Ain't I a Woman? is the title of a speech given by Sojourner Truth in 1851, but more of that later.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist whose story and life are remarkable and inspirational, but also an illustration of how unjust, cruel and evil people can be.
Sojourner was born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree, one of 12 children born to African-American slaves owned by Colonel Hardenbergh in New York. They spoke only Dutch. Even after learning English, for the rest of her life Bell spoke with a Dutch accent.
Upon Hardenbergh’s death in 1806, when Bell was 9, she was inherited by Hardenbergh’s son, Charles, who sold her with a flock of sheep for $100. The buyer, John Neely, treated her harshly and beat her daily. At age 11 he sold her to one Martinus Schryver for $105, he in turn selling her 18 months later to John Dumont. Although Dumont was kinder to her, Dumont’s wife harassed Bell and was cruel to her daily.
At age 15 Belle fell in love with a slave, Robert, on a neighbouring farm. Robert’s owner forbade the relationship, not wanting Robert to have children with a slave he did not own because he would not own the children. Robert was discovered having a secret meeting with Belle and was savagely beaten. Belle never saw Robert again and Robert died from his injuries. Belle was haunted by the experience for the rest of her life.
When she was fourteen Belle married an older slave by the name of Thomas., a marriage aranged and ordered by Dumont. Her first child was born at age 17 and four more followed, the last dying in infancy. Her second child may have been fathered by Dumont.
Although the state of New York had begun legislating to abolish slavery in 1799, that process was not finalised until 1827. Dumont had promised Belle her freedom in 1826 but did not honour the pledge. In 1826 she escaped with her infant daughter. Her other children were freed by the 1827 emancipation order but only after they had served as bound servants into their twenties.
Belle was befriended in New York and gained her freedom when benefactors paid Dumont $20.
Upon discovering that her 5 year old son Peter had been sold illegally by Dumont to an Alabama slave owner, Belle brought a case in court for his recovery, the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist. Isabella also joined the Methodist Church. This occurred after, according to her own narrative "God revealed himself . . . with all the suddenness of a flash of lightening . . . showing that he pervaded the Universe and that there was no place where God was not.”
In 1839, Belle's son Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. From 1840 to 1841, she received three letters from him, though in his third letter he told her he had sent five. Peter said he also never received any of her letters. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board and Belle never heard from him again.
In 1843 Bell took the name Sojourner Truth.
In her book Narrative of Sojourner Truth she told her biographer that the Lord spoke to her and told her to go East, She packed her belongings in a pillowcase and began her journey. It came to her that she should have a new name different to her slave name and that the Lord wanted her to take the name Sojourner, meaning traveller. When asked shortly afterwards what her second name was, she confessed that the Lord had not yet given it to her.
“And so I plodded on over the sandy road, and was very said and miserable. And in my wretchedness I said ‘O God, give me a name with a handle to it!’ And it came to me in that moment, dear chile, like a voice, just as true as God is true, ‘Sojourner Truth’. And I leaped for joy – ‘Sojourner Truth’. ‘Why,’ said I, ‘thank you God, that is a good name. Thou art my last master, and thy name is Truth, and Truth shall be my abiding name till I die.’ “
Being part of a succession of churches and religious bodies, she travelled and preached on the abolition of slavery.
A strong champion for the rights of blacks and women, she became a respected speaker, travelling to Washington to meet with President Lincoln during the American Civil War and helping recruit black troops for the Union Army. Her grandson fought for the North.
In 1865 she rode the streetcars to help force their desegregation. She was also a part of organisations providing assistance to freed slaves.
From 1870 onwards she worked for women’s suffrage, being a key player in the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Sojourner died in 1883, aged 86. Three thousand people attended at the church for her funeral service.
About the speech:
In 1851 Sojourner spoke at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. The speech remains her most memorable and was briefly reported in two contemporary newspapers, a transcript of the speech being published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle on June 21, 1853. It received wider publicity in 1863 during the Civil War when Frances Gage published a different version, one which became known as Ain't I a Woman? because of its oft-repeated question. This later version is the one recorded in most history books and is believed to be the more accurate.
Gage, who presided at the meeting, described the event:
The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear, 'An abolition affair!" "Woman's rights and niggers!" "I told you so!" "Go it, darkey!" . . Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced." My only answer was, "We shall see when the time comes."
The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist minister came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of "superior intellect"; another, because of the "manhood of Christ; if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth, life, and death of the Saviour." Another gave us a theological view of the "sin of our first mother."
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.
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 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? 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 all 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? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' 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 little 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 come 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 would have more cause than many to have become bitter and vengeful.
In her book The Narrative of Sojourner Truth she describes being called upon to speak at an anti-slavery rally in Boston early in her journey. She hadn’t prepared anything and elected to sing what she called one of her “home-made songs”:
While I bear upon my body
The scores of many a gash,
I’m pleading for my people
Who groan beneath the lash.
I’m pleading for the mothers
Who gaze in wild despair
Upon the hated auction block
And see their children there.
I am pleading for my people,
A poor down-trodden race
Who dwell in freedom's boasted land
With no abiding place.
Yet those oppressors steeped in guilt—
I still would have them live;
For I have learned of Jesus,
To suffer and forgive!
The Mars pathfinder robot rover vehicle, named Sojourner, that landed in 1997 and explored Mars for about 3 months, sending photographic images to earth and conducting scientific experiments, is named after Sojourner Truth. It was selected as the rover’s name in an essay contest won by V. Ambroise, a 12-year-old from the US state of Connecticut.
The Sojourner Truth Memorial in Battle Creek, Michigan, where spent the last 27 years of her life.