7.4: “Ain’t I A Woman?” -- Sojourner Truth
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“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.”
In the quote above from Sojourner Truth, she literally speaks of turning “the world upside down” and getting it “right side up again.” Through this language, Truth makes the reinscription of power dynamics more concrete than any of our previous authors. Of course, this process of reinscribing power dynamics necessarily involves noticing and questioning naturalized views of power and position within the world. When the world is turned upside down, what does that suggest about how the world should be? How has our sense of orientation in the world–what is up and what is down–been shaped? Whose interests are served by maintaining the present order and who stands to gain power by uprooting it? Where is our–the readers–place in the world and how are our actions stabilizing it or disrupting it? Through this series of questions, we can see all of the dimensions of critical literacy coming together.
For Sojourner Truth, these types of critical literacy acts defined her life as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born as Isabella Baumfree in New York in 1797 to enslaved parents, she was sold to a slave owner at the age of nine and was sold several more times by the age of 13 (Michals, 2015). Truth was promised her emancipation from owner John Dumont on July 4, 1826, but after he refused to grant her freedom, she decided to leave of her own will, stating that “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” After New York’s anti-slavery took effect in 1827, Truth gained her emancipation and filed a lawsuit against her previous owner, John Dumont, for his illegal sale of her son. In doing so, she became “the first Black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and prevail.”
Having been influenced by spirituality, Truth became a devout Christian. In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, a testament to her sense of purpose–to embark on a journey to preach the gospel, speak the truth, and denounce slavery and oppression. In 1844, Truth joined a Massachusetts abolitionist organization and met abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, thereby initiating her work as an equal rights activist. Although Truth never formally learned to read or write, she dictated the content of her eventual autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
The text below, authored by Sojourner Truth, was delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 as part of her advocacy for the equal rights of Black women. Within her speech, Michals (2015) claims that Truth “challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength (Truth was nearly six feet tall) and female status.” More than a decade after her speech, an account of this rhetorical event was published by abolitionist and convention founder Frances Gage in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, which was the weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. This organization was founded in 1833 in New York and was led by Frederick Douglass, from whom Truth diverged because she believed that Black men and women should be granted voting rights simultaneously (Michals, 2015). In his account of Truth’s speech, Gage wrote “that Truth used the rhetorical question, ‘Ar’n’t I a Woman?’ to point out the discrimination Truth experienced as a Black woman.”
With this brief historical background of Sojourner Truth, take a moment to reflect on the questions below:
1. Sojourner Truth’s speech is called “Ain’t I A Woman?”, a phrase that is repeated throughout. Make a prediction about why she might ask this question.
2.Based on your historical background knowledge, describe the power dynamics that were established at the time of Truth’s speech.
3.As you read Truth’s speech, note the ways that she describes her position in society and how her speech rewrites that position.
“Ain’t I A Woman?”
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then 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.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.
Now that you’ve read Truth’s speech, respond to and discuss the questions below.
- In the beginning of Truth’s speech, she says, “I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.” What do you think it means for the white men to be “in a fix pretty soon”? Why might this be happening?
- Truth states that “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” Why do you think that no one helps her in these ways? What does this say about her position in society?
- What do you think Truth’s goal and purpose were for drawing attention to these observations about how she’s treated? Do you think she wants to be helped into carriages and over ditches or do you think she has a different goal?
- Within Truth’s speech, she points out the following: “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?” Through these lines, how does Truth rewrite her own position within traditional power dynamics?