Friday, March 11, 2011

Sojourner's Truth

There is something of the mythical in all great historical figures, perhaps. As time passes, for instance, Dr. King's persona assumes a more and more legendary aspect as his death recedes further and further into the recesses of the past. To be sure, there are still too many of us alive today for Martin Luther King to be a totally mythologized figure. We remember the night he died. We remember his work. He is still too much with us for us to forget that he was, foremost, a real living breathing man.

Not so Sojourner Truth. Of the actual facts of her life, little was known in her own day. As time has passed, she has emerged almost entirely as myth, pure symbol. But the historian's calling, often, is to deconstruct myths like these: to take them apart; to examine them; to find out where they came from, and whose cause they served.

For instance, we almost universally associate the institution of slavery with the antebellum South. By extension, then, we often assume that Sojourner Truth, an ex-slave, must have been a Southern figure, as well. The truth is that Truth's entire life and career (both before her emancipation from slavery and after) was spent in the northern United States-- in eastern New York state and western Massachusetts to be precise, She is no model of the Southern black slave Mammy. Rather, she is the prototype of the northern, industrial strong black woman. She is less Aunt Jemima and more Maya Angelou perhaps.

This strong woman was born under the name of Isabella, the youngest of ten (or perhaps twelve) children to two slaves named James and Elizabeth (or Betsey), on the estate of a family named Hardenbergh, in Ulster County in Upper State New York, sometime around the year 1797. Her owners were Dutch settlers; her first language, then, was Dutch, interestingly, not English. She learned English only later, and was always careful about the English she spoke.

Of her numerous siblings, only one-- a brother named Peter-- remained at home with her. The others were all sold off, and one of Isabella's indelible childhood memories-- she mentions it five times in the early chapters of her autobiography-- was of her parents grieving over the loss of their children who had been sold. Isabella, then, grew up in an atmosphere of love and nurture, but also one tainted by the certainty of loss and a constant foreboding. Her parents realized that it was only a matter of time before their remaining children would be taken from them as well. The scars left by slavery were not all physical ones, certainly.

Eventually, the tragic premonitions of James and Betsey did come true, and with the death of Colonel Hardenbergh in 1807, young Isabella (only nine years old at the time) was sold off, just another part of the Colonel's estate.

She was sold to a family named Neely, and as the only slave in their household, Isabella was worked hard and treated worse. Her owner beat her constantly, sometimes so cruelly that blood would flow down her back. Thankfully, she was sold again within a year; then in 1810, yet again, this time to a family named Dumont in Kingston, north of Poughkeepsie-- for the majestic sum of 70 pounds, or the equivalent of about $ 175.

Isabella would live with the Dumonts for sixteen years, longer than she spent with any other owner. Isabella's feelings toward the Dumonts would always be ambiguous. Even after she had been freed, she expressed loyalty and affection toward them. During her years in their household, Isabella passed into womanhood, was married, and bore five children. But there is also evidence that she was both physically and sexually abused during this time as well.

There were other psychological wounds, too. While the conditions of slavery in the South were, generally, much worse than those faced by northern slaves, slaves in the South, at least, had the consolation of community-- a wide scale culture and support system of their own. Slaves in the North, on the other hand, were extremely isolated: one or two slaves on this farm; a couple more perhaps on the next; then none for miles around. It was an extremely lonely life, often one of sheer isolation and hopelessness.

Then, finally, in 1825, after years of debating the issue, the legislature of the state of New York declared within two years-- on July 4, 1827-- all slaves within the state would be free men and women.

When Dumont reneged on a promise to free her and her husband prior to the 1827 deadline, Isabella decided not to wait any longer, and to emancipate herself. Late in 1826, the Voice of God spoke to her, Isabella said, and instructed her to leave Dumont and set out on her own. Early one fall morning, just before dawn, carrying only her daughter Sophia and a small supply of food and clothing crowded into a large cotton handkerchief, she trudged nearly ten miles to the nearby village of Wagondale. There, she moved in with an anti-slavery couple named Isaac and Maria Von Wagenen, whom she had known for several years. In gratitude for their hospitality, she took their name, and became known as Isabella Von Wagenen.

