November 23, 1997 in Features

Life Of Sojourner Truth Worth Remembering

Loretta Green San Jose Mercury News
 

One fact Sojourner Truth left no doubt about: She was a woman.

It was fitting Wednesday on her 200th birthday to revisit the way this tall woman strode down front in 1852 at the National Woman’s Suffrage Convention in Akron, Ohio, and made her now famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

How many of us students tried to recite that speech in high school declamations. How we struggled to draw ourselves up to the impossible stature of this immense woman of history.

We imagined her stronger than Sampson, as stalwart as a bald cypress in a Southern swamp and as solid as the ebony hue of the arms she thrust out at her challengers.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best places everywhere,” said the feisty abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. “… Nobody helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles or give me any best place.”

Then she thundered, “And ain’t I a woman?”

“Look at me,” she ordered. “Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?”

Writers of history say that she kept repeating that five-word phrase in her powerful oratory until the emotions of the audience pulsated and they shouted approval.

“I have borned five children and seem most all sold off into slavery,” she continued. “And when I cried out in a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard. And ain’t I a woman?”

It always seemed rather remarkable that Truth, believed to have been born Nov. 19, 1797, was able to speak so openly and so forcefully about two very controversial issues during dangerous times. But she drew large crowds.

Once when a pro-slavery Ohio man told her at a gathering that he cared no more for her remarks “than the bite of a flea,” she snapped, “Perhaps not, but the good Lord, willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

Contemporary black women as a whole have never involved themselves wholesale in the feminist movement. Some felt that many of the permissions for independence that white women sought, the realities of the racial climate had always forced women of color to own.

So, it was interesting this week to notice how closely aligned the concerns of women enslaved by human bondage and women enslaved by the male dominance seemed to be in Truth’s speech.

But the broad issue is about having inner strength and standing up and being counted even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. Surely that was a stellar accomplishment, for Truth was born a slave in New York state, illiterate and not freed until the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827.

Her slave name was Isabella Baunfree. Her owner was Dutch.

She always said God revealed her new name to her and told her to travel and spread truth.

I hope she knows that the Mars Pathfinder’s microrover was named Sojourner in her honor.

She was thought to be 85 when she died in 1883 in Michigan.

Commenting on age, she once said, “I am above 80 years old; it is about time for me to be going. I have been 40 years a slave and 40 years free, and would be here 40 years more to have equal rights for all.

“I suppose I am kept here because something remains for me to do; I suppose I am yet to help break the chain.”

Now it is 114 years past her death, and the world still needs her to make a few folks scratch.


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