Sojourner Truth: ‘And ain’t I a woman?’

Sojourner Truth

Members of the Socialist Unity Party who knew, struggled with and loved lifelong revolutionary Rosemary Neidenberg thought that reprinting this sensitive and politically powerful article written by her in 1971 would be a heartfelt way to honor her memory following her recent death at the age of 99.

“That man over there says that a woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me the best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me. 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? I could work as much as a man, when I could get it, and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman? I have borned 13 children and seen them most all sold off into slavery. And when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard. And ain’t I a woman?”

— Sojourner Truth, speech before the Women’s Rights Convention at Akron, Ohio, 1851 

“Work hard and make your master happy and call on God for help.” Thus an African American mother trained her child for survival. The child who would become Sojourner Truth lived by her mother’s words. A New Paltz, N.Y., slave owner, John Dumont, said proudly of the six-foot-tall 13-year-old, “She’ll do a good family’s wash in the night and by morning she’ll be ready to go into the fields where she’ll do as much raking and binding as my best field hand.”

After 29 years as a slave, however, Sojourner Truth experienced a dazzling surge of realization. She said, “The Lord didn’t want me to be a slave.” She gave a name to the tremendous will, the great tide of energy and purpose that rose in her. She called it “the Lord,” but its real name was consciousness.

Remembering oppression

Memories of inexpressible tragedy formed that consciousness:

A cellar. Loose boards over mud that turned to muck in rainy season. Her earliest remembered home.

Her mother. Singing songs taught by her African grandmother in a language she didn’t know. Telling how 11 of her 13 children had been lost, either dead or sold away. A boy, 5, a girl, 3, taken away by a man in a bright red sleigh on a bitter winter morning. The boy at first sat joyfully, “as straight as a jack-rabbit.” But then he knew. He ran and tried to hide. “My boy never ran to me,” her mother said. He knew it was no use. His mama couldn’t protect her own child.

Her mother. Given “freedom” when she was too old and sick to work for the slave owner. “I stumbled against something on the cellar floor, Belle” (Sojourner’s slave name), her father told her. “I felt it with my hands. It was your Ma. Her body was cold.”

Her father. “Freed” like her mother. Found dead in a hut without food or water. She always remembered him as a bent old man, but once he was so straight and strong that they called him “The Tree.”

Herself. A 9-year-old child on the slave block, auctioned with a flock of sheep for $100. At 10 years, bound and beaten into unconsciousness. She recalled that she didn’t know what her alleged crime was. 

As a young woman, she loved a man who was beaten to the brink of death for trying to visit her. The last sight she had of him was his unconscious body being dragged out of her master’s yard. His wounds healed in several months, but he died not long after. People said his spirit had died.

Born into slavery

Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 on a Dutch-owned plantation near Kingston, N.Y. The New York State Legislature decreed in 1817 that all slaves over 28 were to be freed by 1827. The younger people had to work free for the slave owner until the age of 25 for women, 28 for men.

Two years before her freedom day, slave owner Dumont promised Sojourner Truth that he would free her a year earlier if she worked extra hard. So she did, working prodigally, ignoring a scythe wound in her hand that kept opening.

When the time came, Dumont refused to let her go. Determined to keep Dumont to his word, Sojourner walked away from slavery one day after she had brought in the harvest. Taking the youngest of her five children — she had been forced into marriage — she moved in with an Abolitionist family in the neighborhood. They bought her freedom, paying Dumont $20 for her services for the last year and $5 for her baby.

After a time, she thought of returning to her older children and to the warmth and camaraderie of the other slaves who were caring for them. But when Dumont came to get her, another thought seized her. In later years, she described how, as she walked toward Dumont’s carriage with her baby, she suddenly felt an overwhelming force block her path and heard a voice inside her saying, “Not another step.” She heeded that voice and Dumont rode home alone in his carriage.

Her new confidence and sense of power were soon to be tested. Two years before her freedom day, Dumont had sold the “services” of her 4-year-old son. It was illegal to take a “freedman” out of the state, but Sojourner learned her boy had been taken to Alabama. She was illiterate and inexperienced, but dauntless in the fight for her son.

She said in retrospect: “Oh, how small I did feel. Neither would you wonder, if you could have seen me, in my ignorance, trotting about the streets, meanly clad, bareheaded and barefooted.”

Sojourner prevailed. She harassed and hounded lawyers and courts until the slaver who had sold her son had to make a six-month journey south to bring him back. When she went to claim her son, the child screamed and said he didn’t want to leave his “kind master.” He had been terrorized, as Sojourner discovered when she took him home at last — brutalized so that the welts stood out like fingers on his body. “Oh Lord, render unto them double for what they have done,” she said.

