Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

Sojourner Truth, originally Isabella Baumfree, was born into slavery in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, around 1797. Her parents were slaves owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh, a prosperous farmer of Dutch descent. Her father, James, a tall man said to be “straight as a tree” (for which he received the Dutch surname of “Baumfree”), was of African and possibly American Indian descent. Her mother, Betsey, also known as “Mau Mau Bett,” was of African lineage; through family and biblical stories, she instilled in Isabella and her ten siblings the value of family and spirituality. She assured Isabella she could always talk to God when there was no one else to turn to. Formal education was not available, but Isabella developed a self-reliance and strength in her young years that would preserve her through severe testing and make her work in social reform possible. Her childhood also provided the background from which the vivid and memorable anecdotes used in her lectures would later spring.

Isabella herself was sold at the age of nine. Although she was a diligent worker, she was beaten for her inability to communicate with her owners, the Neelys (Isabella spoke a Dutch dialect). Next, she was sold to the Schryvers, who owned a tavern. During her time with the Schryvers, her mother died, and her father soon followed. Eventually, Isabella was sold to the Dumonts, where she worked part-time as a field hand and helped in the kitchen. At this time, Isabella’s greatest wish was to please; sometimes, she would stay up half the night working to gain favor with her master.

When grown, Isabella fell in love with Robert, a slave from a neighboring farm, but they were forbidden to marry because Robert’s master disapproved of the match. After the couple continued to met secretly, Robert was severely beaten and made to marry...

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Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

During the twenty-five years that followed, Sojourner Truth traveled thousands of miles, lecturing in twenty-one states and in the District of Columbia. She would routinely set up the white sash given to her by abolitionist women with texts written across it “proclaiming liberty throughout the land,” begin singing, then preach about the injustice of slavery as people gathered around her. By the 1840’s, Truth had become a popular figure and known to be an impressive speaker, six feet tall, clad in gray dress with a turbanlike scarf covering her head, and armed with a mind quick and courageous enough to adapt to, disarm, and delight audiences that were especially hostile to African Americans and women who supported abolition or women’s rights. Many lecturers left the United States at this time, rather than face proslavery mobs who frequently threatened lives and broke up meetings. Truth also inspired a famous work of art by the American sculptor, William Wetmore Story, entitled “The Libyan Sibyl”; the statue, of marble, resulted in part from the description given to the sculptor by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and was known for its majesty and mysterious quality.

Truth lived for many years in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had happened onto the Garrisonian abolitionists during her travels. The Garrisonians held the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people sacred; thus, slavery was a violation against God, and the fight against it became a holy war. The group was resolved to overthrow the system of slavery through education and persuasion, and Truth demonstrated this after Frederick Douglass’ declaration in a public meeting that the only way for African Americans to gain their freedom was by force, when she asked, “Frederick, is God dead?”

The Garrisonians believed that women were men’s equals, and in this way were allied with the women’s movement. In 1850, Truth attended the Worcester, Massachusetts, Woman’s Rights Convention and participated in the Woman’s Rights Convention in Ohio in May of 1851. In the refrain (also the title) of her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Truth addressed the white women present who wanted rights for women, but at the same time believed African American women to be inferior because of their race. Truth also related her own...

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(19th-Century Biographies)

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “Style and Content in the Rhetoric of Early Afro-American Feminists.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72 (November, 1986): 434-445. Campbell discusses the difficulties African American women abolitionists faced as public speakers, which Truth was successful in combating through the power of metaphor and personal experience in speaking.

Dick, Robert C. Black Protest: Issues and Tactics. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. Dick describes Truth’s work as an African American antislavery lecturer, demonstrating her charisma, humor, and strength, as well as discussing the significance of slave narratives, both written and oral, in the antislavery movement.

Fauset, Arthur Huff. Sojourner Truth: God’s Faithful Pilgrim. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971. This is yet another rendition of the narrative of Sojourner Truth as told to Olive Gilbert, made into factual fiction by Fauset. The narrator focuses on Truth’s religious devotion and strength, as does Gilbert.

Gilbert, Olive. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Edited by Margaret Washington. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. In the introduction to this edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, editor Margaret Washington explores the Dutch culture in relation to slavery, the elements of culture and community in interpreting the effects of slavery upon African Americans, and the issue of gender in relation to the authorship of the narrative.

Gilbert, Olive. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Bondswoman of Olden Time: With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Introduced by Jeffrey C. Stewart, the prefacing material to Olive Gilbert’s rendering (originally published in 1850) outlines Truth’s contribution to African American women’s literature beginning with Phillis Wheatley. This book is part of a series aiming to resurrect the literature of African American women by uncovering the genre’s nineteenth century roots.

McKissack, Patricia C., and Fredrick McKissack. Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? New York: Scholastic, 1992. This juvenile biography provides a straightforward introduction to Sojourner Truth, clarifying the details of her early life in slavery, explaining her connection with early abolitionists, and providing insights into her efforts on behalf of women’s rights. Includes a bibliography of sources for further study.