Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sojourner Truth - A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time

Sojourner Truth was an African-American woman who had a remarkable impact on the abolitionist movement in the United States and on the lives of the African-Americans of her time.  Her activism and the courage of her convictions had an effect not only on her contemporaries but on future generations as well.

She was born into slavery as Isabella Van Wagenen, and later changed her name to Sojourner Truth.  She is now considered to be one of the two most famous African-American women in the nineteenth century.  The other is Harriet Tubman, the "Moses" of her people.  Truth had a remarkable intelligence despite her illiteracy.  She was a tall woman, 5' 11", and had a characteristically low pitched voice.  In her lifetime, she had to endure the travails and suffering that were common to all who were forced to endure the humiliation and ignominy of slavery in America.  She was involuntarily separated from members of her family who were sold to other owners; she was humiliated, beaten and abused.  She was, in fact, one of the tens of thousands of African-Americans who were enslaved in New York State.  According to the popular imagination, slavery is seen as being particularly endemic to the American South, as represented by Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic work, Uncle Tom's Cabin.  However, it was also prevalent in the North.  Isabella was born in Hurley, New York in Ulster County ninety miles north of New York City.

Isabella's parents were James and Elizabeth, who were the slaves of Colonel Johannes Hardenberg, a Revolutionary War Colonel.  James had lost two of his wives to slavery sales before his marriage to Betsey.  Isabella was the youngest of ten or twelve children: the exact number is unknown.  Before she was fully grown, Isabella had lost both parents and ten siblings, who were sold or in case of two of her siblings, actually kidnapped.  Ultimately, Isabella's parents became infirm and were sent to live in a separate domicile that was, in fact, a hut.  Twenty years later they were freed, but were doomed to a miserable existence.  Later in her life, Truth would describe her parents' plight in the following way, "They ended their days ignorant, helpless, crushed in spirit and weighed down with hardships and cruel bereavement."

This region of New York in which Truth lived was originally inhabited by the Mohawk Indians.  They were overwhelmed by Dutch settlers who never completely displaced them.  In Isabella's time, the reality of slavery was so extensive that between thirty and sixty percent of white households owned slaves, and of the overall population of thirty thousand about ten percent were of African descent.  The typical slave-owning household had one to two slaves and sometimes six or seven.  In terms of actual numbers of slaves, the records show that New York City had 5,865, Connecticut 6,281 and New Jersey 16,824 slaves.  Unlike their southern counterparts who lived on large plantations housing many slaves, New York slaves were isolated and, therefore, did not develop a vibrant Anglo-African culture.  Surprisingly, approximately sixteen percent of blacks, like Isabella, spoke Dutch as their first language.

Another important distinction between slavery in the North and South is that the invention of the Cotton Gin (1793) made slave-grown and harvested cotton the economic underpinning of the American South.  On account of the elevated importance of the cotton industry and the degree to which the institution of slavery had become endemic to  southern life and culture, southern slaves were treated particularly harshly i.e. they could not legally marry or own property.  In addition, they were deprived of formal education and, as a consequence, unable to read or write.  Most importantly, they were destined to be slaves their entire lives with no possibility of liberation (manumission).  The southern slave owner's power over his slaves was absolute, and violence and the sexual violation of women slaves suffused the entire institution.  Some famous African-Americans escaped from southern bondage, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Although the plight of the Northern slave was not as horrific, Truth's life in the household of the Nealies was deplorable.  She was savagely beaten and abused.  She was subsequently sold on two additional occasions and finally ended up in the household of the Dumonts, where she remained for sixteen years.  There is some evidence that she was sexually abused by the mistress of the house, Sally Dumont.  In spite of this, she remained loyal to the Dumont family even after she was freed.  In fact, according to Nell Irvin Painter in her book entitled, Sojourner, A Life, A Symbol, "Recalling herself as a slave, Sojourner Truth realized that she had been incapable of separating John Dumont's interests from her own, even when serving him meant depriving her own children and setting herself against her fellow slaves."  This seemingly inexplicable behavior is referred to as a "slave mentality."  It can be explained by the fact that individuals deprived of personal autonomy for too long, learn to value themselves less than those whom they serve.  This inordinate desire to please the powerful ultimately can produce a potent anger that can either be turned inwards or result in tempestuous and dangerous outbursts.

Between 1815 and 1826, Isabella bore five children.  Her husband, Thomas, himself a slave, had been married twice before and lost both of his wives to the slave trade.  He attempted to escape to New York City, but had been recaptured and returned to Ulster County where he met Isabella.  Of the five children, her daughter most resembled her mother.  In 1827, Isabella gained her freedom - New York freed its remaining slaves on July 4, 1827 - and left Thomas and four of her children to the Dumonts.  She held onto her baby, Sophia.

In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, reflecting her pre-occupation with truth.  This was the same year that she decided to leave New York.  During the time that she lived in New York, it was a deeply troubling time for African Americans.  Their transition from slavery to supposed freedom was accompanied by violence and legally-imposed obstacles.  The Jacksonian era of the common man did not give comfort to those newly freed from the bonds of slavery.  Even after the Civil War when all legal restrictions for blacks in regard to access to public accommodations had ended, entrenched prejudices remained. 

Given the political, economic and social conditions of the time, Sojourner felt compelled to speak out against the stark injustices of her age.  She went on to make important inroads into the pernicious impact of prejudice that so dominated cultural life during her time.  She was a fierce abolitionist and feminist and spoke out for some thirty years.  Between the 1840's and 1870's, she traveled extensively denouncing slavery and was a staunch advocate for women's rights, women's suffrage and temperance.  She found her inspiration from religious faith; she might best be described as a Pentecostal, deriving her strength from the Holy Spirit as she envisioned it.

