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Sojourner Truth was a former black slave who traveled widely throughout the United States, and advocated the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women. Along with her historic work for human rights, Truth was a powerful public speaker and the author of the strikingly complex classic autobiography Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Years of Bondage
At some point in 1797, a black slave girl was born in Ulster County, New York. Her father James, who was nicknamed “Baumfree,” and her mother Elizabeth, affectionately known as ”Mau-Mau Bett,” called their daughter Isabella. However, she is known today by the name she chose for herself, many years later: Sojourner Truth. Isabella spent her early childhood on an estate owned by Dutch settlers; accordingly, her first spoken language was Low Dutch. When her owner died in 1806, she was part of his property that was put up for auction. As the slave population of New York and New Jersey at this time was over 36,000, Isabella was only one of many slave children who were separated from their parents at an early age.
In 1810, after having had several owners, thirteen-year-old Isabella was bought by John Dumont of New Paltz Landing, with whom she lived for seventeen years. She worked hard for Dumont, who was impressed by her great physical strength. In 1817, the New York State Legislature passed a law granting eventual emancipation to slaves born before July 4, 1799. The legislation stipulated that Isabella and others in her situation would have to wait ten years for her freedom. So she did not become a free woman until July 4, 1827.
Seeking Justice through the Law
During those ten years, Dumont chose a slave named Thomas as a husband for Isabella, and she had five children with him, four of whom survived. As the date for her emancipation drew closer, she realized that Dumont did not intend to set her free. Instead, he wanted her to make up the work time that she had lost during an earlier illness. Showing what her biographer Victoria Ortiz has described as ”a strength and independence of spirit,” Isabella left Dumont in 1826, one year earlier than she was permitted.
Her goal was to retrieve her son Peter. Even though slaves were not allowed to be sold outside of the state, Peter had passed through the hands of several owners until he was sold to a Southern plantation owner in Alabama. Believing in the justice of the law, Isabella was determined to free her son, and spent the next year and a half working with a lawyer in Kingston. Remarkably, in 1828 she became the first black woman in American history to take a white man to court and win.
Adopting a New Name
Later, after living in New York and spending some time with a religious organization that turned out to be corrupt, she decided to leave New York and preach the word of God to the people. In 1843, she also decided to change her name to Sojourner Truth. In her autobiography, she explains:
My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind…. I went to the Lord and asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins, and being a sign unto them.
The forty-six-year-old preacher began to travel widely, attending prayer meetings and calling her own meetings. An effective public speaker, Truth enjoyed being the center of attention. Supporting herself with odd jobs, she lived for several years with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community that had settled in Massachusetts. There she met women and men who were active in the abolitionist movement, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and she made it her mission to work for the liberation of slaves.
In the country at large, the issue of slavery was becoming increasingly divisive. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which held that runaway slaves were to be arrested without a warrant, denied trial by jury, and not allowed to testify in court in their own defense. The new law led many abolitionists to advocate violence as a means of achieving their goals. After the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, was not a citizen and could not therefore bring a legal action to court, the stage was set for increasing tensions between pro- and antislavery forces.
During the 1850s, in spite of an increasingly volatile situation, Truth began a public lecture tour, and visited twenty-two states. She displayed great determination and confidence in her abilities to speak to people, and she was never intimidated even while standing in front of hostile crowds. Her lectures were usually unrehearsed and dealt with her own personal experiences as a slave. Ortiz has noted that ”while Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman did the vital job of working with their own people… Sojourner was one of the few black people of that period who spoke almost exclusively to whites.”
Speaking for the Rights of Women and Blacks
In 1853, Truth met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), while on her travels. She also came to realize that although women were some of the most important members of the abolitionist movement, they were not allowed to vote or hold public office. As a black woman, Truth realized that she was doubly discriminated against. As a result, she became an outspoken supporter of women’s emancipation and lecture don both women’s rights and black freedom. In 1854, she gave one of her most famous speeches at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. After listening to several clergymen of various persuasions who declared that women were inferior to men and that God had not meant for women to have rights, Truth spoke:
That man over there says that 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?… I have plowed, 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 five children and seen most all sold off into slavery and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ain’t I a woman?
In addition to public speaking, Truth produced her autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which was first published in 1850 and which went through six subsequent editions. Because she was illiterate, Truth was assisted in the writing by Olive Gilbert, whom she had met during her time with the Northampton Association. With the money she received from the sales of her book, Truth bought land and a house in Michigan, near the town of Battle Creek.
