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Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, born in about 1797, was a woman of remarkable intelligence despite her illiteracy. Truth had great presence. She was tall, some 5 feet 11 inches. Her voice was low, so low that listeners sometimes termed it masculine, and her singing voice was beautifully powerful. Whenever she spoke in public, she also sang. No one ever forgot the power of Sojourner Truth's singing, just as her wit and originality of phrasing were also memorable.

Sojourner Truth: ex-slave and fiery abolitionist, figure of imposing physique, riveting preacher and spellbinding singer who dazzled listeners with her wit and originality. Straight-talking and unsentimental, Truth became a national symbol for strong black women--indeed, for all strong women. Like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, she is regarded as a radical of immense and enduring influence; yet, unlike them, what is remembered of her consists more of myth than of personality. She was a complex woman who was born into slavery and died a legend. Inspired by religion, Truth transformed herself from a domestic servant named Isabella into an itinerant pentecostal preacher; her words of empowerment have inspired black women and poor people the world over to this day. As an abolitionist and a feminist, Truth defied the notion that slaves were male and women were white, expounding a fact that still bears repeating: among blacks there are women; among women, there are blacks.

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it, the men better let them."

Sojouner Truth

Isabella Van Wagenen was born into slavery in Hurley, New York in 1797. She was one of 13 children but she never got to know her brothers and sisters because they were quickly sold a slaves.

Her master, Mr. Dumont arranged for her to marry a slave named Thomas. She had 5 children with him, but her master sold some of them.

She was released following the New York Anti Slavery Law of 1827, however slavery was not abolished nationwide for 35 years. She lived for a time with a Quaker family who gave her the only education she ever received. They also helped her get back one of her children.

She became an outspoken advocate of women's rights as well as blacks' rights. In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth . Everywhere she spoke she made a lasting impression. She was physically strong and over six feet tall and she had a powerful, booming voice.

She actively supported the Black troops during ther Civil War and helped get the government to give these soldiers land. She continued to travel and preach throughout the northeast and midwest from her home in Battle Creek. Michigan where she died at the age of 84 in 1883.

Ain't I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. (The women's rights movement grew in large part out of the anti-slavery movement.) No formal record of the speech exists, but Frances Gage, an abolitionist and president of the Convention, recounted Truth's words. There is debate about the accuracy of this account because Gage did not record the account until 1863 and her record differs somewhat from newspaper accounts of 1851. However it is Gage's report that endures and it is clear that, whatever the exact words, "Ain't I a Woman?" made a great impact at the Convention and has become a classic expression of women's rights.

The Classic Report

Several ministers attended the second day of the Woman's Rights Convention, and were not shy in voicing their opinion of man's superiority over women. One claimed "superior intellect", one spoke of the "manhood of Christ," and still another referred to the "sin of our first mother."

Suddenly, Sojourner Truth rose from her seat in the corner of the church.

"For God's sake, Mrs.Gage, don't let her speak!" half a dozen women whispered loudly, fearing that their cause would be mixed up with Abolition.

Sojourner walked to the podium and slowly took off her sunbonnet. Her six-foot frame towered over the audience. She began to speak in her deep, resonant voice: "Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter, I think between the Negroes of the South and the women of the North - all talking about rights - the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this talking about?"

Sojourner pointed to one of the ministers. "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 helps me any best place. And ain't I a woman?"

Sojourner raised herself to her full height. "Look at me! Look at my arm." She bared her right arm and flexed her powerful muscles. "I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain't I a woman?"

"I could work as much, and eat as much as man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?"

The women in the audience began to cheer wildly.

She pointed to another minister. "He talks about this thing in the head. What's that they call it?"

"Intellect," whispered a woman nearby.

"That's it, honey. What's intellect got to do with women's rights or black folks' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"

"That little man in black there! He says women can't have as much rights as men. ‘Cause Christ wasn't a woman. She stood with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. "Where did your Christ come from?"

"Where did your Christ come from?", she thundered again. "From God and a Woman! Man had nothing to do with him!"

The entire church now roared with deafening applause.

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it the men better let them."

A Contemporaneous Account

From the Anti-Slavery Bugle, Salem, Ohio, June 21, 1851.
One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President (Frances Gage) said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am for woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and a man a quart -- why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much -- for we won't take more than our pint will hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and there won't be so much trouble.


For further reading:
Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, Carleton Mabee (NYU Press, 1993)

SOJOURNER TRUTH, THE LIBYAN SIBYL
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Atlantic Monthly 11 (April 1863): 473-481.


From: Detine L. Bowers, PhD

Greetings Sojourner Truth enthusiasts! I'm Detine Bowers. I'm a modern day Sojourner, and I teach the course "Sojourner Truth." Since studying African American rhetoric as professor of Communication, and traveling the underground railroad in 1993, and visiting Sojourner Truth's grave in Battle Creek, Michigan, I have been a Sojourner Truth enthusiast!

I've taught courses on Sojourner Truth in Wisconsin, developed the course at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I'm looking to establish a traveling Sojourner Truth interactive educational forum....

So happy to hear of your work that I've noticed on the Web.


From: Scott McCorkhill

Hi Duane,

The attached picture of Sojouner Truth and her grandson are in an old family album. I am a great-great grandson of John Deming of Salem, Ohio, which is where I live. His home was next door to Liberty Hall, and Sojouner stayed at his home. I thought you would be interested in these pictures.


From: Carl Van Wagenen

Hello,

I've attached a photograph that I took today of the Sojourner Truth monument and plaque which stands in front of the Ulster County Court House in Kingston, New York. Thought you might like to add it to your website.


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