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Table of Contents
NARRATIVE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH
Narrative of Sojourner Truth
“BOOK OF LIFE”
PART SECOND - “Book of Life”
A MEMORIAL CHAPTER
NARRATIVE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH
Sojourner Truth, born Isabella, a slave in Ulster County, New York, around 1797, became an abolitionist, orator, and preacher, and eventually an icon for strong black women. She was emancipated by state law in 1827, and the following year she moved to New York City, where she found work in wealthy households and became increasingly involved in unorthodox religious groups. In the early 1830s she joined the commune or “Kingdom” of the Prophet Matthias. By 1843 she had transformed herself into the itinerant preacher Sojourner Truth, and spent most of the next thirteen years in Northampton, Massachusetts. Illiterate, she dictated her autobiography to her neighbor Olive Gilbert, and the Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published in 1850. The following year Truth set out to promote her book and to speak out on abolition and women’s rights. In the 1870s Truth’s friend and informal manager Frances Titus compiled a new edition of the Narrative, adding the “Book of Life,” a scrapbook comprising essays, articles, and letters from Truth’s contemporary admirers. Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883, and the following year Titus published a new edition that included “A Memorial Chapter.”
Nell Irvin Painter is the author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol and Standing at Armageddon, the United States, 1877- 1919, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson and Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. She is Edwards Professor of History at Princeton University, where she currently heads the program in African-American Studies.
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Narrative of Sojourner Truth first published in the United States of America 1850
This volume of the 1884 edition and an introduction and notes by Nell Irvin Painter
published in Penguin Books 1998
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a bondswoman of olden time, with a
history of her labors and correspondence drawn from her Book of life;
also, A memorial chapter/edited with an introduction and notes
by Nell Irvin Painter.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
Written for Sojourner Truth by Olive Gilbert.
eISBN : 978-1-101-17723-5
1. Truth, Sojourner, d. 1883. 2. Afro-American abolitionists—
Biography. 3. Abolitionists—United States—Biography. 4. Social
reformers—United States—Biography. I. Truth, Sojourner, d.
1883. II. Painter, Nell Irvin. III. Series.
TALL, black Sojourner Truth—ex-slave, abolitionist, women’s rights activist—stands today for strong African-American women, for the female strength of all women. She embodied “the slave” as female and “the woman” as black, having achieved that status even in her own times. An indefatigable lecturer, Truth rounded out the two most important reform movements of the early nineteenth century. Today, photographs of Truth grace many a woman’s office, and her name appears on lists of great Americans. Yet despite the familiarity of Truth the symbol, what she actually did in her lifetime remains surprisingly obscure. This incognizance stems in part from the unorthodoxy of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a multilayered presentation of her life as a slave, worker, and Christian in New York State, joined to a hodgepodge of a scrapbook, and eventually to a chapter on her death. Looking carefully at the whole of Truth’s narrative can help us see the woman behind the words.
Truth’s fame rests on her speech: her preaching, her singing, and her mastery of lightning repartee. But as Truth did not read or write, the words of others communicate her speaking genius. She first published her narrative in 1850, but as an author, her voice has not carried very far, compared to that of her contemporaries. Unlike Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, whose narratives convey the tragedy of Southern slavery, Truth could not set her narrative in the South. For lack of familiar Southern trappings, the story of her enslavement in New York rests uneasily in the corpus of American ex-slave narratives. Truth’s nonconformist (auto)biography puzzles students of American slavery with its seeming inauthenticity. Not knowing what to make of it, they often lay it aside. As a consequence, the neglected Narrative of Sojourner Truth seldom serves as an historical source, leaving Truth’s slave experience in the North relatively unstudied.
That Truth was born in the Hudson River Valley of New York surprises many Americans, who know nothing of slavery in the North. One of tens of thousands of enslaved New Yorkers, Truth was born Isabella in Ulster County in about 1797. At the turn of the nineteenth century, more than 10 percent (3,220) of Ulster County’s population of 29,554 was of African descent. Isabella spoke Dutch as her first language, for Dutch was the language of Ulster County’s Huguenot settlers. At the time, at least 16 percent of Afro-New Yorkers grew up speaking Dutch. Most slaveholding households in New York held only one or two slaves, a pattern that dispersed black people all across the countryside. A large slaveholder like Isabella’s first master might own six or seven people at a time, but very few New Yorkers owned more than twenty slaves.
Slavery was an important part of Northern life in 1800. Among American cities, only Charleston, South Carolina, had a larger black population than New York. New York City’s 5,865 blacks (including five slaves owned by Founding Father John Jay) accounted for about 10 percent of the total population. Almost 1,000 of the 6,281 black people in Connecticut and 12,422 of the 16,824 black people in New Jersey were still enslaved. Black people lived among whites, Indians, and people of mixed race throughout the North. Former slaves were to be found even in Massachusetts.
