Yesterday, May 29th, was the anniversary of Sojourner Truth’s famous extemporaneous speech at the 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, OH. There’s plenty out there to read about this woman and her speech, so I’m just going to touch on a couple of things to put it in context.
Truth’s language here evoked the common Anglo-American abolitionist mottoes “Am I not a man and a brother?” and “Am I not a woman and a sister?” These mottoes, paired with particular images, appeared on posters, medallions, and newspapers in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
As much as these images were designed to evoke empathy and fellow feeling, they also show us a visual context for Truth’s words. The images obviously draw on ideas of slavery from the Old Testament, but in figuring enslaved black women with breasts bared rather than in the actual clothes they would have worn, they evoked ideas about black women’s bodies that were fundamental to Anglo-American slavery.
When she compared her physical strength to the idea of women needing to be helped into carriages, and said “Ain’t I a woman,” the broader historical context wasn’t just whether “real women” could be physically strong, but about whether black women were “real women.” Designating African women’s bodies as different from those of European women was a vital part of the development of race-based slavery in the Americas. Setting black women’s bodies apart as naturally designed for agricultural labor meant that lots of white Americans would have heard Truth’s question – “Ain’t I a woman?” – and said “Obviously not.”
Another important wrinkle to consider is the text of the speech itself. Given in 1851, her speech was printed a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but the more commonly used version is the one recollected in 1863 by Frances Gage, a white woman who had also been at the Ohio Convention. While we usually use a version in standard English, Gage’s version was in what she claimed was the dialect used by Sojourner Truth:
Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin‘ out o’ kilter. I tink dat ‘twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin’ ’bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all dis here talkin‘ ’bout?
Sojourner Truth was born and raised in upstate New York, and spoke Dutch as her first language. It seems highly unlikely that her speech sounded like this, but we see how powerful the links are between black Americans, enslavement, and “the South.” It’s good to remember that slavery was not an exclusively “Southern” phenomenon for anything more than the last few years of its existence, and even that depends on drawing a line around “the South” that’s a bit further North than many current Northerners would feel comfortable with. Sojourner Truth’s experience of slavery was an experience of slavery 15 miles northwest of Poughkeepsie.
For other excellent but quite different speeches about the double oppression of black womanhood, here’s Maria Stewart in 1832 and Frances Harper in 1866. For a gripping read about 19th century New York, sex, and religion in which Sojourner Truth plays a part, you must read The Kingdom of Matthias by Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson. Seriously. If you have read it, don’t spoil it! To see how long slavery persisted in your county, as well as a bunch of other neat things, Lincoln Mullen’s interactive map is the place to go.