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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sojourner Truth

In the 1960s, the revival of the women’s movement was greeted with ambivalence and hostility by some black women, for they regarded the demands of feminists to be concerns chiefly of middle-class white women and they feared that issues bearing upon gender would divert attention from the cause of black civil rights. The situation paralleled the conflict which had arisen over a century earlier, when the struggles for abolition and for women’s rights had been intertwined. Suffragists had assumed, or at least hoped, that by working to gain the vote for blacks, they would guarantee the same rights for women, and thus they stayed in the vanguard of abolition. After the end of the Civil War, when women were excluded from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, advocates of women’s rights such as Frederick Douglass urged patience, saying that it was “the Negro’s hour.” Some abolitionists took the position that race was a more fundamental issue than sex and that in any case women could exert due influence simply by enforcing their views on enfranchised husbands. Nearly alone in her vocal opposition to this perspective was Sojourner Truth, a self-named ex-slave, a wandering evangelist, a woman nearly six feet tall with a great, resounding voice and a presence so extraordinary that one of her listeners wrote that in describing her one might “as well attempt to report the seven apocalyptic thunders.”

Much of what is known of her is drawn from the autobiography she dictated and sold and from transcriptions of her speeches and accounts of her appearances. Given the name Isabella Baumfree, she was born in slavery in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, the property of a Dutch patroon, and sold three times before she was twelve. She was raped by one of her masters, John Dumont, and she later had five children from her union with Thomas, another slave. In 1827, the year before slavery was outlawed in New York, Dumont sold her five-year-old son Peter, and “Bell” fled with her infant, contracting to work for a year for another master and then successfully suing in Kingston, New York, for the custody of her son. She took the name of Van Wagener from her last employer, and in 1829 moved to New York City with her two youngest children. Over the next fifteen years, as Isabella Van Wagener, she worked as a domestic servant and became deeply involved with mystical cults and with evangelical religion. Periodically, she had visions and heard voices from beyond, and in 1843 she listened to a summons from God directing her to go forth and preach. After changing her name to reflect her mission, which was to be a traveler who shows people their sins and tells them what is true, Sojourner Truth took to the road.

Her travels took her first through Long Island and Connecticut and then to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she joined a communal farm called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a project started by William Lloyd Garrison’s brother-in-law, George Benson. By 1850, Sojourner Truth was touring Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Kansas, supporting herself by selling copies of her autobiography, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), which she had dictated to a woman named Olive Gilbert. Although she became a folk heroine through her appearances and sometimes spoke in the company of well-known abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, her fame was most firmly established by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who described her as a “Lybian Sibyl” in an article published in The Atlantic Monthly (1863). During the 1850s, she bought a house in Battle Creek, Michigan, and thereafter she used it as a headquarters from which she periodically emerged to go on tour. During the Civil War she raised supplies for black soldiers, and she was presented to President Lincoln at the White House in 1864. For a time after the war, she worked as an adviser to emancipated slaves through the National Freedman’s Relief Association, and she thereafter campaigned for establishment of a “Negro State,” a project which did lead to substantial black migration west. In 1875, when her grandson and traveling companion, Sammy Banks, became ill, she retired to Battle Creek, but through letters written for her by her friends and the hundreds of visitors she had, Sojourner Truth remained in contact with her admirers in the women’s rights movement.

Her speeches were spontaneous, frequently humorous, full of biblical allusions and memorable biographical references, and she preached a combination of feminist Christianity, abolition, temperance and women’s rights. Often, she depicted herself as a figure like the Old Testament prophets, as someone sent to warn: “I am sittin’ among you to watch; and every once and awhile I will come out and tell you what time of night it is.” She delighted in weaving her versions of biblical stories into her admonitions and in using the Bible as a way of making her points: she argued that women should have their rights, for example, because God and a woman produced Jesus Christ and there was not a single man involved. In general, her view of the social relation of the sexes differed radically from the prevailing philosophy that women should be a silent, “improving” influence on their husbands, for she did not accept either the notion of physical inferiority of women or the idea that women would or should be placed on pedestals. If institutions in the public sphere, such as the courts, were not fit places for women, she thought they were unfit for men as well. Unlike middle-class black women who might hope to gain social dignity and security through marriage, Sojourner Truth did not envision women and men as husbands and wives, but more as parallel entities. In fact, although she spoke of having borne thirteen children, if she considered the role of men important in their production, she never mentioned it. And while she said that she was glad that black men were getting their rights, she regarded the restriction of voting rights to men as pure meanness: “Now that there is a great stir about colored men’s getting their rights is the time for women to step in and have theirs. I am sometimes told that ‘Women aint fit to vote. What, don’t you know that a woman had seven devils in her: and do you suppose a woman is fit to rule the nation?’ . . . man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own, too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself. . . .”

In the stories she told of herself and those told about her, Sojourner Truth emerged as fearless, unfettered, exuberant, and utterly indifferent to convention. Accused of being a man, she bared her breast before an audience in Indiana, and in Washington, after the war, she fought Jim Crow laws by conducting a noisy and physical personal campaign to integrate public transport. An apocryphal figure who created her own apocrypha, she sometimes presented herself as quasi-immortal. In her 1867 speech, she claimed to be over eighty years old, and said that she would live another forty years to see women get their rights. In her last public letter, published in the Chicago Inter-Ocean (1880), Sojourner Truth said that she had seen over a hundred New Years, and in The History of Woman Suffrage (1886) it was solemnly reported that she died at the age of one hundred and ten. Although her race and appearance were sufficient grounds for her to be scorned by some, the very same qualities inspired unbounded admiration from scores of women who had worked first for abolition and then for female suffrage, only to discover that there was little support for their cause. In the years after the Civil War, Sojourner Truth remained among the black defenders of women’s rights. She was called “the Miriam of the later Exodus . . . the most wonderful woman the colored race has ever produced,” a remark which now strikes us as unintentionally patronizing. Yet, the sentiments were genuine, and Sojourner Truth would not have disagreed. If she was not, after all, immortal, she was certainly larger than life. The nation had never seen or heard anything quite like her.
Allison Heisch
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
Address to the First Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (c.1881)
Reminiscences by Francis D. Gage of Sojourner Truth, for May 28-29, 1851 (1881)
Speech at New York City Convention (c.1881)

Other Works
Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850)

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Narrative of Sojourner Truth
The complete text of this book, written by Olive Gilbert, based on information provided by Sojourner Truth.

Bright Moments
A photograph and a biography.

Sojourner Truth Institute
Information about the Institute which supports Truth's legacy, particularly as it is articulated within the arts.

Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl
Electronic text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe about Truth.

Who was Sojourner Truth?
A biographical sketch.

Secondary Sources

Jacqueline Bernard, Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth, 1990

Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, 1973

Hertha Pauli, Her Name Was Sojourner Truth, 1962

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et al., History of Woman Suffrage, 3 vols., 1881-1886, 1970

Jean Fagan Yellin, Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture, 1989