Sojourner Truth Essay - Critical Essays

Truth, Sojourner


Sojourner Truth 1797(?)-1883

Born Isabella. Also known as Isabella Van Wagenen. American orator, lecturer, and activist.

A complex and popular figure during the African American emancipation movement and an avid advocate of women's rights in her lifetime, Sojourner Truth was a significant historical figure and a symbol for equality. An illiterate former slave who rose to great acclaim, Truth carved a powerful persona for herself as a woman's suffragist and a black rights crusader. In addition to an autobiography that she narrated to Olive Gilbert (published in 1850), Truth is best remembered for her public speeches, the most famous of which was delivered at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Transcribed by contemporary author Frances Dana Gage, Truth's challenge to the assembly “Ar'n't I a woman?” immortalized her speech that demanded equal rights for all women, black and white, who comprised the early suffragette movements in America.

Biographical Information

In a predominantly Dutch and French farming community in New York State, the daughter of James Bomefree and Elizabeth was born into slavery sometime around 1797. Named only Isabella, her first language was Dutch. It is believed that Isabella's limited formal education came to her from her mother, who taught her to say a few standard Christian prayers. It is also believed that from her parents she learned of her family's slave history, and the great losses suffered by the separation of African American families, who were broken up and sold off by their owners. The slave trade in the North sold thousands of African American New Yorkers into perpetual bondage in the South. Although it was not illegal for Northern slaves to obtain an education, schools in New York were well beyond Isabella's reach at the farm where she grew up, and she never learned to read or write. In 1814, after being separated from her parents, she married Thomas, a fellow slave in the house of John J. Dumont. Little is known about this relationship, but she did have five children between 1815 and 1826. Isabella left her husband soon after she became free, and says little more about him. In 1827, prior to the emancipation act of 1828 that freed all slaves in New York State, Isabella heard that her master planned to go back on his promise to grant her freedom. She found refuge with the Van Wagenens, a Quaker family, whose surname she took as her own. She remained with the Van Wagenens, working as a domestic servant until 1829, when she moved to New York City. There she joined a local Methodist Church, and became increasingly involved in spiritual development. She remained in the city until 1843 when she left to become a wandering evangelist. In June of 1843, when Isabella decided to become a full-time traveling preacher, she also formally changed her name to Sojourner Truth to reflect what she believed was her destiny: to wander the earth spreading spiritual truth.

Although she never learned to read or write, Truth was known and respected for her intelligence and wisdom. A keen observer, early in life Truth learned to “read” people, an ability she used to survive in an often hostile world. Working as a domestic in New York households from the late 1820s through the early 1840s and attending church meetings and spiritual gatherings, Truth acquired the skills she would need as a public speaker and preacher. During these years, she spoke regularly at camp meetings around New York City, and by the time she went on the road as a preacher in 1843, she was a practiced public speaker. Through her travels, Truth made her way to Massachusetts, where she came in contact with the Northampton Association, a group of reformers, abolitionists, and women's rights advocates. This association led Truth to embrace the principles of abolitionism and equal rights and she refocused her lectures to reflect these newfound beliefs. Her powerful style and honest message eventually built her a formidable reputation on the antislavery-feminist lecture circuit.

In the late 1840s, Truth dictated her life story to Olive Gilbert. Truth published this work, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, in 1850 at her own expense with the help of financial backers. A 128-page pamphlet, her Narrative described her life as a slave, her conversion to Christianity in 1827, and her experiences in New York. Through her narrative and her distinctive speeches, Truth presented a unique and unschooled persona that secured her place in America's attention. While lecturing and touring, she supported herself financially by selling copies of her Narrative.

Major Works

Truth's Narrative is a strikingly spiritual work, and focuses mainly on the evolution of her faith and her religious experiences. Additionally, because it ends not with an indictment of slave-owners but a prayer of forgiveness for their mistakes, it has always remained outside the canon of ex-slave narratives. The Narrative is also considered by many critics and scholars as Truth's first attempt at a deliberate representation of herself. The 1850 edition of her autobiography is rare and researchers since then have had to depend more heavily on the 1875 revised edition, published by her friend Frances Titus. According to some critics, this and later editions of the Narrative contain a somewhat revisionist account of Truth as a more worldly woman. In contrast to the first edition, where Titus contended that Truth was still burdened by the legacy of her slavery, the second edition presents a much more intellectual and refined Truth. Regardless of the differences between the two editions, it is ultimately difficult to obtain a coherent and chronological viewpoint of Truth's life—each edition of her autobiography was dictated to and written down by a different person, and each presents different renditions of Sojourner Truth.

Critical Reception

In her lifetime, Truth was known preeminently as a speaker and lecturer, and she is most remembered for her commentary rather than her deeds. An obvious obstacle in evaluating her work was the fact that she never learned to read or write—therefore, scholars have had to depend on other observers for records of her speeches. Although Truth lectured for over 40 years, only four textual accounts of her speeches are extant: the Akron, Ohio address in 1851, an address to the Mob Convention in New York City in 1853, a speech for the American Equal Rights Convention in 1867, and an address on the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom in 1871. The most famous of these speeches was her Akron, Ohio, address. Additionally, Truth also served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's story The Libyan Sibyl.

