A Woman She Was.
A close analysis of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Women?” Speech (1797-1883)
Delivered 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio
The first time I heard about Sojourner Truth was in high school during a brief mandatory lesson on slavery around the last week of black history month. After praising Abraham Lincoln for his noble stance against the mistreatment of slaves, my former history professor hastily recited the names of prominent civil war abolitionists during the last few minutes of class. Out of order and out of time, my professor clumsily read off the names from his printed sheet of paper, names such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and John Brown rolled off his tongue effortlessly. Along with their names, he mentioned their general achievements. Among those names, the name that stuck out to me the most was Sojourner Truth. Why, you ask? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think I would have had the answer if you had asked me back then. It was simply a fleeting feeling, but if I had to make an educated guess, I think it may have to do with the fact that her name disrupted the long list of typical/standard sounding Anglo-Saxon names presented before and after her name was called. Her name was defiant, an act of resistance in and of itself.
The way I remembered it, her name rang like a bell in the depths of my mind until the class period ended. For a short transitory period, I was intrigued but I would be lying to you if I stated right there and then that I independently researched the woman behind the name. It was not part of the curriculum. Fast forward to the beginning of this year, I am faced with an extra credit question on an exam, which states the following, ‘“List the person who delivered a speech at the 1851 Women’s Right Convention in Ohio titled “Ain’t I a Woman” which included the following passage ‘How came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?”’ Dumbfounded I drew a blank. I was stuck, unable to recall the name of the woman. I sat there for five minutes wishing that the referenced “God who created him” would possibly send me the answer to the test question. With no answer arriving, I left the question untouched. Shortly thereafter, I made it my mission to find out the person who gave the speech. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was Sojourner Truth. Ah yes. I remembered her name. Part of the curriculum or not, I now decided it was time to get to know the woman behind the name. This time, my motivation was that her words simply resonated with me.
Through research, I discovered she was given the name Isabella. Born a slave in Ulster County New York close to the Hudson River around 1797, she spent half her life enslaved and the other half free. Sojourner Truth escaped slavery in 1826 with her infant daughter and was among the first black women, at the time, to successfully win a court case against a white man in favor of her son’s freedom. Sojourner Truth spent most of her life crusading and sharing the word of God as well as fighting for the rights of woman and people of African descent. Truth used her identity as a black woman to shed light on an invisible paradigm at work, which academia, Moya Bailey has called misogynoir. During a time when many used religion to strengthen institutionalized racism and sexism, Sojourner Truth used Christianity as a tool to humanize black life and support women’s rights. A perfect example of this sentiment is captured in her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
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.
History was made at the Akron, Ohio, Women’s Rights convention in 1851, where Sojourner Truth is said to have recited her widely acclaimed speech which highlights her dual status as both a woman and a black person. Sojourner Truth exposes the harmful nature of racism and sexism by simply sharing her personal experience as a black woman. What makes Sojourner Truth’s speech so powerful is that she questions the inclusivity of womanhood by repeatedly asking the audience “Ain’t I A Woman.” After Truth describes a man’s interpretation of how a woman is supposed to be treated, she refutes his testament by declaring that none of those chivalries were done to her. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman.” Sojourner Truth recognizes that womanhood, as described by the man in the audience, did not include her experience as a black woman. Truth, like many black women born into slavery, did not have the luxury or the privilege of being treated like the imagined lady because black women at the time had no social and political rights despite their forced contributions to the labor market (Dr. Lashawnda Pittman, 2015, Reproductive Exploitation and Child Mortality).
Black women’s bodies were seen as tools of labor, to the point that idealized notions of romance and respect were foreign to black women during the 18th century. According to “Slave Household Subsistence and Women’s Work,” black “women did the dirtiest, least skilled, most backbreaking tasks. Even when slave women assisted with skilled crafts, their contributions remained hidden or unacknowledged” (164). This quote encapsulates Sojourner Truth’s personal experience as a slave. Truth poignantly states, “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.” This particular quote suggests that Truth is able to decipher her positionality in life through the lens of her oppressor. Sojourner Truth exhibits the mental framework often called “double consciousness,” coined by one of the founding fathers of Sociology, W.E.B Dubois. Truth is able to recognize that her status as a black person undermines her treatment as a lady. She also recognizes that her status as a woman diminishes the value of her work compared to that of her male counterparts.
During a time when a woman’s value was determined by her ability to have children, Sojourner Truth revisits her experience as a mother. Truth states, “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?” For Truth and many other black women born out into slavery, motherhood came at a high cost. Enslaved women had very little agency over their children. They were constantly at the mercy of their slave owner. Slave owners could sell or break apart families as they wished. During the slave era, black women’s bodies were used to increase labor production. According to “Black Woman’s Burden” by Nicole Rousseau, the black woman’s worth was tied to how much she could reproduce. Rousseau states, “…motherhood becomes –on some levels—a “curse for enslaved women black women”. Enslaved women were under constant threat that their offspring would be sold off (Rousseau, 2009,p.81). By revealing her personal experience as a mother who was once enslaved, Truth exposes the harmful effects that slavery had on black women.
Truth transitions the question “Ain’t I A Woman” into a statement by using biblical references to solidify her stance on both women’s rights and civil rights. “Then they talk about this thing in the head what’s this they call it? “Intellect” That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights and Negroes’ rights?” Sojourner Truth lodges her experience as a black woman into the framework of mainstream women rights in hopes of expanding the general definition of womanhood so that it includes experiences of black women. Truth states, “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!” Truth ends her speech on a high note by suggesting that if all women worked together, they could achieve equal rights for all.
Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” has influenced countless contemporary works of art, such as Kerry Washington’s rendition of the speech and Bell Hook’s academic illustrations. “Ain’t I A Woman” is used as a point of reference that exposes the brutal realities of both racism and sexism. Truth is often praised for her relentless ability to transcend her personal experience to support various movements that promoted freedom. During a time when black women were caste out to the margins of society, Sojourner Truth dared to shatter the silence.
Work cited page:
“AIN’T I A WOMAN?” BY SOJOURNER TRUTH. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/sojour.htm
Dunaway, W. (2003). The African-American family in slavery and emancipation. New York: Maison des Sciences de l’homme/Cambridge University Press.
Rousseau, N. (2009). Black woman’s burden: Commodifying black reproduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
United States. National Park Service. (2015, November 15). Sojourner Truth. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/sojourner-truth.htm