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.
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.
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.
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.