward tobacco and liquor as vices that corrupted youth and adults alike. For example, in an interview published in the Daily Inter Ocean in 1881, she linked the two as dual sources of social ills: "Tobacco is one of the great causes of intemperance, for it destroys the health, undermines the mental faculties, and creates in man a desire for strong drinks."2 In the same article, Truth especially inveighed against ministers who smoked, claiming that "[t]hey are not preachers in spirit who approach the Lord with a filthy tongue and a vitiated breath." 3 Thus, Truth never stopped crusading for what she believed to be right and was ever willing to expose hypocrisy wherever she observed it.

Truth demonstrated time and again that she understood how to control an unruly crowd, that she could think quickly on her feet, and that her best persuasive weapons were the facts of her own varied life. Her horse sense character both challenged and entertained audiences, as she reconstituted her own experiences into proof for her claims and credibility for herself. As one of the few African American women speaking publicly at the time, the renown and respect Truth achieved for herself truly were remarkable. Although much of Truth's appeal resided in her astute rendering of her own persona as her principal rhetorical resource, her fame also can be attributed to the profiles of her character and her activities featured in newspaper and magazine accounts. These descrip

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