Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sojourner Truth: "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right"

Isabella Baumfree, who named herself Sojourner Truth (died 26 November 1883)

One of the most admired figures in nineteenth-century American history, Isabella Baumfree claimed her freedom when she escaped from slavery in 1826 and forged her identity by naming herself Sojourner Truth in 1843.

One of Truth's visiting cards
Born and enslaved in the north--New York--and not the south, as most people might assume, Truth is perhaps best known for the speech she delivered at the Women's Convention (Akron, Ohio) on 29 May 1851, now commonly titled "Ain't I a Woman?"

The first accounts of the speech were brief, printed within days of its delivery first by the the New York Tribune (6 June) and then by the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

Truth collaborated with abolitionist Marius R. Robinson to publish a full (recreated) text of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, the weekly publication of the Ohio American Anti-Slavery Society. That version includes this line: "I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?"

In none of these accounts is the familiar question "ain't I a woman?" mentioned. In fact, the repeated question did not appear at all until 1863, when Frances Dana Gage, who had chaired the 1851 convention, published her version of the speech in the National Slavery Standard. In addition to adding in the refrain, Gage also ventriloquized Truth's voice using the dialect of a Southern slave--Truth herself was born in New York, her first language was low Dutch, and she never lived in the south. (The dialect of the Truth speech became even more pronounced in Gage's republished versions of 1875, 1881, and 1889.) Gage's text was the version included in Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage's History of Woman Suffrage.

For better or worse, this is the version we seem to be stuck with. But Sojourner Truth's life is so much more than that one speech. After she escaped to freedom with her daughter in 1826, she sought to recover her son who had been sold by his New York owner to a slaveholder in Alabama--she won her court case.

The New York Tribune account of
Truth's 1851 speech
She became a Methodist minister, preached against slavery, became a supporter of women's rights, religious tolerance, and pacifism.

In addition to her speech at the Ohio convention, she published her memoirs, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, she bought a home, delivered many other notable speeches, and, after the Civil War, worked to provide land grants for former enslaved people. She also attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election.

For a good overview of the issues involved in the Gage version of the "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, I recommend Kay Siebler's "Far from the Truth: Teaching the Politics of Sojourner Truth's 'Ain't I a Woman?'" (Pedagogy 10, no. 3 [2010]: 511-33)--if you have academic access, you can download a .pdf of this essay by clicking here. Otherwise, inter-library loan?

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