Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

SOJOURNER TRUTH
(1797?-1883, legendary anti-slavery and woman's rights agitator

SUZANNE PULLON FITCH

Sojourner Truth was an advocate for anti-slavery and woman's rights. As a freed Black woman, she epitomized both causes and from this position gained much of her influence as spokesperson for both reforms. As a slave, Truth was denied any opportunity for an education, and even after gaining her freedom, she never learned to read or write. Thus, extant texts of her speeches were transcribed by others as she spoke; probably none is accurate. Because they were transcribed, most of the content is fragmentary at best, and often the only records are reports of what she said that quote a phrase or two to show her ability to make a point.

A further problem in quoted fragments of her speeches concerns the language that she used. Because her first language was Dutch, and she did not learn English until she was nine or so, it is difficult to judge her language and accent. She may have spoken with a Germanic accent, but she may also have acquired some southern Black dialect from fellow slaves. However, there is little or no proof of this background in reports of her speaking. Truth did not approve of those who transcribed her speeches in a thick dialect. In her only remaining scrapbook, a fragment of an article in the Kalamazoo Telegraph that she kept states:

Sojourner also prides herself on a fairly correct English, which is in all senses a foreign tongue to her, she having spent her early years among people speaking "Low Dutch." People who report her often exaggerate her expressions, putting into her mouth the most marked southern dialect, which Sojourner feels is rather taking an unfair advantage of her. (1)

Given such strong indications of her unusual language background, the most extreme "negroisms" attributed to her have been removed in this chapter.

Despite the fragmentary nature of her extant rhetoric, what we know of Sojourner Truth's speeches provides enough evidence to show that she was an orator of great personal power whose words "came with direct and terrible force, moving friend and foe alike" ( Stone, 1976:252) at times, or softly and gently as she talked about prejudice to Sunday School children. Her use of the simple language of the uneducated, which she could weave into striking narrative and metaphors, her nearly six-foot frame that revealed the strength developed working as a farmhand and house maid, and her powerful low voice telling of her denied rights as a woman and an African-American made her one of the most forceful instruments of reform. She was more than a symbol for the two causes. Described as this "weird, wonderful creature, who was at once a marvel and a mystery" ( Gage, 1863:4), she set her own goals for both causes when she said, "So I am

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