Because of this exposure, as well as her Narrative, Truth has been adopted as a powerful symbol by both feminists and African Americans through the years. The early 1900s represented Truth primarily as a feminist, but by the 1910s and onwards, she was heralded as a symbol for equal rights for African Americans. By the 1940s, Truth was counted amongst the most influential African Americans, and her popularity continued through the 1960s and 1970s, when she was included in several new and popular books on civil rights. By this time, her persona was so powerful that a new biography by Jacqueline Bernard, titled Journey Toward Freedom, became a bestseller shortly after publication. Contemporary critics have lauded Truth's speaking abilities, placing her amongst some of the most polished religious and civic speakers of her time. It is now widely acknowledged that although she chose to remain illiterate and purposely cultivated the persona of an aggrieved black slave and mother to increase the impact on her audience, she was a master at using her wit and stories of personal experience to win over the many hostile audiences she encountered during her travels. Her rhetoric, notes Nell Irvin Painter, worked not as “seemingly random remarks,” but as a well-integrated whole. In 1981, Truth was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and by the 1990s, biographies reflected her both as a symbol of Black America and the feminist movement, as well as an important figure in the political history of America.

Principal Works

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, taken down by Olive Gilbert (biography) 1850, revised and expanded edition, 1875

*“Ar'n't I a woman?” (speech), edited by Frances Dana Gage, 1851

*Being illiterate, Truth never wrote down any of her speeches, and only four of the many she gave were transcribed in their entirety. There are numerous fragments and reports of Truth's speeches mentioned in contemporary newspapers and periodicals, and there are often several versions of a single speech, including this speech given at the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio. The title of the 1863 version, which was revised by Frances Dana Cage, is “Ar'n't I a woman?”, while the version reprinted in History of Woman Sufferage, Vol. 1, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Susan B. Anthony (1881), is titled “A'n't I a Woman?”.


James A. Dugdale (essay date 1863)

SOURCE: “Sojourner Truth: 1863,” in National Anti-Slavery Standard, July 4, 1863, p. 3. Reprinted in Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song, by Suzanne Pullon Fitch and Roseann M. Mandziuk, Greenwood Press, 1997, 238 p.

[In the following essay originally published in 1863, Dugdale describes his experience with Truth, who stayed with him as a guest, and asks readers to lend her their support.]

To the Editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

This extraordinary woman still lives. When the letter of Phebe M. Stickney came to us at our home on the prairies in Iowa, suggesting pecuniary comfort for the blessed old saint in the...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)

Lillie B. Chace Wyman (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “Sojourner Truth: Ashtabula County, Ohio, 1855,” in New England Magazine, March, 1901, p. 63. Reprinted in Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song, by Suzanne Pullon Fitch and Roseann M. Mandziuk, Greenwood Press, 1997, 238 p.

[In the following essay originally published in 1901, Wyman discusses a letter describing a public appearance by Truth.]

The veteran Abolitionist, Parker Pillsbury, in a letter to the writer, describes a scene in an antislavery convention held about the year 1855, in Ashtabula County, Ohio. The audience was mostly in sympathy with the Abolitionists, Joshua R. Giddings and his family being present at the meetings. On...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Nell Irvin Painter (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Difference, Slavery, and Memory: Sojourner Truth in Feminist Abolitionism,” in The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 139-58.

[In the following essay, Painter presents a brief history of Sojourner Truth's life and also examines her place in cultural history.]

The issue of race is always present in American culture, especially in large areas such as women's rights. Understandably, Americans often try to avoid the issue, for race can still sabotage analysis of terms as essential as the nineteenth-century formulation of woman....

(The entire section is 8526 words.)

Erlene Stetson and Linda David (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Speaking of Shadows,” in Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth, Michigan State University Press, 1994, pp. 1-27.

[In the following excerpt, Stetson and David examine the power of Truth's oratory, claiming that although much scholarship has focused on her illiteracy, it was in fact irrelevant to Truth's lived experience and political thought.]

I sell the shadow to support the substance.

Sojourner Truth1

On the first day of October 1865 Sojourner Truth dictated a letter from Washington, D.C. to her friend Amy Post in Rochester, New York:


(The entire section is 11450 words.)

Drema R. Lipscomb (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Sojourner Truth: A Practical Public Discourse,” in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Andrea A. Lunsford, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, pp. 227-45.

[In the following essay, Lipscomb contends that Truth's speeches and oratory were part of a practical public discourse tradition that sought to inspire action on issues important to the speaker.]

At a time when it was uncommon for women—and in particular black women—to speak publicly, Sojourner Truth was a major force in speaking on pressing matters of public policy. Much has been written about her as an abolitionist and as a champion of women's rights in the...

(The entire section is 7539 words.)

Jean M. Humez (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Reading The Narrative of Sojourner Truth as a Collaborative Text,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1996, pp. 29-52.

[In the following essay, Humez examines the interaction between Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert, characterizing their relationship and the resulting work as a highly collaborative one.]

Important and complex issues of unequal power over representation of women's experience arise in studying and teaching those nineteenth-century African American women's life-history texts that were produced in collaboration with white political allies. Even Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl...

(The entire section is 11023 words.)

Suzanne Pullon Fitch and Roseann M. Mandziuk (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Storyteller and Songstress,” in Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 51-87.

[In the following excerpt, Fitch and Mandziuk examine Truth's narrative discourses in the context of major rhetorical concepts.]

Any understanding of the rhetorical power of Sojourner Truth must begin with an appreciation of her tremendous appeal and the hold that she commanded over audiences. For example, the report in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of her 1863 speech to the State Sabbath School Convention in Battle Creek, Michigan, provided an impressive indication of her power and popularity:


(The entire section is 20514 words.)

Further Reading


Bernard, Jacqueline. Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967, 265 p.

Popular biography of Sojourner Truth from the late 1960s.

Fauset, Arthur Huff. Sojourner Truth: God's Faithful Pilgrim. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938, 187 p.

Detailed biography of Truth, including a brief bibliography and index.

Koike, Sekio. “Sojourner Truth: Her Thought and Literary Activities.” In Kyushu American Literature 14-17 (1972-76): 50-67.

Brief biography of Truth's life, based on the 1968...

(The entire section is 381 words.)