Sojourner Truth's life can be viewed as going through three stages: slavery, a spiritual era culminating in her involvement with the utopian Northampton Association for Education and Industry, and finally her activism as a staunch feminist and opponent of the institution of slavery.

The utopian community referred to as the Northampton Association of Education and Industry consisted of thirty men, twenty-six women and forty-six children.  Individuals from the community were hired to work in the so-called  "silk room." In addition, the community had a library and reading room for formal lectures. 

The Northampton Community listed as its first principle of incorporation that it was the duty of all people to work productively and to have the right to enjoy the benefits of their labor.  Competition was viewed as reprehensible.  The community saw itself as a cooperative working for the interest of women's rights, freedom of expression, a broad-based education and the abolition of slavery.  Its appeal was its commitment to the abolition of slavery.     A byproduct of this association was a non-denominational free meeting referred to as the Florence Free Congregational Society where Truth was often invited to speak.  Among other things, the group supported temperance, vegetarianism and peace.  Its two main goals were to create an intellectually satisfying atmosphere in which to live and to realize a profit from the manufacture of silk.

The Association attracted visitors such as Frederick Douglass.  He was impressed by the complete absence of class or racial boundaries.  It also afforded an opportunity for Truth to meet reformers deeply involved in the issues of antislavery and feminism, including Giles Stebbins and James Boyle.  Another individual of note was David Ruggles, one of New York's leading abolitionists and head of the Virginia Society.  It was Ruggles who arranged for Frederick Douglass' flight from slavery.  In addition, local townswomen were employed in their silk room where they made silk.  In addition to housing for those who resided in the community and the silk factory, there was also a library and reading room where formal lectures were held.  Visitors to the community included William Lloyd Garrison an integral member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of the Boston Liberator and Wendell Phillip a pillar of anti-slavery and labor reform movements before and after the Civil War.  The main appeal of this association was its emphasis on intellectual enrichment and simple living conditions.  Of the 270 utopian communities that existed in the United States between 1787 and 1919, 115 were formed between 1842 and 1848; it was a period of considerable social unrest and social experimentation. 

The Northampton community was ultimately dissolved in 1846.  Truth stayed on for awhile trying to make it on her own.  Inspired by the success of Frederick Douglass' Narrative published in 1845, Truth dictated her narrative – autobiography - to one of the community's residents, Olive Gilbert.  The narrative was completed three years later.  The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – Northern Slave was first printed in Boston in 1850.  Unlike other slave narratives, Truth ends with not a note of bitterness regarding the slave experience, but one of forgiveness for the slave holder. 

Throughout her life, Truth successfully formed networks with like-minded individuals.  This ability to communicate and learn from her surroundings, even slavery, in many ways accounted for her astonishing accomplishments.  When she left the Northampton community, her energy focused on antislavery feminism.  This phase of her life led her to apply her oratory skills and evangelical tendencies to what came to be the antislavery and feminism circuit.  In the fall of 1844, Truth gave her first antislavery speech in Northampton.  In May 1845, she spoke to the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York.  Truth believed in the, "finite nature of evil and the everlasting quality of good."

At the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention in Akron Ohio on May 29, 1851, Truth delivered her famous Ain't I a Woman speech.  This speech was essentially an unapologetic insistence that women were the equals of men.  It must be remembered that Truth was illiterate and never wrote down her words.  The account of this speech was reported by Frances D. Cage and was published in 1863.  In it, Truth called for equal rights and cited her life experiences as a woman and as a slave.

During all her speaking engagements, Truth did not take a political stand; until, the outbreak of the Civil War.  Once the Civil War was underway, she avidly took the side of the Union.  She eventually achieved enough notoriety to have been invited to visit Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the subject of the "Negro" became a common theme in the press.  In the April 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an article entitled, Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl.  In many ways, Stowe's description of Truth was condescending.  For example, she described Truth as, "…a full blooded African…," and, "…a fine specimen of the torrid zone…"  Yet, in spite of this tone, she shows her admiration for Truth, especially in regards to her ability to impact an audience with her eloquence.  Truth continued to make the rounds of women's rights and anti-slavery meetings.

Following the successful conclusion of the war, Truth turned her attention to Washington, the nation's capitol.  She arrived there in the fall of 1864.  Tens of thousands of former slaves from Maryland and Virginia inundated the area and took refuge there.  The famous anti-slavery editor, Horace Greeley had commented that in Washington, "The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable."  Washington was a slaveholding city; until, an act of Congress in 1862 had changed that.  From the end of 1864 through 1868, Truth helped out in refugee camps for the National Freedmen's Relief Association that helped ex-slaves with their transition to freedom.  She also spent much of her time teaching.  As the anti-slavery movement began to wither, Truth turned her attention to women's suffrage.  She joined the ranks along with other notable black women, including Ellen Watkins Harper and Harriet Tubman.

After Truth had witnessed the deplorable conditions of ex-slaves in Washington, she reasoned that blacks needed to migrate west.  She devoted her efforts during the 1870s towards this goal.  She addressed Congress through the submission of a petition bearing many signatures.  It read, "We, the undersigned, therefore earnestly request your Honorable Body to set apart for them a portion of public land in the West, and erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm, and otherwise so to legislate as to secure the desired results."  There is no evidence that this petition was ever actually delivered to the Congress.

Truth was nearing the end of her life, and in 1883, she passed away.  Her life's work is certainly a testament to her remarkable courage, steadfast adherence to principles and a stubborn dedication to achieving equal justice in her time.  Her life history certainly speaks of her remarkable endurance in spite of enormous obstacles and an admirable moral and personal courage.

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