Felt her destiny

In 1829, Sojourner Truth and her son went to New York City. There were no schools for African American children in rural New York. For 14 years Sojourner was a household servant. She worked in several religious and social work organizations, and found them futile or corrupt. Then the feeling about her special destiny, which had come upon her at the moment she had decided to be a slave no longer, burst out again. She said that the Lord told her no longer to be a servant of white people. She should do the Lord’s work and bring the truth to her people. 

All her years as a slave, as a servant, the tragedies of her own life, all she knew about slavery in the South had formed her smouldering hatred of oppression. Now, in 1843, the winds of change and rebellion were blowing stronger. Abolitionist activity was growing. More and more slaves dared to win freedom through the Underground Railroad. She heard about the great women and men who were leaders of her people.

She had been named Isabelle, called Belle, and known by the names of a succession of slave owners. Now she discarded her slave name, as so many were to do over 100 years later. She was a sojourner, a traveller. Truth was “the name of the Lord” and so she took the name. She was 46 years old when she left New York City “to do the Lord’s work.”

Famous speech

A large open-air religious meeting provided the first opportunity for Sojourner to speak to the people about the evils of slavery. Later, she stayed at a cooperative community where she met Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Olive Gilbert, the woman who collaborated with Sojourner on her autobiography. Her book became a weapon in the struggle against slavery. She began to speak at Abolitionist meetings, selling her book, singing her “homemade songs.”

Abolitionist activity led her quite naturally into the women’s rights movement. In the same manner, the militant white women who arrayed themselves against slavery had become the nexus of the women’s movement. There was no conflict over priorities in those early days — each movement fed the other, each movement was stronger because of the other.

It was in 1851 in Akron, Ohio, that Sojourner gaver her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. The Women’s Rights Convention was chaired by Frances B. Gage. She said of that never-to-be-forgotten occasion:

“Through all the sessions old Sojourner sat crouched on the corner of the pulpit stairs, her sunbonnet shading her eyes. Again and again timorous trembling ones came to me and said, ‘Don’t let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolitionists and n——-s, and we shall be utterly denounced.’ There were very few women in those days who dared to ‘speak in meeting’ and the august teachers of the people [hostile clergymen] were seemingly getting the better of us.

“When slowly from her seat rose Sojourner Truth, I rose and announced Sojourner Truth and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments. Rolling thunder couldn’t have stilled that crowd, as did those deep and wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. It was pointed and witty and solemn, eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty.”

Sojourner was the only African American woman at those early conventions and some of the things that concerned the middle-class white women were puzzling to her. She asked, for instance, “Should a woman not have the legal right to retain her own silver and jewelry if she divorces her husband?”

‘Speak upon the ashes’

Through the pre-Civil War years, Sojourner kept on talking, kept on singing, kept on walking — to Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, back to Ohio and Michigan. Never resting, harassed, arrested, the 60-year-old woman kept on “bringing the truth to the people” about slavery. On one occasion she was told the Copperheads (Confederate sympathizers) had threatened to burn the meeting hall. “Then I will speak upon the ashes,” said Sojourner.

With the Civil War ending chattel slavery, Sojourner, nearing 70, continued to serve her people. She worked in a freedmen’s settlement in Washington and in a hospital for wounded soldiers. During that period she fought successfully to desegregate the horsecars in Washington. “The inside of those cars looked like pepper and salt,” she said after her victory.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have brought an end to chattel slavery, but it didn’t end the scourge of racism. The Black people, whose efforts had been decisive in turning the tide of war in favor of the North, were betrayed almost as soon as the war ended. Instead of the promised “40 acres and a mule” for ex-slaves, the plantations were restored to the former slaveholders. Sojourner’s people were jobless, homeless, hungry.

Sojourner, now 73, entered on her last great crusade to petition Congress to open up Western lands to ex-slaves.* She retraced the path she had followed in her long fight against slavery, speaking, travelling, filling up petitions with names to be presented to Congress.

As the U.S. government made less and less pretense of being concerned with the rights of African American people, Sojourner realized it would be a futile gesture, so the petitions were never presented to Congress. Yet even after defeat and disillusionment, as an 80-year-old woman she continued to travel and to speak against her people’s oppression, for women’s rights, for prison reform, and for the rights of working people.

Sojourner died in 1883. Once a slave who wanted to please her master, she had become a powerful servant of the people. She had lived long, but she did not, as we have not, seen the triumph of her two “beloved causes,” the liberation of the African American people and the liberation of women. “They will have to give us house-room or the roof will tumble in,” sang Sojourner in one of her “homemade songs.” Since then, Sojourner’s sisters and brothers, heirs in the struggle, have escalated her demand: “They will have to give us the house, or the roof will tumble in.”

* Given the record of cooperation between the African American and Native peoples during the centuries of slavery, we can visualize their sharing of Western lands to the benefit of both, and unity against the destruction of people and land in the interests of the ranchers and railroaders.

This article first appeared in the August 1971 issue of Battle Acts, a publication of Women of Youth Against War and Fascism.