Her face speaks to us about the chains of slavery, about the iron chains of the slaves in America, about the invisible chains, but still heart-breaking unjustness and cruelty of our modern, globalized civilization: an enormous part of the world’s population, women, men and children, is working itself to death in order to make an easy and comfortable life possible for the other part.
The pain in this woman’s face is our pain as well.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery as Isabella (Belle) about 1797. Her mother, known as “Mau-Mau Bett” had 11 children with James Baumfree.
Sojourner Truth was an evangelist, abolitionist, and feminist and is now considered one of the most important people of American her/history.
At the age of nine she was “given” with a flock of sheep to a Dutch land-owner who raped her in front of her parents’ eyes. The girl in the following years had to sleep in the same bed with her “owner” who is said to have raped her permanently. She had a series of abortions and at least 3 of the children she had given birth to were sold into slavery and taken away from her.
Isabella escaped slavery in 1827, taking her baby daughter with her and was received by a Quaker family who bought her freedom from her former owner one year before mandatory emancipation in New York State. She was the first black woman taking a white man to court in order to receive custody for her son – and to win!
Isabella moved to New York, became a domestic servant and became involved in moral reform and the abolition movement. She started street-preaching and she then moved into a utopian community in Sing Sing, New York. Isabella was six feet tall and had an impassioned voice that she raised in support of abolitionism, freedpeople and women’s rights. She aggressively challenged men like Frederick Douglass on the issue of violence against slavery and bared her breasts before a crude audience who had challenged her whether she was “a man in disguise.”
Isabella was illiterate and a mystic and in 1843, she changed her name to Soujourner Truth, having had this name given by God, as she believed. In her vision God told her to leave the city and to move into the country in order to preach to the people there. She traveled throughout New England, praying to black and also to white people, supporting herself with odd jobs and often sleeping outside.
Sojourner Truth became very popular as a wandering orator. During her performances she told stories and sang gospel songs that were both instructive and entertaining.
Sojourner became famous for her powerful speech at the women’s Rights Convention in 1852 in Akron, Ohio : “Ain’t I a woman?”
She joined the Northampton Association, a Massachusetts community of Education and Industry, a utopian community, founded on the ideas of freedom and equality. Here, she was introduced by Frederick Douglass to their movement where she met other social reformers and abolitionists
In 1850, she bought a house in Florence, Michigan; by this time, she was touring widely and speaking for various reform causes. To pay off the mortgage for her house with the proceeds of its sales, she dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to Olive Gilbert. At this time, she was traveling for months, and at a certain point went to Washington, D.C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House. She decided to stay, carrying on the fight for blacks and for women.
In Washington, Sojourner won another legal battle for the right of blacks to use streetcars together with white passengers, after her arm had been dislocated by a streetcar conductor who had refused to let her ride.
During the Civil War, Sojourner went to encourage black soldiers and continued, when the war was over, to work with freed slaves. She kept lecturing to black and white people for the rights of blacks and women for several years and she led a campaign to have land in the West set aside for freed, but poor and homeless blacks.
Her health forced her soon to return home to Battle Creek, where she died on November 26, 1883.
In 2014, Truth was included in the Smithsonian’s magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”. The American sculptor Tina Allen (December 9, 1949 – September 9, 2008) created a monument of Sojourner Truth in 1999. When she was interviewed about her work, Allen said:
“My work is not about me, it’s about us,” emphasizing the contributions and aspirations of the African Diaspora and creating a “visual landscape that is nurturing and life affirming to people of color,” a celebration of the beauty of African Americans.
In 2009 a bust of Sojourner Truth was exposed in the Capitol of Washington.
©Karin Peschau 2018