[For this year’s MLK Day series, I’ll be AmericanStudying African American lives in texts. I’d love to hear your responses, as well as other lives and texts you’d highlight, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On a voice captured in a famous speech, and a life lived well beyond it.
When you think about how many of the inspiring Americans I’ve highlighted in this space are not collectively remembered at all—and how many others, like Frederick Douglass, are generally remembered but without, I would argue, the kinds of specific connections to texts and works that would make those memories truly meaningful—Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) has it pretty good. Not only is this freed slave and lifelong activist for African American and women’s rights remembered in our national narratives, but her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a stirring rebuke to both racist and sexist arguments delivered at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, is one of the few 19th-century American texts that has endured in any specific way into our collective 21st-century consciousness (I’ve seen excerpts from the speech in posters in high school classrooms, to cite one piece of evidence for that enduring presence).
“Ain’t” is indeed a great American speech, managing in just a few short paragraphs to develop arguments using all three principal rhetorical strategies: pathos, appeals to her audience’s emotions; logos, appeals to their reason; and ethos, appeals based on Truth’s own character as the speaker. It also nicely illustrates Truth’s unique perspective and voice, her fiery eloquence which had by this moment (only a year after the publication of her personal narrative had first brought her to the attention of abolitionists and activists throughout the North) already made her a sought-after speaker and presence at any event. Yet the speech’s representation of that voice, and more exactly the written version’s use (from its title on) of dialect to portray Truth’s manner of speaking, makes it somewhat less clear whether this one text should indeed exemplify the woman behind it. The most significant Truth biographer and scholar, Nell Irvin Painter, has indeed argued that the dialect version was produced after the fact and by white activists who, while friendly to Truth and seeking to help amplify her voice, might have overly emphasized her use of the vernacular to highlight her natural eloquence and the limitations that her early life in slavery had enforced on her education and identity. After all, Truth’s most famous contemporary African American activist, Frederick Douglass, had been accused at times of falsifying his history because of his highly literate voice and style; Truth’s dialect voice in the speech thus bears at least a multi-part relationship to issues of slavery, authenticity, and identity.
The layers and complications of Truth’s life and identity go well beyond those questions of dialect, however, and her name itself both partially obscures and yet reflects that complicated personal history. The name was one of her own choosing, bestowed upon herself in 1843 as she began a period of work as an itinerant preacher in New York and New England. She had been born Isabella Baumfree, and for the first four decades of her life had worked, both as a slave and then as a freed servant, in upstate New York; as she traces in her personal narrative, and as biographers and historians such as Painter have likewise documented, she moved between numerous families and households in those years, while having four children of her own as part of a forced marriage to a fellow slave. By far the most ambiguous and complex period of those decades was also perhaps one of the most formative of her spiritual perspective: between 1829 and 1834 she served as both housekeeper and preacher to a reformer named Elijah Pierson, a man who called his house “the Kingdom”; sometime in that period another reformer named Robert Matthias took over the house and turned it into a brief but full-blown cult, including polygamous marriages and other fanatical practices (as detailed in Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s compelling narrative history, The Kingdom of Matthias ). The exact influences of these years and figures on Truth’s identity will never be known, not least because she wrote relatively little about them in her narrative; but no account of her life and perspective can entirely elide her apocalyptic religious visions, one unquestionably stoked by this time in the Kingdom.
I don’t mean, by highlighting that one period of Truth’s life, to imply that her later activism or writings must be analyzed through this lens; these were but five years of a more than 8-decade long life, one that included not only the abolitionist and women’s rights activism but also contributions to the formation of African American regiments during the Civil War and numerous post-bellum efforts on behalf of freed slaves, temperance, and opposition to capital punishment, among other continuing work. My main point, as ever, is that the more we know about this inspiring American’s identity and experiences and writings and work, the more we can understand the whole truth about who she was, who we were through the 19th century, and thus where we come from. Last life writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other African American lives and/or texts you’d highlight?
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