Journey Toward Freedom is a biography of Truth, an African-American woman who distinguished herself as a social activist in the nineteenth century United States. In telling Truth’s story, Bernard introduces aspects of nineteenth century American social, political, and intellectual history. Truth knew many of the famous contemporaries who, along with her, helped to form this history. Among others, she knew Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln.
Bernard introduces the historic setting in which Truth lived but focuses primarily on Truth’s life. The author summarizes this life to show its broad contours, but she gives this life immediacy by frequently including specific scenes and conversations. Thus, Bernard makes her work more readable by using a novelist’s approach. Not all these scenes and conversations are based on sources. In the author’s note, Bernard writes that “wherever possible, I have used actual conversations as originally spoken and recorded in the primary sources.” Some of the scenes and conversations are true in a broad rather than a narrow sense: They show characters’ relationships and personalities but do not record exactly what was done and said. For example, when John Neely escorts Truth to his home after having bought her, he thinks, “Now, now, no need to worry Mrs. Neely. The girl’ll pick up English fast enough.” Bernard has no way of knowing what Neely thought, but including this comment enriches the scene; the thought is undocumented but true to Neely’s personality.
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Truth and Harriet Tubman are the two best-known woman antislavery activists of the mid-nineteenth century in the United States. Their lives are in ways similar: Each was born into slavery, each became free, and each worked to free other slaves. Truth persuaded people, while Tubman relied on physical action. Truth was a famous speaker, while Tubman, called the “Moses of her people,” led at least three hundred slaves to freedom. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, which promoted increased opportunities for African Americans in the United States and focused attention on African-American leaders, created an intellectual climate favorable to publishing biographies of these two women and of other famous African Americans. Hertha Pauli published Her Name Was Sojourner Truth in 1962, Bernard published Journey Toward Freedom in 1967, and Jacob Lawrence published Harriet and the Promised Land in 1968.
Truth also worked for women’s rights. In doing so, she anticipated concerns voiced by activists in the women’s movement, which was beginning to become a prominent social force in the late 1960’s. Thus, Bernard’s biography also responds to this aspect of the intellectual climate at the time when the book was originally published. The book presents a strong female role model for young adults and shows what one woman accomplished through self-confidence and a commitment to solving social problems.