Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

47
SNAKES AND GEESE

Sojourner Truth

The fourth National Woman's Rights Convention, held in New York City in September 1853, provided an "overt exhibition of that public sentiment woman was then combating," according to Stanton's History of Woman Suffrage (547). Young men bent on disrupting the proceedings paid for admission to the hall, then heaped abuse upon the women speakers. But no speaker at the "Mob Convention" received more demeaning and abusive treatment than Sojourner Truth, who by virtue of being both black and female combined "the two most hated elements of humanity" (567). Moreover, no speaker proved more capable of turning the hecklers' insults against them.

When Truth rose to speak in the afternoon session on September 7, the convention's second day, she was greeted with "a perfect storm of applause, hisses, groans and undignified ejaculations," according to the reporter for the New York Times.

One lad, with red hair, whose education had evidently been grievously neglected, insinuated that the colored lady was not then acting in her accustomed sphere, by calling for "an oyster stew with plenty of crackers." Another scape-grace called vociferously for a "sixpenny plate of clam soup."

Undeterred, Truth "came forward to the desk, rolled up her eyeballs in scorn, and raised her hand and voice in wrath." Her remarks compare the taunts and hisses of the hecklers to the calls of snakes and geese and make clear that the movement for women's rights will not be delayed by such disruptions: "You may hiss as much as you like, like any other lot of geese, but you can't stop it; it's bound to come." Truth likens her audience to the biblical King Haman, persecutor of Jews, who was himself hanged on the gallows he had prepared for his victims.

Dressed in a blue gown and black pinafore, with a white cotton kerchief on her head, Truth spoke with anger and force at a volume sufficient to be heard over the interjections of her tormenters. According to the astonished Times reporter:

Ye who have not heard the roar of the cataract can form but a meagre idea of the volume of sound that gushed forth upon the devoted audience. Imagine Trinity Church organ . . . with its low bass and trumpet stops pulled out, all the keys down, and two men and a boy working for dear life at the bellows, and you have a gentle specimen of the angry voice of Sojourner Truth.

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