“Every time God’s children have thrown away fear in the pursuit of honesty, trying to communicate, understood or not – miracles have happened.” – Duke Ellington
Whenever I think about the life of Sojourner Truth I’m inspired and amazed. She was a steadfast woman who spoke what was in her heart, no matter what. She knew she was disadvantaged but also knew she had a power greater than herself at her fingertips. She trusted in that power and accessed it to help spread a message that was the beginning of turning our country (as she would say) right side up.
In 1797, she was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster county, New York. She grew up working from dawn until dusk for her master. She slept on a cellar floor and at age 9 was sold with a flock of sheep for $100.00. She suffered all the indignities of being owned by someone until one day in 1827, she walked out the door never to return.
When Isabella was 46, she felt a calling to spread God’s truth so strongly she couldn’t resist. To do this she would have to travel across the land, so she thought it fitting to change her name to Sojourner. While in bondage, she had been sold four different times. With each new master came a new last name. As a free woman, she decided to choose her own. Knowing she was God’s child, she took on the name Truth. And thus began Sojourner Truth’s public life.
She began preaching to predominantly white audiences on the evils of slavery. She would not, could not be hushed. She spoke with authority when sharing the humiliation and abuse slaves endured. She was close to six feet tall and stood erect and dignified. As soon as she grasped that in many ways women were as oppressed as slaves, she became an advocate for women’s rights. She could see that when her people were freed she would then be under the black man’s domination, just as white women were with their husbands.
Although she couldn’t read or write, she had a fine mind and a sharp wit. Sojourner saw her blackness, being female and uneducated not as deficiencies but the perfect traits needed to bring about God’s plan to change the world. Her illiteracy made her memorize scripture and forced her to go within for her answers. She knew she wasn’t capable of writing a speech. Her only hope was to ask her Father in heaven to speak through her. At the beginning of one lecture she confided to her audience, “Children, I come like the rest of you to hear what I have to say.”
In 1851, Sojourner attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Where without preparation, she delivered her most famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman? While standing at the podium, she addressed a man in the crowd who had shouted that women shouldn’t have as many rights as men because Christ wasn’t a woman. She answered him, “You say Jesus was a man, so that means God favors men over women. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” After she concluded her thoughts, applause filed the room. Sojourner Truth had stopped the naysayers in their tracks. Her words burned like fire. She was a wonder to behold.
Sojourner went on to meet presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. She developed a friendship with fellow human rights activist Harriet Tubman. She tried to vote on two occasions, but was turned away both times. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
When her death was imminent Sojourner said, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Today that star still hangs in the sky to illuminate the way for women everywhere. At that the end of her Ohio speech, she informed her audience, “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.” Amen.
A portrait that Sojourner Truth sold to finance her speaking tours in the 1860s.
Click here to see a moving reenactment of Sojourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a Women? by actress Alfre Woodard.
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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com