It Ain't Simple -- The Real (?) Lessons From Sojourner Truth

1986 postage stamp depicting Truth
Day 144

I'm frustrated. Yet again, I'm frustrated about what I was never taught. Some months ago, I came across an article stating that Sojourner Truth never said "Ain't I a woman?" and that a white woman added the Southern, African American dialect in her publication of the speech. Maddeningly, I can't find the article even though I'm sure I bookmarked it. It's why I put "read the text of some of Sojourner Truth's speeches" on my blog list, because I clearly didn't know enough about her. The idea that she said "and ain't I a woman?" was one of the only things about Sojourner Truth's life I (thought I) knew, along with the fact that she was a formerly enslaved abolitionist and woman's rights activist.

The reality is a bit more complicated than what was shared in that (missing) article's lead-in. Frances Dana Gage had presided over the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where Truth gave her famous speech. Gage, a white abolitionist and woman's rights activist, published an account of it in 1863 in The New York Independent. Even without knowing the historical details, it's clear that the version Gage presented was written down in nonstandard English (by the standards of the day) to convey nonstandard pronunciation. "Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter." Some of this may have been useful in communicating what Truth's powerful speech sounded like -- if it was indeed an accurate portrayal of her dialect. However, it also reminded me of the pattern that when speakers of dialects considered "standard," "educated," or "high class" write out dialects society considers uneducated or low class, they tend to misspell words (or use nonstandard spellings) even when it doesn't change the pronunciation. Gage had Truth talk about "womin," for example, and I don't know about you, but when I say "womin" and "women" out loud they are indistinguishable. 

The problem is, there isn't a version of Truth's speech that is necessarily authoritative. Truth was illiterate, and she gave her famous speech while the floor was open during a meeting, so there is no original text of the speech. However, Marcus Robinson, who had worked with Truth, published a version of her speech in 1851 in The Anti-Slavery Bugle that many historians believe is closer to the words she delivered. The version of the speech that was easiest for me to find in a quick internet search, on the other hand, is a "cleaned-up" version of Gage's account, with standardized spelling. Once source even had the nerve to claim, "Sojourner Truth spoke in a southern dialect that might be difficult for modern readers. Here is the speech in modern English." There's so much to unpack here, and while some history resources, wikipedia included, describe the questionable elements of Gage's text, far too many history resources present Truth's words (usually as recounted by Gage) without unpacking any of the story.

Carte-de-Visite of Sojourner Truth

I hoped to get a little closer to understanding this historic activist by reading more of her work, and in some ways, I did. The famous speech and other passages by Truth resonated with me despite the fact that many are deeply rooted in her religious faith, and my beliefs are very different from hers. I was especially moved when she said in a speech which was transcribed, "I have had five children and never could take one of them up and say, 'My child' or 'My children,' unless it was when no one could see me." Honestly, a part of me is just frustrated that we don't have direct access to Truth's words. She did write a memoir with a friend, Olive Gilbert, which I plan to read next. Is dictated text any more altered than text written with an audience and a publisher in mind? It's hard to say, but we know it has gone through one more layer. There's no way in hell that I have the right to resent her for not learning to write. It's just that Truth was an important early advocate of including Black and poor women in the women's rights movement, and it's hard recognizing that we can't really know people from the past.

My personal feelings aside, the bottom line is that public memory of Sojourner Truth 
should be more complex. Really, isn't talking about Gage's probable edits, or Harriet Beecher Stowe's uncomfortably romanticized, exoticized description of Truth a perfect introduction to the paternalism of the White abolitionist movement, concise enough an anecdote for a high school history class? Isn't the well-known (but in this case disputed) 'ain't' an easy place to start a conversation on the wide variety of English dialects which includes what's now known as AAVE (African-American Vernacular English)? Or about kids who grow up bidialectical and experts at code-switching, and about the race and class privilege baked into the way we look at language? In my largely-black elementary school we were taught that "ain't ain't a word," but most dictionaries will tell you that any word with an agreed-upon meaning and grammatical function is a word. If Truth did say it in that speech, it would have been a valid choice, but it's not a choice for Gage to have made as an editor. The story of Sojourner Truth as it has been handed down to us is full of teachable moments, and history educators of all kinds should be making more use of them.