The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was a freed slave who became a well-known speaker for abolition and women’s rights.

She was born Isabella Bomefree (or Baumfree—I’ve seen it both ways) in a Dutch community in New York. She spoke only Dutch until around age 9, when she was sold for $100 at an auction along with a flock of sheep. She was sold a total of four times over her lifetime. She endured hard work and excessive physical punishments until her last master promised her freedom a year before the state of New York promised emancipation in 1827. However, he reneged on his promise when a hand injury kept Isabella from her usual work output. Isabella took her youngest daughter and fled to an abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens, who paid her master for her services for the rest of the year so she could go free. Her master then illegally sold hr son, whom she’d had to leave behind. The Van Wagenens helped her sue her former master, and Isobella became one of the first Black women to successfully win a case against a white man.

Isobella had a major religious experience soon afterward and felt God wanted her to “preach the truth,” and she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Her religious views were somewhat muddled. She had never learned to read or write, so her only knowledge came through what she heard. She asked people to read the Bible to her without commentary, but they invariably started explaining as they went along. Finally she found some children to read to her. She had some visions and for a time got in with some folks who believed Jesus would come back in 1843-44. She was a little confused as to just who Jesus was:

She conceived, one day, as she listened to reading, that she heard an intimation that Jesus was married, and hastily inquired if Jesus had a wife. ‘What!’ said the reader, ‘God have a wife?’ ‘Is Jesus God? ‘ inquired Isabella. ‘Yes, to be sure he is,’ was the answer returned. From this time, her conceptions of Jesus became more elevated and spiritual; and she sometimes spoke of him as God, in accordance with the teaching she had received.

But when she was simply told, that the Christian world was much divided on the subject of Christ’s nature-some believing him to be coequal with the Father-to be God in and of himself, ‘very God, of very God;’-some, that he is the ‘well-beloved,’ ‘only begotten Son of God;’-and others, that he is, or was, rather, but a mere man-she said, ‘Of that I only know as I saw. I did not see him to be God; else, how could he stand between me and God? I saw him as a friend, standing between me and God, through whom, love flowed as from a fountain.’ Now, so far from expressing her views of Christ’s character and office in accordance with any system of theology extant, she says she believes Jesus is the same spirit that was in our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the beginning, when they came from the hand of their Creator. When they sinned through disobedience, this pure spirit forsook them, and fled to heaven; that there it remained, until it returned again in the person of Jesus; and that, previous to a personal union with him, man is but a brute, possessing only the spirit of an animal.

She became well-known as a speaker, worked for various causes, eventually met Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and others.

One of Sojourner’s most famous speeches was called “Ain’t I a Woman.” But there are different versions of it around, and no one knows which is closest to her original words. A Frances Dana Barker Gage transcribed the speech to sound as if it were written by a Southern ex-slave, and that became the most famous version. Yet Sojourner was born in NY and spoke Dutch in her early life, so it’s unlikely she had a Southern accent and phraseology. The speech also speaks of thirteen children, when Sojourner had five.

When looking back on what slaves endured, it’s hard to fathom how and why people thought the way they did and treated their fellow humans so cruelly. In describing the poor and unhealthy living conditions one master placed her family in:

Still, she does not attribute this cruelty-for cruelty it certainly is, to be so unmindful of the health and comfort of any being, leaving entirely out of sight his more important part, his everlasting interests,-so much to any innate or constitutional cruelty of the master, as to that gigantic inconsistency, that inherited habit among slaveholders, of expecting a willing and intelligent obedience from the slave, because he is a MAN-at the same time every thing belonging to the soul-harrowing system does its best to crush the last vestige of a man within him; and when it is crushed, and often before, he is denied the comforts of life, on the plea that he knows neither the want nor the use of them, and because he is considered to be little more or little less than a beast.

Of the practice of selling slaves’ children, Isobel said:

She wishes that all who would fain believe that slave parents have not natural affection for their offspring could have listened as she did, while Bomefree and Mau-mau Bett,-their dark cellar lighted by a blazing pine-knot,-would sit for hours, recalling and recounting every endearing, as well as harrowing circumstance that taxed memory could supply, from the histories of those dear departed ones, of whom they had been robbed, and for whom their hearts still bled.

Isabella’s parents, as well as several older slaves, were granted their freedom in their last years when they could no longer work. But then they had no place to live and no way to care for themselves. So the slaveholder was not being generous, but rather relieving himself of the obligation to provide for people who could no longer produce.

In 1850, Sojourner began dictating her memoir to a friend named Olive Gilbert, who added her own commentary and observations. Olive’s opinion of Sojourner was:

Through all the scenes of her eventful life may be traced the energy of a naturally powerful mind-the fearlessness and child-like simplicity of one untrammelled by education or conventional customs-purity of character-an unflinching adherence to principle-and a native enthusiasm, which, under different circumstances, might easily have produced another Joan of Arc.

I listened to this book through Librivox. Librivox is free because all the narrators are volunteers. I am thankful for their service, but they vary in skill, not just in narrating, but in basic reading. So this was not the most enjoyable audiobook experience. But I am glad to be more acquainted with a name I knew very little about. I looked up certain passages in the online version here.

I’m counting this book as a classic by a person of color for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

5 thoughts on “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

  1. Pingback: April Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  2. As a former New Yorker, Sojourner Truth is no stranger to me … but you have added so much to her story today, Barbara. Thank you …

  3. Pingback: Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up | Stray Thoughts

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