The electrifying speeches of Sojourner Truth - Daina Ramey Berry
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Isabella Baumfree who named herself as Sojourner Truth as an adult, was the youngest child of 10 or 12 siblings. Her parents Elizabeth and James, worked hard to keep the family together in Ulster County, New York in an Afro-Dutch community. Through Truth’s narrative, we learn that her family was not protected from the trade in human souls which took several of her siblings to the market. Such devastation and loss put the family, especially Elizabeth in a state of grief. Truth’s parents did all they could to help the children remember their brothers and sisters who sold away from the family. Truth herself was sold five times (beginning at age 9), mostly as a result of changes in her enslavers’ families, including death, marriage, and debt.
As the story notes, she named herself Sojourner Truth in 1843 and went on to become a great orator who enthralled audiences with her first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. Influenced by the Second Great Awakening, she embarked on a spirit-led public speaking tour. In the late fall of 1843 when Truth was about 46 years old, she gave a powerful biblical lesson from Daniel 3:30 at a tent meeting in Connecticut. She likened her experiences with those of “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” who survived the fiery furnace. She explained that God walked with her through fires and protected her from being burned. She ended by dramatically asking her audience if they thought God’s children could withstand fire. “It is absurd to think so!” she told them. While still in New York, she saw herself as allowing God to determine where she traveled and trusted God to provide the content of her remarks. Her work as an equal rights advocate and religious leader changed when she moved to Florence, MA. and joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a social justice organization.
Her speeches and sermons moved people. They were humbled and inspired to see a black woman preach the word of God with an interpretation that differed from any they’d encountered before. Truth’s words challenged their beliefs and caused people to think more deeply about their relationship with God. She spoke widely and passionately about spirituality. Crowds as large as 4,000 gathered to hear her, thus some venues created overflow spaces to accommodate her eager listeners.
Perhaps her most controversial speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, is how most remember her. Truth, nearly 6 feet tall, stood up and gave powerful remarks in “strong and truthful tones,” according to Marcus Robinson who wrote about it in the Anti-Slavery Beagle. But scholars question the accuracy of this speech because of the way it was reported 12 years later by Frances Gale. Some accounts said Truth asked the audience “Ain’t I a Woman?” when she was forced to stand behind a screen as a black woman attendee. Scholars debate the accuracy of these remarks and the conditions of this particular exchange. Regardless of the details, it is clear that she argued for equal rights for black women in spaces dominated by whites.
Several scholars have written about Truth and her impact on American history, including Nell Irvin Painter and Margaret Washington. Spending years researching Truth’s life and legacy, Painter talked about her book on C-SPAN while Washington shared her biography at Cornell University. Truth will be remembered for her activism, resilience, and work as an advocate for black troops during the Civil War.
Truth continued traveling and speaking, funded by the proceeds of anti-slavery postcards that featured her image, until her death on November 26, 1883. She passed away in Battle Creek, MI where she lived with her daughters. Truth’s life of activism, of strength and spirituality, and of questioning the meaning of the world around her lives on through the powerful words engraved on her simple tombstone which ask: “Is God Dead?”
Trade in human souls-- http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f8302246461587457241995?migration=3&bhcp=1
Second Great Awakening - http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/nevanrev.htm
Northampton Association of Education and Industry –
Nell Painter on C-SPAN - https://www.c-span.org/video/?77043-1/sojourner-truth-life-symbol
Margaret Washington at Cornell - https://www.cornell.edu/video/sojourner-truths-america
Truth’s Images by Daina Ramey Berry - https://www.biography.com/news/sojourner-truth-black-history
Sojourner Truth Library & Memorial in Massachusetts
Equal Justice Institute on Sojourner Truth Day:
Sojourner Truth in Michigan
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