Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2350
Article abstract: A featured speaker at abolitionist meetings before the Civil War, Truth worked initially to expose the immorality of the practice of slavery and later to ensure to welfare of emancipated African Americans.
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 another woman. Isabella, in turn, was given in marriage to another Dumont slave named Tom. She still had the youngest two of their five children with her as the date for her emancipation approached in 1827 (New York legislators had decreed that all slaves above the age of twenty-eight in that year would be emancipated; previous laws had freed slaves born after 1799).
The year 1827 marked a turning point in the life of Isabella Baumfree. Dumont had promised Isabella and her husband their freedom in 1826 and a log cabin in which to live in exchange for her hard work and faithfulness as a slave. Despite sustaining an injury to her hand, Isabella worked harder than ever for that year in order to fulfill her part of the bargain. When the time came for Dumont to deliver, however, he refused, knowing that he needed her labor in order to overcome losses from crop failure. Furthermore, he illegally sold Isabella’s son Peter out of state after she escaped his farm.
Isabella sought help after her escape. Quaker friends sent her to live with Isaac and Maria Van Wagener. It was during this period that Isabella took her first successful political action, suing for the recovery of her son by entering a plea before the Grand Jury of Kingston, and winning; Quakers helped Isabella raise money to retrieve Peter and they were reunited. The fact that the Van Wageners insisted on being called by their names, rather than by “master,” impressed Isabella, since she had always perceived slave holders as being innately better than slaves.
Isabella’s religious conversion followed, as did the beginning of her life as Sojourner Truth. Truth recounts her conversion as suddenly being overcome by the feeling she was loved, and feeling love for everyone else—even people who had abused her. She also sensed the presence of someone between her and God (Jesus), and realized her mission in life was to preach the injustice of slavery until it had disappeared for good.
Truth moved to New York City in 1829 and worked there as a maid until 1843, when she left to begin her career as a lecturer for the abolition of slavery and human rights. Truth, who said she conversed with God as with another person, claimed that God himself had now given her the name of “Sojourner” because she was to be a traveler and “Truth” because that was what she was to spread throughout the land. This name change signaled Truth’s break with her former identity as a laborer, a slave bearing her master’s name, and marked the beginning of her lifelong dedication to the fight to recognize the rights of all human beings.
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 lifelong history of back-breaking labor, refuting the conventional ideal of women as being unaccustomed to labor or confrontation. Most notably, she addressed biblically based claims of the natural intellectual inferiority of women, countering them with biblical facts. For example, she noted that while men based their claims of superiority upon the fact that Christ was a man, Christ himself was the product of God and a woman, leaving men out of the picture altogether.
Truth’s narrative was first written down in 1850 by Olive Gilbert, a white abolitionist. Gilbert’s rendering offers vivid stories of Truth’s early life and transformation into revivalist and abolitionist, including humorous anecdotes and instances of Truth’s effective handling of audiences, but also masks much of her renowned enthusiasm and directness—especially where this directness clashes with the ideal of womanhood during her time. An example of Truth’s direct approach which is not included in Gilbert’s text is Truth’s response to male hecklers who asked if she were a man or a woman; she bared her breasts in proof—not to her own embarrassment, but rather to their collective shame.
A second edition of Truth’s narrative, published in 1878, included news articles and correspondence regarding Truth, as well as samples from her “Book of Life”—a book she carried with her, filled with signatures of authors, senators, politicians, and friends—including President Abraham Lincoln, whom she visited in Washington, D.C., in 1864. During the Civil War, Truth nursed soldiers, bringing them food and gifts, funding her work by lecturing, singing, and selling her own photograph on which was written: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” She also became a freedom rider on the street cars which she rode to take care of the soldiers. On one occasion after successfully fighting to remove the Jim Crow cars (cars reserved for African Americans, but often used by whites), Truth drew a crowd while voicing her desire for a ride, which was at last granted, and rode further than she needed to make her point definite.
After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, in 1863, Truth stayed in Washington, D.C., to work with newly freed slaves whose children were being kidnapped and taken to Maryland—still a slave state—organizing posses and persuading mothers to swear out warrants, as she once had done, finding homes and jobs in the northern states for many others. Truth also produced fifty petitions at her own expense in 1870 (when she was nearly eighty years old) asking Congress for land in the western United States that could be used to resettle freed people who were elderly, homeless, or unemployed.
Truth believed strongly that unemployment robbed people of dignity and humanity; crime was becoming a problem among the homeless and unemployed. Truth endorsed a general plan to Christianize, educate, and provide land for freedmen, as well as prohibit the drinking of rum, another source of demoralization. Truth attempted to convince politicians that since the future of her people was at stake, money used to imprison vagabond children could be better used to give them homes, churches, and schools. Truth also believed that children would fare better if women were allowed political rights.
Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in November of 1883, after almost a century of struggle for social reform. Her funeral was attended by more than a thousand people, and a marble monument was erected there in her honor in 1947.
At a time when the cooperation between white abolitionists and African Americans was limited, as was the alliance between the woman suffrage movement and the abolitionists, Sojourner Truth was a figure that brought all factions together by her skills as a public speaker and by her common sense. She worked with acumen to claim and actively gain rights for all human beings, starting with those who were enslaved, but not excluding women, the poor, the homeless, and the unemployed. Truth believed that all people could be enlightened about their actions and choose to behave better if they were educated by others, and persistently acted upon these beliefs.
Truth’s written narrative is one of many narratives presented to the public by abolitionists as proof against proslavery advocates’ claims that African Americans were content with slavery and incapable of caring for themselves. Her speeches were also an effective weapon against slavery and were especially successful in drawing crowds to antislavery meetings and opening eyes to the injustice and irrationality of slavery. Like other freed slaves, Truth was a primary witness who could testify to the real suffering of slaves as well as demonstrate to proslavery crowds that, contrary to popular belief, African Americans were thinking, feeling human beings. Sojourner Truth is considered, along with Harriet Tubman, to be one of the two most influential African American women of the nineteenth century. W. E. B. Du Bois conveyed the importance of her contribution best when he described Truth as “one of the seven who made American slavery impossible.”
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.
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