Storyteller and Songstress
Any understanding of the rhetorical power of Sojourner Truth must begin with an appreciation of her tremendous appeal and the hold that she commanded over audiences. For example, the report in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of her 1863 speech to the State Sabbath School Convention in Battle Creek, Michigan, provided an impressive indication of her power and popularity:
Rev. T. W. Jones arose, and addressing the moderator, said that the speaker was "Sojourner Truth". This was enough: five hundred persons were instantly on their feet, prepared to give the most earnest and respectful attention to her who was once but a slave. Had Henry Ward Beecher, or any other such renowned man's name been mentioned, it is doubtful whether it would have produced the electrical effect on the audience that her name did. 1
Most accounts of Truth's speaking indicated similar reactions. Her rhetoric commanded the attention of audiences and the respect of her contemporaries, primarily because it was so accessible and simple, yet clever and insightful. Truth's personal style was marked by an interweaving of small anecdotes, tales from her personal experiences, familiar biblical references, and homespun, commonsense arguments. These basic aspects of her rhetoric combined to form a substantial, persuasive framework. From such varied sources she intertwined the tale of her life with the tale of her people. Coupled with her powerful physical presence and simple, Quaker-like dress, the result was a rhetorical narrative that both entertained and persuaded. Reactions to Truth, such as those described by Frances D. Gage in her recollection of Truth's speech at the 1851 Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, were common: "I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the jibes and sneers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration."2 Truth's rhetoric held audiences in rapt attention, transforming their sentiments through the simple logic of her stories.