Tuesday, February 2, 2010
February is Black History Month
I had never heard of Sojourner Truth until I stumbled on this eyewitness account of Sojourner Truth's speech by Frances Dana Gage
Now this was quite a woman!
Ain't I A Woman?
In 1863, twelve years after the original speech, Frances Dana Gage published her enhanced version in the Anti-Slavery Standard (May 2, 1863). Gage opens her account with a description of the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, at which she was the presiding officer.
Gage's expanded description of the speech, and the impact it had upon the convention, appeared less than a month after Harriet Beecher Stowe published her article, "Libyan Sibyl," in the Atlantic Monthly. Together, these two highly romanticized views of Sojourner Truth helped to create the public image of the ex-slave -- an image which still endures today.
The leaders of the movement trembled upon 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!"
I chanced on that occasion to wear my first laurels in public life as president of the meeting. At my request order was restored and the business of the Convention went on. Morning, afternoon, and evening exercises came and went. ... 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 ministers came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the grounds 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 the 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 best 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" ... 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.
"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de nigger 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?
"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber halps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place!"
And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked, "And ar'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! [And here she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power] " I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -- when I could get it -- and bear de lash as well! And ar'n't' I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern *, and seen 'em mos' all sold off the slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ar'n't I a woman?
"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" "Intellect," whispered someone near. "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?" And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.
"Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?" Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, "Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him." Oh, what a rebuke that was to the little man.
Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of Mother Eve, I cannot follow her through it all. It was pointed and witty, and solemn; eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting, "If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder [and she glanced her eye over the platform] ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em." Long continued cheering greeted this. "Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."
Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subduued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of "testifyin' agin concerning the wickedness of this 'ere people."
* For a further discussion of the speech and its various interpretations over the years, including a discussion of how many children Sojourner actually had, see Carleton Mabee, "Sojourner Truth, Slave, Prophet, Legend," (New York, New York University Press, 1995), pp. 67-82.