Not content to remain in one place for any length of time, Truth resumed her travels and spoke in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Her words became even more poignant when the American Civil War had broken out in 1861, and after Abraham Lincoln had taken office as president of the United States on March 4th of that year. Although in her sixties, Truth displayed the energy and determination that was inherent in her character when she visited and gave words of encouragement to the black Union troops stationed at Detroit.
The height of her involvement in the war effort came when she met Lincoln on October 29,1864. She described him as a ”great and good man… [who treated her] with great kindness and cordiality.” Two months later, the National Freedman’s Relief Association appointed her to work as a counselor to freed slaves in Virginia. She returned to Washington within five months, and worked in a hospital there. She also filed a suit to affirm that black people had the same legal rights as white people to ride on public transport. Her court case was won, but only after she had her arm dislocated by a conductor who refused to let her board a streetcar.
After the war was over, Truth continued to work with and visit freed slaves. Realizing that many of these women and men were unable to return to their homes and were now living in poverty, she battled to secure land for them. In 1870, at the age of seventy-three, she gave public lectures and circulated petitions that requested that land in the American West be set aside for freed blacks. In the same year, she met President Ulysses S. Grant and paid a visit to the U.S. Senate, where she received a standing ovation from the members.
For the remaining years of her life, and in spite of her failing health, Truth continued to champion the rights of blacks and of women. She also lectured for the temperance movement, which preached moderation in alcohol consumption. By 1883, however, she was confined to her bed as ulcers on her legs became increasingly painful. Without exhibiting any fear, and surrounded by many adoring friends, she died on November 26, 1883, at the age of eighty-six.
Works in Literary Context
In the nineteenth century, members of the abolitionist movement made a considerable cultural, political, and social impact through the literature it published. Abolitionist literature included poetry, autobiographies, literary fiction, and essays. While this literary movement achieved prominence during the nineteenth century, its roots can be traced back to the previous century and the Age of Enlightenment, an era in which similar human-rights issues arose. The seeds of antislavery sentiment can be found sporadically in certain examples of English poetry and literature of the late 1700s, including Thomas Chatterton’s poems the African Eclogues (1770). However, the most memorable, influential, and focused examples of abolitionist literature would arise during the nineteenth century in America, as such former slaves as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Sojourner Truth provided harrowing first-person accounts of their own experiences. These works were used to successfully argue the case against slavery in the court of public opinion, especially in the North.
Themes of spiritual conversion have long held a place in both literary fiction and in autobiographies and memoirs. The path one takes from either disbelief (or seemingly misguided beliefs) to an ultimate, satisfying relationship with spirituality can be a dramatic one, ripe for literary exploration. In fiction, spiritual conversion has played a significant role in such novels as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1880). In the realm of nonfiction, Sojourner Truth describes her own spiritual journey in her autobiography Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Following the loss of her son, Truth sought comfort in Christianity, and with just twenty-five cents in her pocket, she began traveling and preaching God’s word.
Works in Critical Context
Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Original critical assessments dating from the publication of Truth’s autobiography are difficult to find, but the book has long been considered one of the classics of nineteenth-century literature. Still, it has not been immune to criticism. In 2000, The New York Times described the Narrative of Sojourner Truth as “groundbreaking” and “detailed” but ”fairly dry, as was the style of the time” and burdened by its ”highly religious” nature. However, the general consensus is that the book is, as the Library Journal describes it, ”a powerful rendering of bondage, denial, and loss transcended by genius, family, and a spiritual base.”
- Mabee, Carleton, with Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
- Ortiz, Victoria. Sojourner Truth, A Self-Made Woman. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.
- Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996.
- Pauli, Hertha. Her Name Was Sojourner Truth. New York: Camelot/Avon, 1962.
- Stewart, Jeffrey C. Introduction to Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Bondswoman of Olden Time, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from her “Book of Life.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Washington, Margaret. Introduction to Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.
- Collins, Kathleen. ”Shadow and Substance: Sojourner Truth.” History of Photography 7 (July-September 1983).
- Villarosa, C. ”Children’s Books; Serving No Master but the Truth.” The New York Times (November 19, 2000).
- The Black Collegian Online. Super Hero: Sojourner Truth. Accessed November 24, 2008, from http://www. black-collegian.com/issues/35thAnn/truth.shtml.
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