Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch
Classroom Issues and Strategies
One reason why Sojourner Truth has not appeared in conventional American
literature anthologies until now is that the texts are stenographic transcriptions
of spontaneous speeches. Thus, even the orthography is "made-up."
Students may tend to dismiss this as nonliterature. Also, the interior
structure of the speeches does not follow expected expository modes (i.e.,
there's no "beginning," "middle," and "end"),
so they are vulnerable to rigidly "logical" analysis.
Sojourner Truth offers a wonderful opportunity to raise large questions:
What is literature? And what is American literature? Are speeches literature?
Is it literature if you don't write it down yourself? What is the purpose
of literature? It is useful to set these speeches for the students in the
context of anti-slavery meetings, to describe where and how they were held,
and also who participated. Students may have difficulty with these texts;
old-fashioned close reading in class will help.
I like to talk about "unpopular ideas": Sojourner Truth has
several of these! It is also useful to place her in the tradition of oral
Responses to Truth vary widely, depending on the class. Some students
may make the argument that she is hostile to men. Generally discussion
goes in the direction of contemporary issues involving women.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Why did racial equality take precedence over equality of the sexes?
How can we explain the conflict between racial and gender equality? What
is the difference between Sojourner Truth's argument and the contemporary
argument for "comparable worth"?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Ordinarily, we are able to separate a writer from her work. In this
case, we have not only oral presentation, but also a style of presentation
in which the speaker presents herself as the major character in the work.
In some sense, therefore, she is the subject of her work. To what literary
and quasi-literary categories could you assign these speeches (fiction,
autobiography, prophecy)? How do they "violate" traditional genre
boundaries? Where does oratory end and drama begin? These speeches provide
a splendid opportunity to demonstrate to what extent our literary categories
are a construct, one that not only defines and makes rules, but one that
Because Sojourner Truth's speeches were transcribed and preserved by
her admirers, it is by no means clear how her original audiences really
responded. We have the laudatory side only. Just the same, it is apparent
that to many of her contemporary listeners, she was a figure of mythic
proportion. To get at the issue of audience, it's useful, first, to have
the students identify the issues of continuing importance that she raises.
Second, it is helpful to show them a contemporary parallel (such as Barbara
Jordan's "We the People" speech) as a means of generating discussion.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
("What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?") and Henry
Highland Garnet ("An Address to the Slaves of the United States")
show the tendency of abolitionist literature to regard slavery as a phenomenon
affecting black men and, coincidentally, to consider the abuse of black
women largely as an affront to their husbands and fathers. Truth's views
can usefully be contrasted with those of some writers, black and white,
who believed that women could best exercise power by influencing their
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What issues does Sojourner Truth raise that you consider to be of
2. Compare the positions on civil rights taken by Frederick Douglass
and Sojourner Truth.
Lerner, Gerda. "While the water is stirring I will step into the
pool." Black Women in White America: A Documentary History.
New York: 1973.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, et. al. "Sojourner Truth." History
of Woman's Suffrage, 3 vols., 1881-1886. New York: 1970.