Sojourner Truth is an American heroine. She fought for the abolition of slavery and for rights for women. Her story is told in American classrooms, her picture is featured on U.S. stamps, and quotes attributed to her are repeated over and over again. But almost everything we know about her is secondhand and many of her pictures and quotes are distorted or even downright false.
Sojourner Truth is the name she chose for herself after having lived half a lifetime as Isabella Baumfree or Isabella Von Wagener. Born in 1797, or thereabouts, in New York State, Isabella was a household slave for about thirty years of her life. Her first language was Dutch, not English, just as it was for many of the inhabitants of upstate New York at that time.
When slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, Isabella was legally freed. However, after being freed, ex-slaves still owed their former masters several years of labor. Isabella decided in 1826 that she had repaid her owner sufficiently and she walked away from his household carrying her infant daughter. She moved in with a nearby anti-slavery family who negotiated a bargain with her former owner to pay off her labor obligations. To the surprise of many, she remained friendly with her former owner and his family for years afterward. Her experiences as a slave in New York were dramatically different from those of the Southern slaves who were part of the widespread plantation society.
Although she had very little education and never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth had an impressive physical appearance, a mesmerizing eloquence, and an abundance of courage. When she discovered that her young son, Peter, had been sold illegally to a Southern slave owner, she sued for his freedom, thus becoming the first African American woman to sue a white man in court and win.
Shortly after Truth had gained her freedom, she became an ardent Christian, embracing the emotional religion of the Methodists. Throughout her life Truth remained strongly religious, becoming a disciple of several charismatic religious leaders. After she moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper, she became acquainted with the many of the most prominent free blacks in the city’s religious community.
In 1843 Isabella’s life changed. She named herself Sojourner Truth because she felt called to spend her life urging people to embrace Jesus. She joined a religious community in Massachusetts and began her career as a preacher supporting abolition and women’s rights. Her remarkable physical appearance—she was almost six feet tall—combined with her deep, far-reaching voice, made her a memorable presence wherever she appeared.
Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech, usually remembered as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, was given at a women’s right conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Her speech was reported a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson who attended the conference. In his report, and other contemporary reports, no one mentioned her ever asking the question “Ain’t I a woman?” It would be another decade before that question appeared in print.
The record of Sojourner Truth’s life has been shaped by the people to whom she entrusted her story. Unfortunately, the gulf between her and the white women who recorded her story was almost unbridgeable, so the written accounts of her life and experiences were often distorted. During the 1850s, Truth dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, who wrote the book that was later published as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book that is still widely available today.
Harriet Beecher Stowe also played a part in publicizing the life of Truth. She wrote an article that appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1863 called “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl”. Stowe’s version of the story presents Truth speaking in a Southern dialect as in this exchange:
“Well, Sojourner, did you always go by this name?”
“No, ‘deed! My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.
But of course, Sojourner Truth never spoke in this Southern dialect. She had never visited the South and never even seen a plantation. Although we have no recordings, she no doubt spoke in the clipped upstate New York accent that she had learned as a child.
In May 1863, a version of Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech was published by Truth’s friend, Frances Dana Gage, but unlike Rev. Robinson’s account of the speech, it was given in exaggerated Southern dialect and featured the question “Ar’nt I a Woman?” Despite its inaccuracy, this was the version of the speech that has been republished over and over again. It is still the one most people remember. We have no recordings of the original speech, but an account of the changes and recordings of the two versions can be found at The Sojourner Truth Project.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth recruited soldiers for the Union army. After the war she organized a project to resettle former slaves in Kansas, but was unable to get government funding for her efforts. She never gave up trying until her death in 1883.
Much of reliable information we have about Sojourner Truth’s life comes from the biography written by Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth; A Life; A Symbol (1997; rev. 2018). Not only does Painter tell the story of a remarkable woman’s life, she also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for both white and African American people throughout much of the 19th century. Reading Painter’s historical account added a great deal to my understanding of the painful controversies that convulsed the country at that time. I highly recommend the book, especially because many of the struggles of those years continue today.