26 November 1883 Sojourner Truth (born as Isabella Hardenbergh), speaker and preacher, charismatic religious and political leader, died on this day at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, USA. The day of her death is known but the day of her birth is not. It was some time between 1797 and 1800 (as near, she said, as she could calculate). She was born a slave, and of her ten or twelve older siblings there was only one she knew personally: all the others were sold away from the family before she was old enough to remember them. The brother she remembered was called Peter, and she gave the same name to one of her children (whom by a combination of paying money and going to court she managed to get back after he had been illegally sold as a slave to Alabama).
This action shows the strength of her personality. After living her early years without religion, she had a classic conversion experience, and became an Evangelical Christian of a somewhat idiosyncratic, personal brand which may have owed something to traditional African religions. Before she was thirty, when her current “owner” reneged on a promise to free her, she decided that God would endorse her taking the law into her own hands, and she fled into freedom in New York, taking her baby with her and leaving her husband and elder children behind. She joined a millenarian sect, and took quite a long time to leave it again although it was clearly misogynist. Her motives and intentions in all this are not understood, which means her inner self is still a mystery to her many admirers.
But once she had broken away not only from slavery but from the support of a community, she chose herself (with God’s direction) a new name, and took to the road as a wandering preacher. From the beginning she preached Christ’s second coming and later she preached two causes dear to her heart: emancipation and women’s rights. She was tireless, turning her back on retirement when the American Civil War produced a new level of need, and moving straight from work for the end of slavery to work on behalf of newly emancipated slaves. According to Lucretia Mott, her philosophy was the “finite nature of evil and the everlasting quality of good.”
For this illiterate woman words were her chosen weapon in the fight for good, the fight to advance other people who shared her race or her gender. Her autobiography, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, is only the tip of an iceberg. It is, of course, a work dictated to somebody else, and it uses (in the third person, not the first), the standard, educated, “white” American English of the time. Sojourner Truth also composed songs, like this for a black Michigan regiment of the Northern army (to the tune of “John Brown’s body”):
We are done with hoeing cotton, we are done with hoeing corn;
We are colored Yankee soldiers as sure as you are born.
When massa hears us shouting, he will think ’tis Gabriel’s horn,
As we go marching on.
Above all she composed speeches, and the most famous is the one she gave at a historic occasion, the Women’s Rights Convention at Akron, Ohio, on 29 May 1851. Here she protested about the lack of attention paid to black women by white suffragists, in a question which has become a catch-phrase or slogan: “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” This phrase echoes through her speech like a refrain: “I have borne thirteen chilern and seen ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ar’n’t I a woman?”
That sentence comes from the longer form of her speech which was printed in the New York Independent twelve years after it was given – for a speech given without notes exists in a number of differing versions. This one, which was ushered belated into print by Frances Dana Gage, organizer of the original conference, uses a stereotyped southern black diction which was probably not how Sojourner Truth spoke at all, given that she grew up Dutch-speaking before she learned English. Gage has had some stick recently for the form that she gave to Truth’s words – but it was she who recorded the most complete version of the speech to survive, and she believed that that speech had saved the convention, converting it from a failure into a success. Sojourner Truth, wrote Gage, “had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the whole tide in our favour.”
This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription: see http://orlando.cambridge.org.