“I sell the shadow, to support the substance.” Sojourner Truth
A women’s rights advocate who would become widely known for a single speech delivered in Ohio in the summer of 1851, Sojourner Truth, was born a slave named Isabella Baumfree, who by the 1840s had renamed herself and dedicated her life to traveling through New York and New England and speaking to abolitionist and religious audiences. On June 1, 1843, Truth changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She left to make her way traveling and preaching about abolition.
Over six feet tall, very dark-skinned and striking in appearance, the illiterate ex-slave was an eloquent orator who, as Frederick Douglass once said, “cared very little for elegance of speech or refinement of manners.” She spoke at the national women’s rights convention at Worchester, Massachusetts, in 1850, and in 1851 she addressed the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.
She attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where she delivered her famous speech Ain’t I a Woman, a slogan she adopted from one of the most famous abolitionist images, that of a kneeling female slave with the caption “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”
- Reminiscences by Frances D. Gage
- Akron Convention, Akron, Ohio, May 1851
- “There were very few women in those days who dared to “speak in meeting”; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture, as they supposed, of the “strong-minded.” Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head. “Don’t let her speak!” gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced “Sojourner Truth,” and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.”
- “The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.”
Over the next decade, Truth spoke before dozens, perhaps hundreds, of audiences. From 1851 to 1853, Truth worked with Marius Robinson, the editor of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, and traveled around that state speaking. In 1853, she spoke at a suffragist “mob convention” at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City; that year she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1856, she traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to speak to a group called the Friends of Human Progress. In 1858, someone interrupted a speech and accused her of being a man; Truth opened her blouse and revealed her breasts.
Sojourner’s speech, which included the repetition of one striking question, “Ar’nt I a woman?” was a poignant example of the denial of rights to black American women.
Truth spoke about abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and preached to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment. Not everyone welcomed her preaching and lectures, but she had many friends and staunch support among many influential people at the time, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Smith Haviland, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony.”
Truth died on November 26, 1883, at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her remains were buried there at Oak Hill Cemetery beside other family members. Her last words were “Be a follower of the Lord Jesus.”
Sojourner’s impact on many people through the years has been phenomenal:
- 1862 — William Story’s statue, “The Libyan Sibyl”, inspired by Sojourner Truth, won an award at the London World Exhibition.
- 1892 — Albion artist Frank Courter is commissioned to paint the meeting between Truth and President Lincoln.
- 1975 — Philosopher Peter Singer uses Truth’s quotes in his book Animal Liberation
- 1981 — Truth is inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
- 1981 — Feminist theorist and author, bell hooks, titles her first major work after Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
- 1983 — Truth is in the first group of women inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing.
- 1986 — U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring Sojourner Truth.
- 1997 — The NASA Mars Pathfinder mission’s robotic rover was named “Sojourner” after her.
- The leftist group the Sojourner Truth Organization is named after her.
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates her as a renewer of society, with Harriet Tubman.
Here is her speech to the assembly that Sojourner, was a woman who stood her ground. A woman who knew the tough, harsh, bitter—-yet hopeful road, that lay ahead for the black women of her time, and for the many black women who would come after her.
|Ain’t I a Woman?|
By Sojourner Truth
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 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 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? [Intellect, someone whispers.] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s 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 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 came 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.
Sojourner Truth’s Speech (As reported in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, June 21, 1851)