By Zaira Zafroon
(Chair of Communications South Asia Students for Liberty)
In the 1800’s slavery was a full-fledged practice in America. Slaves were brought from African countries and forced into slavery. They were owned by their white counterparts: forced to a life of peril and made to work under conditions beyond description. Just because of their skin color they had to forfeit the right of life, liberty and property. At such a time, Sojourner Truth became an avid advocate for abolition, civil and women’s rights in the face of opposition and threats. Her messages and work in ensuring women rights and eradicating racial inequality deserve remembrance in today’s divide climate.
In the white supremacist male patriarchal world most of her speeches were not kept in record. However, her improvised speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered at a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851 is thought to resonate her beliefs the most. She said “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?”
Sojourner Truth was born to slave parents – James and Elizabeth Baumfree who were owned by a Dutch patroon in New York. Details of her early life remains a mystery, but it is assumed that she was born around 1797 and at birth was named Isabelle or ‘Belle’. In her life as a slave she was sold a few times between owners and finally was bought by an owner named John Dumont. Around 1815, Isabella fell in love with a slave of a neighboring farm called Robert. Robert’s owner was against the union as all children produced from this union will be the property of the Dunmount’s and not his. Once when Isabella was meeting Robert in secret, Robert’s owner found out. He beat Robert so badly for this that the subsequent injuries caused his death. This experience haunted Isabelle and left a lasting mark. She married another slave named Thompson and bore 5 children of which three were sold into slavery.
Isabella escaped slavery in 1827 and moved to New York City . There she started working as domestic help. At the same time, she became involved in moral reform and started her preaching career. Even though she was illiterate, Isabella acquired a wide knowledge of the Bible and in the 1840s worked among the Garrisonian abolitionists (Worked to promote the abolition of slavery and supported women’s rights) in Massachusetts. She gave herself the name “Sojourner Truth” when she became a wandering orator.
One of her earlier achievement was rescuing her son Peter from slavery. Slavery ended in New York in July 4, 1827 but her son Peter was sold to a family in Alabama after that time. Truth brought charges against the Dunmount family and fought a case to rescue her son. Truth won the case against her previous owners and in doing so became the first black woman to win a case against a white man.
In May 1851, she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention where she gave her speech “Ain’t I a Woman”. In her speech she demanded equal rights for black people and women. Throughout the 1850s and 60s, she unapologetically brought her views in front of the public through her speeches. The speaking circuit at that time was dominated by white males so the presence of a black women in the circuit was filled with challenges. Some people even believed that she was a man in disguise. In 1858 during one of her speeches someone claimed Truth was a man. Truth responded by baring her breasts in front of the audience.
She co authored several books in which her struggles as a former slave turned feminist and civil rights worker shone through. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – Scholar’s Choice Edition, Owned by Several Masters, Voices of Freedom: Four Classic Slave Narratives are most prominent of her books.
Truth believed in preaching by actions not words. She worked to stop segregation between the black and white people in USA. In Washington, she tried to ride white only street car and was pushed out of it by a white conductor. Never one to support oppression, she got the conductor arrested and won a case against him. In the 1872 election, she tried to vote in the Presidential election but was turned back at the polling booth for being African American and a woman. At the time, women were not allowed to vote by constitution. She also lobbied for lands to be given to the former slaves so that they can be self-dependent. During the civil war, she helped to recruit black troops and arranged supplies for the Union army.
In 1864, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ensuring civil rights was passed. It was one of the political milestones Truth saw realized while she was alive. She died of old age and ulcerated legs in the year 1883.37 years after her death, suffrage rights for women were achieved and in the 1960s voting rights for African-Americans were established as a law.
Sojourner Truth’s life was spent in order to make the lives of others better; she struggled to ensure the right of life, property and dignity for all. She lobbied for the rights of women, women of color and for abolition of slavery and segregation. For her contributions, in 2009 she was honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. In 2014, her name was included in the Smithsonian Institution’s list of the 100 most significant Americans.
Sojourner Truth’s life remains an inspiration for everyone who wants to stand against injustice and fight societal norms to establish individualism. Her struggles paved the way for women of colour all over the world to support and fight for their rights even in the face of state supported violence.