Sojourner Truth was born into slavery, circa 1797, as Isabella Baumfree. She was one of twelve children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree from Ghana and Guinea, respectively.
Colonel Hardenbergh owned the Baumtree family and they lived on his estate in Esopus, New York. After the colonel’s death, his son Charles owned the family, but when Charles himself died in 1806, they were split up, and Sojourner Truth was sold.
One Slave Girl and a Flock of Sheep: $100
The Sojourner Truth Biography, on A&E TV Networks, says:
“The 9-year-old Truth, known as ‘Belle’ at the time, was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner was a man named John Neely, whom Truth remembered as harsh and violent.”
Slaveholders sold the young slave twice more over the following two years. Previously, Belle spoke only Dutch, but by the time she was living on the property of John Dumont of West Park, New York, she was learning to speak English.
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Sojourner Truth: Escape to Freedom
In 1815, Truth married a farm labourer, Robert, and the pair had a daughter. However, in 1817, her owner, Dumont, forced her to marry an older man, Thomas, with whom she had two more daughters and a son.
In 1826, she escaped from Dumont with one of her daughters, but had to leave her other children behind. Later she managed to find her son Peter in Alabama – he had been illegally sold. She challenged the sale, and won her case. Sadly, Peter was lost at sea in the early 1840s.
Truth came to make one of the most momentous and famous speeches in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Despite her illiteracy, and thanks to those who recorded her words, this speech continues to amaze and move us to the present day.
The Ohio Women’s Rights Convention of 1851
The Ohio Women’s Rights Convention aimed to challenged conventional arguments against women as well as entrenched concepts of the inferiority of women due to physical and spiritual weakness.
Angus Calder and Lizbeth Goodman, in Gender and Poetry, describe the scene as Sojourner Truth delivered a diatribe that must have been shocking as well as unexpected.
Sojourner Truth: “…stood up and literally bared her breast to the assembled public, showing her female form in an act of demonstration that she – and by extension, other African American women – are as female as white women, and are also strong, capable, remarkable…”
(Points that Truth made in her speech were, allegedly, punctuated by her rallying cry: “Ain’t I a Woman!” However, there have been different versions of the speech reproduced which are contradictory, and not all of them contain that phrase, or else, do not repeat it several times.)
Addressing Issues of Sexism and Racism
Truth emphasised the fact that no one expected black women to be weak, because being slaves, they were usually strong in both a moral and a physical sense. In this way, Truth managed to combine issues both of sexism and racism because “white women counted, black women didn’t.”
Truth insisted that society should acknowledge the rights of black women equally with those of white women, otherwise nothing would change for black women – their men would remain their masters and everything would stay the same.
She challenged the idea that women were inferior because Christ was a man.
“Where did Christ come from,” she demands, and in answer to her own question, she cries: “From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with it.”
The Early Feminists Endorse Dualism
Many early feminists preferred to stress the rational power of the female mind and regarded the body, as described in Kathleen Lennon’s “Feminine Perspectives on the Body” as “a contingent characteristic of the self, and the potentially rational mind as its core.”
However, explains Lennon, Truth’s speech at the Ohio Convention “drew attention to the body as a marker of race and class differences within the feminist movement.”
The position of black women justified acknowledgement, and Truth demanded that recognition in these eloquent words:
“I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. 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 de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?”
Sojourner Truth’s Legacy
Truth spent her life passionately pursuing her causes such as land grants for former slaves. She was an opponent of capital punishment and a champion of desegregation of street-cars.
Sojourner Truth’s Biography states:
“Although she began her career as an abolitionist, the reform causes she sponsored were broad and varied including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage. Abolition was one of the few causes that Truth was able to see realized in her lifetimes.”
Sojourner Truth died in her home in Michigan in 1883.
The Constitutional Amendment which forbade discrimination based on sex was not ratified until 37 years after her death, in 1920.