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Abolitionist Feminism Then and Now #1: Sojourner Truth

9 November 2020

Aija Oksman, University of Edinburgh

Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883) was a foremother of abolitionist feminism. She was born and enslaved in New York state, and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. These were vital parts of her identity but they were also the aspects that became most exploited;  she was often misrepresented as a Southern slang drawling enslaved woman in the contemporary reports of her performances. White mainstream feminism made several efforts to repurpose Truth, and in this piece I will introduce, as an example of such repurposing, Truth’s most famous speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ and look at how Truth reclaimed her agency through imagery. It is the first of a three-part series for the Modernist Review that looks at abolition feminism – then and now.

Truth was born in a rather isolated community and the few African Americans in the area were also enslaved but they were far and wide, and therefore had little sense of Black community, unity or safety in numbers. Truth’s existence in slavery might have been lonelier than for enslaved people in the South, but she experienced the same abuses that other enslaved individuals endured: being sold at auction and separated from family at nine years old, the whippings and abuse, the sexual abuse at the hands of her white mistress, and having her children sold away from her.[1] Truth speaks little of her maltreatment in slavery but, notably, by the time Truth came to New York City, her children were still in ‘indentured servitude […] When Sojourner Truth became an abolitionist, some of her children were still not free.’[2]  What makes Truth unique beyond her empowered oratory skills and strong grasp of identity was her knowledge of her rights, and the way she vigorously employed them in her struggles. She became one of the first Black women to sue anyone white and win – not once, but thrice: in 1828 Truth sued Solomon Gedney , who had illegally bought Truth’s son and passed him to a family in Alabama.[3] Truth sued for slander in 1835, after being connected with a suspicious death during her time with the Kingdom of Matthias cult.[4] The third successful suit saw Truth take on streetcar company after an antagonistic conductor ‘grabbed [her] by the shoulder and jerk[ed her] around, order[ing] her to get out’.[5] Ultimately, the driver lost his job and Truth has once more successfully used American law to defend her rights. In the ‘Book of Life’ an incident is related where Truth, in turn, was arrested in 1863 for having spoken at anti-slavery meeting which resulted in members of the audience turning against Truth and threatening her with physical violence. Truth recalled:

My enemies, thinking I would probably run away, had made no preparation for the trial; but when they saw us come, hunted around and procured a shabby room […] and waited for some one [sic] to appear against me. After a while, two half-drunken lawyers […) made their appearance, eyed us for a few moments, then left. […] and this was the end of the trial.[6]

In all these instances, the white oppressors assumed an enslaved Black woman would not stand up and defend herself, and Truth triumphantly proved them wrong.

Not only would Truth use law to defend herself, she would not shy away from a retort on the podium either. The reputation of the power and sincerity of Truth’s oratory preceded her, and by the 1850s she was often sought out as a speaker at women’s rights and abolitionist conventions. Her popularity came with a price, and Truth often got heckled by members of the audience adverse to Truth’s causes. She reportedly took such moments in her stride, unafraid to retort: ‘You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.’[7] Much of her contemporary press wrote about Truth’s speeches but failed to document the content, and were often more concerned with her appearance and wit. However, there is an almost comprehensive collection of her lectures and oratories by the literary historians Suzanne Pullon Fitch and Roseann M. Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story and Song (1997), in which they provide Truth’s speeches and lectures as full as possible, analysing their impact on audiences then and their resonance today. It is unsurprising that Truth’s white adversaries were threatened by an empowered woman, unafraid to use law to her benefit, unyielding on the podium for the rights of her gender and race.

Nell Irvin Painter, Truth’s biographer, discovered it is impossible to track Truth’s ’anti-slavery feminist career [because] reporters did not invariably consider her worth identifying by name, or even mentioning her at all,’ especially in the early parts of her career.[8] As seen with her court cases, much of it was due to her being both an enslaved person and a woman, for many chauvinist white men were loudly opinionated as to what was best both for the African Americans and for women. However, by 1840s ’the issue of women as leaders in abolitionism had split the American movement […],’ which meant white feminists asserted authoritarian ownership over women’s issues, where the Black woman’s struggle was portrayed as not as urgent.[9] White feminists like Jane Swisshelm, thought ’as for colored women […] all the interest they have in this reform is as women. All it can do for them is to raise them to the level of men of their own class’ [my emphasis].[10] Following Swisshelm’s exclusionary logic, Black women could not hope to be elevated further than Black men, enforcing a further hierarchy of inequality. However, Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator, womanist and civil rights activist, stated that:

the history of women and the history of Negroes are, in the essential features of their struggle for status, quite parallel. In the first place, they have both inherited from the long past a traditional status which has restricted not only their activities, but their thinking with reference to the rest of life and with reference to themselves.[11]