But then on the first day of June in 1829-- Pentecost Sunday-- Isabella had the great vision that would change her life, and change history. That morning, as she described it, deep in the throes of depression and emotional turmoil, she fell on her knees in prayer, then felt suddenly a deep sense of spiritual relief. A radiant being appeared before her-- Jesus, she said-- beckoning her to come and "dwell with him, as with a dear friend." She felt as though Jesus had come to "shield her" from the burning sun of "God's wrath".
At the vision's command, she took a new name for herself-- Sojourner-- a mere traveller through this human-made world, seeking always the real kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. And Truth-- God's truth, the whole truth, the truth which this world could neither give nor take away, the truth that would abide in spite of what all principalities and powers might say or do to her. The truth, she knew, that would set her free.

The road would still not be an easy one for her. In New York City, she became entangled with a false prophet named Matthias, who claimed to be Jesus Christ. She would stand by Matthias far longer than she needed to, far longer than reason or common sense might have dictated. When she finally extricated herself, she took to the road on her own. "The Spirit calls me, and I must go," she told her friends, and she became a travelling abolitionist. She headed to Northampton in western Massachusetts and joined the utopian Association of Education and Industry, a group that not only opposed slavery, but also advocated women's rights and non-violence, and lived together on a 500 acre farm. While there, she met  a number of the leading activists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. After the Northampton commune broke up, Truth began the process of assembling her memoirs, and in 1850, Garrison published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. With the proceeds, she purchased a home in Northampton for $300, and spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, developing the synthesis of black rights and women's rights for which she would become famous.

In 1851, she left Northampton and travelled west with George Thompson, the British anti-slavery crusader, who was then touring the United States. In Akron, she attended the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. There, she delivered the "Ain't I A Woman?" speech for which she became best known. But there is some controversy as to exactly what Truth said before the convention. The earliest version, reported by Marius Robinson in the June 21, 1851 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, did not even include the question "Ain't I A Woman?" that has come down to posterity as Truth's hallmark. Rather, it had her asking:

"I want to say a few words about this matter... I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?"

However, about twelve years later, Frances Dana Barker Gage, who had presided at the Ohio meeting, presented a strikingly different version in the first volume of History of Woman Suffrage. Gage's version was problematic for several reasons: In it, Truth speaks with the dialect and vernacular of a Southern slave; as we have already noted, her accent was distinctly northern throughout her life. In Gage's version, too, Truth tells of the heartache of having all eleven of her children sold away from under her. Most sources seem to confirm that Truth mothered no more than five children, and never boasted of a higher number of offspring. Gage's account only added to the notoriety of Truth and her message, and transformed her into something of a symbol of her times. It may also have contributed significantly to the process of obscuring the actual facts of her life.

At any rate, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Sojourner Truth continued on her dual crusade against slavery and for the rights of women. When the war came, she helped recruit black troops for the Union army; as it was drawing to a close, she went to work for the National Freedman's Relief Association, in order to improve conditions faced by emancipated slaves. In October of 1864, She finally met Abraham Lincoln in Washington, less than half a year before his death. After the war, she (unsuccessfully) lobbied the Grant Administration for land grants for ex-slaves. She was also unsuccessful when she tried to cast her vote in the 1872 presidential election.

In her later years, she bought a house in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived with one of her daughter and several grandchildren. She also remained an honored friend of the great reformers of her day, including Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. She travelled less as she got older, but continued to speak out for all the issues that concerned her-- women's rights, of course; but also an end to the Jim Crow Laws; the rights of labor; penal reform; the abolition of capital punishment. Whatever the cause, she was always confident that she had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. As she told one of her audiences while on a speaking tour: "Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say."

Death finally came at Battle Creek on November 26, 1883, in Sojourner's 86th year. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in that city, beside other members of her family.

There was always something of the mystic about Sojourner Truth. But her mysticism never isolated her from the world, but rather propelled her headlong into the fray. She was a strong black woman who was her own person, who heard the voice of her God in her soul, and remained true to that calling. Through the alchemy of history, she emerged as more symbol than living being, perhaps. But that symbol needs to shine more brightly in our own day than ever before.

Like John Brown, her truth goes marching on.

Like Martin Luther King, her dream survives.

Like Susan B. Anthony, she would declare that, for men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit, "Failure is impossible!"


  1. What an intersting, storng woman! I liked the comparison with Maya Agelou. It gave a different way of looking at Sojourner Truth.

  2. Wonderful and informative. Thank you for the reminder of one American heroine.