Sojourner Truth’s body is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, MI. But #WhereSheIs in spirit is at 37 North High St. in Akron, Ohio, where in 168 years ago she gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.
I stopped there yesterday after spending the night somewhere near Penn State University, when I just couldn’t drive anymore. At that point Monday night, it was almost 11 p.m., I was exhausted from having taught all day, and the combination of mountainous shadows and no lights on 80 West was making me buggy.
However, once rested and caffeinated yesterday morning, there were two musts for the day: paying my respects to Truth and making it to Chicago before dark.
Truth, born into slavery in 1797, was one of the first women’s rights activists I learned about in college. Her name at birth was Isabella Baumfree, and at 9 years old she was sold by her first master to a second for $100, which also included a flock of sheep. Sold twice more before before she turned 13, she finally became the property of a man named John Dumont who lived in West Park, New York.
Wanted by her master for more than housework, Truth at about age 18 fell in love with another slave named Robert from a nearby farm. The two wanted to marry, but Robert’s owner forbade it because he would not have owned Truth’s and Robert’s children; Dumont would. The two met in secret anyway. When discovered together on a day Robert had snuck away from his farm, Robert’s master savagely beat and almost killed him, leading to the end of their relationship.
Truth eventually married a slave named Thomas and bore five children by the time she was 29: a son, who was likely fathered by Robert and died in childhood; a daughter from being raped by Dumont; and three children from Thomas, two daughters and a son.
When New York began the process of enacting legislation to end slavery–a process that ran from 1799 to 1827–Dumont promised Truth that “if [you] do well and be faithful,” he would free her, but then changed his mind. His rationale was that a hand injury had made her less productive.
Angry, Truth in 1826 escaped from Dumont with her infant daughter, Sophia. She had to leave her other children because According to New York law, slaves were not legally free until they were in their 20s.
Confronted later by Dumont who snarled that she had run away from him in the dead of night, she told him:
“I did not run away, I walked away by daylight.”
It was that statement–that bravery and sense of self-worth she showed–that made me fall in love with Truth and, for the first time, then in my early 20s, begin to wonder whether there were things I needed to emancipate myself from, as well to question what it was that I deserved.
I also loved and have continued to be inspired by the fact that Truth took on what pretty much everyone told her was an impossible battle when, in 1828, a year after New York’s emancipation laws were enacted, she learned that Dumont had illegally sold her 5-year-old son Peter to an abusive slaveholder in Alabama and sued to get him back. This was three decades before the start of the Civil War. Yet with the help of the Methodist family she was living with, she became one of the first black women in the U.S. to win a case against a white man.
Soonafter, believing that God had called her to “testify the hope” that was inside her, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began traveling the country to preach the horrors of slavery. And it is likely because of where I was Tuesday that Truth’s name is known today.
Now the location of a United Way and other community service providers, the site in Akron was once the location of a Universalist church that in 1851 hosted the two-day Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. And it was there on May 29, 1851, that Truth–without a script or plan–extemporaneously delivered her now-famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.
Click here to see actress Kerry Washington (introduced by my once and always King Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen) do a dramatic reading of ‘Ain’t I A Woman.’ Washington’s recitation is moving. But Truth was said to have “electrified” the crowd, whose members had never seen anyone like this former slave who stood before them with grace, composure and conviction.
Ten years before the start of the Civil War, it would have been startling bold for Truth to demand equality for blacks alone. The fact that she demanded–even that she expected!–equality for blacks and women? That was unimaginable:
… That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
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.
Just three minutes long, “Ain’t I A Woman” has become one of the most famous feminist and abolishinist speeches in American history, as well as one of the most controversial. Scholars say the speech most people know today is not actually what Truth said, but a version “cleaned up” by a well-meaning, if misguided, white abolitionist named Frances Gage who believed Truth’s words needed reworking to be effective.
I’m of the camp that Truth’s original speech was powerful enough. It did not need rewriting. But this blog post, like my stop in Akron, is not as much about the speech as about the woman who deserves honoring.
I wish I had brought flowers to leave on Tuesday, because the street where what’s now called the Sojourner Truth Building is located –the entire neighborhood actually–is depressing, vacant and gray. Heavy chains bar the revolving door that would allow easy access to the building, despite what are clearly needed social services inside. Visitors must buzz an intercom and, according to a taped-up sign, “state why they desire access.”
Across the street is a closed-down firehouse, its windows covered with thick brown paper. And on the nearby corners panhandlers, many of them looking as tired, malnourished, and desperate as I imagine Truth once was.
Yet to the right of the firehouse is a yellow brick building. A facade of arches runs its side. And, under each of these mustardy rainbows, is a mural. I noticed the one almost directly across from the steps of the Sojourner Truth Building as I was getting back into my car.
Painted in pastel blues, pinks, whites and yellows, it shows a young girl reaching toward a bunch of balloons. Look quickly, and you’d think the balloons were lifting the girl. But look closer, and you’ll see there’s no string.
Yet the girl’s feet are off the ground. She is in the air, flying above the earth. She is above where some might say she is supposed to stand, or where class, gender, socioeconomics or any other kind of life circumstance might potentially hold her down.
And the girl’s eyes? They’re not on the ground. They’re on the balloons, the sky, the clouds, the unknown; perhaps on a place that was once unimaginable.
I’m pretty sure that Truth never once imagined that one day she would be known as one of the most famous abolition and women’s rights activists in U.S. history. Smithsonian magazine also named her as one of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”
But like those pink balloons the girl in the mural is reaching for, one of the many things I see in Truth’s story is the limitlessness of where our lives can take us when we are able to see, reach for, and grab hold of the possibilities.
Today I’m exploring Chicago and excited about the possibilities that brings!