Although most white women abolitionists saw it as their feminine duty to help enslaved people to gain civil rights, they were struggling to be liberated from patriarchal domination. Many white feminists considered joining forces with African Americans as a strategic tool to push for their own agenda, ultimately gaslighting abolition in order to push their own struggle to the fore.[12]

Truth was a major component of abolition feminism’s growth, but ’is known to us only through the pens of other writers’ as in her narrative or renditions of her speeches.[13] Her amanuenses, Olive Gilbert and Frances Titus, provided commentary into Truth’s Narrative which is mostly written in third person, with the occasional ‘me’ taking over the story.[14] The authors of the biography also noted the impossibility ‘to give the tones and manner with the words; but no adequate idea of them can be written while the tones and manner remain inexpressible.’[15] It was through these ‘original and unique […] tones and manner’ way of speaking how Sojourner Truth claimed agency of her oratory.[16] From the attempts to recreate Truth’s’ ’peculiar style,’ her speech ’Ain’t I a Woman?’, is best remembered.[17] And yet – Truth never uttered those exact words. Truth had been staying with her friends, Marius and Emily Robinson, in Salem as she attended the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, and it was Marius Robinson who wrote the first transcript of the speech shortly after its delivery.[18] In the article in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, June 21, 1851, Robinson notes Truth having said ‘I am a woman’s rights,’ but never once used the oft-quoted phrase ‘And ar’n’t [sic] I a woman?.’[19] At the convention, Frances Dana Gage had introduced Truth to the platform before she gave  her speech and she seemed to have admired Truth. Gage noted how ’the [women’s] cause was unpopular then. The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman […] walk with the air of a queen up the aisle.’[20]  However, in April 1863 – twelve years after the fact – Gage bought into the commercialism initiated by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s minstrel of ’The Libyan Sibyl.’[21] In the Libyan Sibyl, Stowe reminisced about having met the ‘evidently a full-blooded African’.[22] As Stowe would ‘recall the events of her life, as she narrated them to me’ she assigned Truth a drawling Southern plantation dialect , even parading her for her friends as ‘by this time I thought her manner so original that it might be worth while [sic] to call down my friends […] an audience was what she wanted – it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant.’[23]

Truth’s peculiar style would not have been a plantation drawl, instead it would have been closer to old Afro-Dutch. Painter notes that in Gage’s misguided effort, her rendition ’plays [to] the irony white women advocating women’s rights while ignoring women who are black,’ without realising how her version would come to replace Truth’s eloquence with a racial stereotype.[24] Gage was an affluent white woman who misrepresented Truth’s speech to serve her own perceived purpose, as she tapped into the notion of slavery being a Southern problem, as the Black speakers were asked to dumb down, believing it would bring the most sympathy.[25] Painter suggests Gage’s rendition led to Truth ’becoming the pivot that linked two causes – of women (presumed to be white) and of blacks (presumed to be men) – through one black female body’, as she was one of the few Black women regular in the early years of the women’s rights circuit.[26]

Truth understood the power of image as a way to represent herself in contest to prevailing racial renditions of her being as portrayed in text by predominantly white writers. Truth was the first woman to copyright her own image and the tag line – ‘I Sell Shadow to Support the Substance’ – that would come to represent her, each image carefully crafted, as Truth chose the same symbols of womanhood that her (white) contemporaries would have learned to read as denoting femininity and respectability. Hers was an image consciously far removed from primitive, racist stereotypes or the commoditised half- or fully naked enslaved people.[27] Truth might not be able to choose how she was represented in text, but she could choose how she re-imagined herself; she actively crafted an image that rethinks and counters stereotypes . Truth would become the most photographed African [and] American woman of the nineteenth century, at the same as Frederick Douglass became the most photographed American man – Black or white – of the nineteenth century.

Truth’s image became a part of narrative through which she re-claimed social codification. If she would have created her image for consolidation of white abolitionist guilt, she would have made sure to exhibit her marks of slavery – such as the missing fingers of her right hand.[28] Instead, her images contain codifications of affluence and femininity. But more than that, Truth’s direct gaze engages the voyeur to engage with her agency instead of her body. A striking image that was sure to leave lasting impression on the purveyor, ensuring the encounter would be of substance for those who met Truth and heard her speak.

