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Sojourner Truth

    That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

struth.gifSOJOURNER TRUTH’S 1851 speech distinguishes her experience as a slave from that of privileged white women, protected by the nineteenth-century ideology of the “cult of true womanhood.” This evangelist, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist claims equality as her birthright, grounded in the strength of women forced to work the land of others. Born into slavery in Hurley, New York, Isabella Bomefree sought emancipation at age thirty with the help of a white family whose surname, Van Wagenen, she adopted. Having seen two of her four children sold from their home into slavery, she fled in part to prevent the sale of the other two. For a time she did domestic work in New York City, where she joined forces with Elijah Pierson, an evangelical minister attempting to convert prostitutes, and later with Robert Matthew, the leader of an interracial religious community called Zion Hill, where she lived briefly. In 1843, after a visionary experience, she renamed herself Sojourner Truth and began what would be a forty-year career of preaching and lecturing across the United States.

Because Truth was illiterate, most of what was known about her during her lifetime was culled from journalists’ reports of her speeches. A gifted orator, Truth used rhetorical flourishes, Biblical and historical allusions, and logical argument in her lectures and mesmerized crowds with her tall, commanding presence and keen intelligence. “I can’t read,” she once proclaimed, “but I can read people.” During the 1840s and 1850s she combined religious fervor with abolitionist aims, becoming connected with George W. Benson, William Lloyd Garrison, and other antislavery advocates and touring the Midwest with copies of her autobiography in tow. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) recounts in detail Truth’s life as recorded and transcribed by the white abolitionist Olive Gilbert. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s article “Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl,” published in 1863 in the Atlantic Monthly, also enhanced her fame. A little-known fact about Truth’s life, as reported by Gloria I. Joseph, is that she was responsible for Congress’s banning of segregated streetcars in Washington, D.C., in the early 1860s, nearly 100 years before Rosa Parks began the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts that sparked the contemporary civil rights movement. Calling out in her booming voice, “I WANT TO RIDE,” Truth commandeered the car she desired and once successfully sued a conductor who tried to eject her from his “whites only” coach, causing him to lose his job.

Truth’s speeches reveal her intellect, wit, and determination that justice should prevail. “Ain’t I a Woman?” (sometimes called “Ar’n’t I a Woman?”) was presented at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, and has become a classic text of the modern feminist movement; it claims that none of us are free until all of us are free. Since the most familiar version of the speech was recorded twelve years later by the white feminist Frances Gage, however, readers today cannot know precisely what Truth actually said. Her 1867 speech “Keeping the Thing Going While Things Are Stirring” was given when the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed, insuring black men’s right to vote but failing to mention women. Although many male and female abolitionists, black and white, argued that the amendment should pass, for the black man’s hour had come, Truth supports freedom for people of all races and both genders, for slavery must be “root and branch destroyed.” Her speeches were published by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The History of Woman Suffrage (1881–86) and have been modernized by Miriam Schneir in Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (1972). A 1996 biography by NELL IRVIN PAINTER provides insight into Truth’s courageous life and voice.

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