Sojourner Truth: A Mighty Woman
Daughter. Mother. Wife. Abolitionist. Women’s rights activist. Public speaker. Reformist. Agitator.
By whatever label you apply, Sojourner Truth is one Audacious Foremother.
When it comes to an impudent disregard for convention and a willingness to take bold risks, Sojourner Truth is second to none. She was born Isabella Baumfree in New York state around 1797 – the exact date is unknown as the birth dates of slaves often went unrecorded. Her father, James Baumfree, was a captured slave from Ghana and her mother, Mau-Mau Bet, was the daughter of slaves captured from Guinea.
Like many stories of slaves, Sojourner’s life was full of separation and loss. At 9 years old she was sold for the first time to a violent man, and was subsequently sold two more times. As a young woman she fell in love with a man from a neighboring farm, Robert, and gave birth to a daughter, Diana. But Robert”s master forbade the relationship and “Belle” (as she was then known) and Robert never saw each other again. She was forced to marry an older slave, Thomas, and gave birth to a son, Peter, and two more daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia.
It was in 1826 that Sojourner decided that enough was enough and became Audacious. When her then master did not honor his promise to emancipate her, Sojourner escaped to freedom, taking her infant daughter Sophia with her. Shortly after her escape, Sojourner learned that her former master had illegally sold her 5 year old son, Peter, to an owner in Alabama. She took her former master to court and was successful in gaining Peter’s return from the south. Peter stayed with his mother until 1839 when he joined a whaling ship.
In 1843 Isabelle adopted the name Sojourner Truth and dedicated her life to the abolition of slavery and equality for women. She became an active public speaker along side other escaped slaves Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. She was an adviser to President Lincoln. She pushed not only for equal rights for black men, but also for women of all colors.
In 1851 she delivered an extemporaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Right’s Convention in Akron. The speech, which became known as “Ain’t I a Woman” is her most remembered:
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”
Interestingly, several versions of the speech were recorded by Convention attendees and later published and it wasn’t until twelve years later that the refrain of “Ain’t I a Woman” was included. Logic would also have it that she was unlikely to have spoken with a southern accent given her first language was Dutch and she lived her entire life north of the Mason-Dixon line. It seems evident, then, that even famous historical speeches can be the subject of urban legends and tinkering.
I still think it’s a good speech.
In addition to her work for abolition and women’s suffrage, Sojourner Truth also advocated for private property rights for former slaves, prison reform, and other progressive ideas that would ensure independence and freedom for marginalized people.
Sojourner Truth’s legacy is still alive in the 21st century. I decided to do a post about this amazing woman because of a wonderful piece I read over at Feminism & Religion by the Rev Dr Angela Yarber of Wake Forrest Baptist Church (which you can read by clicking here). It is a perfect message for a Sunday during African-American History Month.
The message is this:
We are all the sons and daughters of women. Women are no less Children of God then our fathers, brothers and sons. We can place barriers of gender, race, class, intellect, and economy between each other, we can say that some are more worthy and deserving of grace and privilege than others. But the truth is, God wants us all to enjoy our place at Her table. There is bounty enough for all and our place is set, waiting for us to take up our fork and knife.
Because together, we can right the world.
What causes would you dedicate your life to (if you could only fine the blinking time, lol!)? Are you working on these causes already? Share your experiences in the comments section…
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Tagged with: 19th Century • abolition • African American history • Ain't I a Woman • Audacity • feminism • Foremother • Inspiration • Sojourner Truth • women • Women's history • women's rights • Women's Suffrage
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