The legacy of Truth has been growing since the date of her death, unceasingly, as the abolitionist feminists continue to draw on her work and words as they continue forging toward intersectional feminism within society, culture and politics to replace patriarchal dominance. Truth has been an inspiration for Black women of all generations from Harlem Renaissance to Black Power Movement,  and our generation’s Black Lives Matter.[29] There are notable reincarnations of Truth’s rhetoric and legacy, such as the 1950s radical civil rights organisation of African American women who named themselves ‘Sojourners For Truth and Justice,’ and issued “A Call to Negro Women” for African American women to descend on Washington D.C. to “demand of the President, the Justice Department, and the Congress the absolute immediate and unconditional redress of grievances.” The Sojourners planned to meet with the President, the Secretary of State, the Justice Department and the Attorney General.[30]

Today, Truth might be best remembered perhaps due to deliberate misrepresentation of her words, but her Narrative is taught, although distinctly different from the regular format, alongside enslaved narratives such Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and her Black enslaved woman’s story read alongside that of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). There have been empowered efforts to give Truth a voice, as The Sojourner Truth Project[31] had multiple talented Afro-Dutch women read the speech, with a voice it should be read. Truth’s oratory could be misappropriated, her life’s story repurposed for white cause, as Gage had attempted, but her image she could control, as she paved the way for abolitionist feminism.


The next instalment in this series will explore abolitionist feminism through the example of the empowered activist and writer, Eslanda Goode Robeson.


Sources

[1] Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), p. 16; Sojourner Truth,  The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondswoman of Olden Time, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from her ‘Book of Life”, Also A Memorial Chapter, ed. by Nell Irvin Painter (New York: Penguin Classic Books, 1998), p. 12, 18.

[2] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 23.

[3] Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’ to Narrative, p. 32-37.

[4] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p.58-59; Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p. 65.

[5] Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p.126.

[6] Ibid., p. 97-98.

[7] Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 67.

[8] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 114.

[9] Ibid., p. 115.

[10] Jane Swisshelm, quoted in Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 123.

[11] Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, ed. by Gerda Lerner (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. xxxv.

[12] Famously, Frederick Douglass would clash with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony when it came to gaining the right to vote (see Gary L. Lemons, Womanist Forefathers: Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pp. 35-38). Douglass also had a superior attitude to Truth’s more improvised approach to her speeches (due, in part, to her illiteracy). For more, see Aija Oksman, ‘The Conflict and Concord in Self-Representation of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth’, (Masters thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2018) https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/37261.

[13] The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, ed. by Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), p. 6.

[14] For example: ‘Slaveholders appear to me to take the same notice of the vices of the slave, as one does of the vicious disposition of his horse.’ Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p. 25.

[15] Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p. 41.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 128; Truth delivered her ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech on May 28, 1851 in Akron, Ohio at the Woman’s Rights Convention: see < https://www.loc.gov/item/93838317/&gt;.

[18] Woman’s Rights Convention, et al. The proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, held at Akron, Ohio, May 28 and 29, 1851. Cincinnati: Ben Franklin Book and Job Office. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress. <https://www.loc.gov/item/93838317/&gt;.

[19] Leslie Podell, The Sojourner Truth Project, <https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/&gt;..

[20] Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p. 90.

[21] Truth herself denounced this representation. When someone offered to read the story for her, she remarked: ‘I don’t want to hear about that old symbol; read me something that is going on now.’ Painter, ‘Memorial Chapter’, p. 118; for more on the stereotypes that Harriet Beecher Stowe attributed to Truth, see ‘Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl’,. Documenting the American South <https://docsouth.unc.edu/highlights/sojournertruth.html&gt; and ‘Book of Life’, Narrative,pp.103-117

[22] ‘Book of Life’, p. 103.

[23] Ibid., pp. 103-4.

[24] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 170.

[25] The most famous example of this is when Frederick Douglass relates being told to merely tell his story and let his white abolitionist friend ‘take care of the philosophy’; ‘It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. […] Besides, I was growing, and needed room. “People won’t believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you keep this way. […] Better to have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ‘tis not best you seem too learned.”’ My Bondage and My Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019 [1855]), pp. 247-8.

[26] Painter, Sojourner Truth., p. 171.

[27] For more on representations of enslaved people in photography see Brian Wallis, ‘Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes’, American Art, 9.2 (1995), pp. 39–61..

[28] Painter, Sojourner Truth, p. 186.

[29] For example, her quotations regularly appear at Black Lives Matter rallies and in September 2020 a statue was erected for Truth by the Hudson river, in Ulster County.

[30]‘The Sojourners for Truth and Justice,’ Folder 17, Box 4, Louise Thompson Patterson Papers, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, quoted in Ashley Farmer, ‘Black Women March on Washington: The Sojourners for Truth and Justice and Black Women’s Lives Matter’, Black Perspectives (April, 2015) <

https://www.aaihs.org/black-women-march-on-washington-the-sojourners-for-truth-and-justice-and-black-womens-lives-matter/#_ftn2&gt;

[31] Podell, ‘The Readings’, The Sojourner Truth Project.

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