In her childhood, Isabella lived with her own parents, Elizabeth (Mau Mau Bett) and James (Bomefree). As cottagers, Elizabeth and James farmed land let them by their master and worked in relative autonomy. But autonomy assured neither physical nor psychic comfort, nor could it offset their grief. When Isabella was a child, her parents had already sacrificed ten or twelve children to the slave trade. Then, at the age of about nine, Isabella, too, was sold away from her parents. Elizabeth and James’s bereavement lodged permanently in Isabella’s memory. Her new owners spoke no Dutch, Isabella knew no English, and miscommunication led to whippings whose motives the young girl could not understand. Her father helped arrange her sale to less vicious owners, who taught her to tend bar and swear like their tavern’s clientele.
The man who would be Isabella’s longtime master, John Dumont, bought her in 1810. She worked for the Dumonts until her emancipation by state law in 1827. While she lived with the Dumonts, Isabella married Thomas, a fellow slave; they had five children: Diana, born about 1815; Peter, born about 1821; Elizabeth, born about 1825; Sophia, born about 1826; and one who cannot be identified. Like many other Northern slaves, Isabella had worked out a deal with her master for emancipation a year early. When he broke his commitment, she completed her work for the crop year, walked away with her baby, Sophia, and spent the remaining eight months of her last year of legal enslavement earning wages from Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen (not Van Wagener, as in Olive Gilbert’s text). The Van Wagenens belonged to the same Dutch Reformed Church as the Dumonts, but they held the same Holiness (Pentecostal) ideals of equality and simplicity that had led Isabella to the new Methodist Church in Kingston.
During the fateful year between the end of the summer of 1826 and the midsummer of 1827, Isabella experienced another upheaval (in addition to seizing her freedom and choosing her own religion). At the end of 1826, John Dumont sold her son Peter, who was only about five, to one of his in-laws. The child changed hands twice more, then landed in Alabama, where slavery was not expected to end. New York State law prohibited the sale of New York slaves into places where slavery would continue to be legal after 1827, but the law was routinely and massively contravened. Peter was only one of thousands of New Yorkers sold illegally into permanent bondage in the South.
Empowered by her new closeness to God, Isabella went to court and secured the return of her son, an unusual but not unique use of the judicial system. (In later years, Truth again invoked the law in her own behalf: in New York, in 1835, when she was accused of poisoning after the disintegration of the “Kingdom of Matthias”; and in Washington, D.C., in 1867, for discrimination in the streetcars.) Having recovered her son, Isabella left Ulster County for booming New York City in 1828.
In New York, Isabella lived and worked in wealthy households and honed her ability to move others through her speech. She began to shine as a preacher and singer at the revivals then common around New York City. Leaving the predominantly white John Street Methodist Church for the Zion African Church, she worshipped with other blacks, among whom she discovered some of her own siblings, whose sale had so grieved her parents. She soon left Zion African Church to join self-appointed messengers of God (who would today be called Pentecostals). In 1832 she followed the Prophet Matthias (né Robert Matthews in upstate New York), one of the independent holy men inspired by the Second Great Awakening (see p. xiv). The “Kingdom of Matthias” lasted some three years, in New York City and in West-chester County, before succumbing to the strains of free love and one member’s death in suspicious circumstances.
Although she remained in New York City, Isabella disappears from the historical record between the breakup of the “Kingdom of Matthias” in 1835 and her transformation into Sojourner Truth on 1 June 1843 at the height of Millerite Second Adventism (see page xv). As the itinerant preacher Sojourner Truth, she made her way across Long Island and up the Connecticut River Valley, arriving in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the late fall. Intending only to stay the night, Truth spent the better part of thirteen years in Northampton, first in the Northampton Association for Education and Industry (a cooperative manufacturing silk), then in her own house on Park Street, in what is now Florence. In the Northampton Association she met Garrisonian abolitionists and feminists for the first time and found an amanuensis, Olive Gilbert, to write her (auto)biography. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published in 1850, and the following year Truth set out to lecture and sell her book to audiences of reformers. In 1856 she and her three daughters moved to Battle Creek, Michigan.
Between 1851 and the Civil War, Truth persevered on the feminist abolitionist lecture circuit. Her appearance at a women’s rights meeting in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 is well known, though misconstrued through a report written by Frances Dana Gage twelve years after the fact. In 1853 Truth had visited Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to ask for a promotional statement for her book. Stowe complied, and the two never met again. Ten years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Stowe turned this encounter into an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl.” Stowe’s errors (that Truth was dead, that she had not been a committed feminist) inspired Frances Dana Gage, the radical feminist writer who had chaired the 1851 meeting in Akron, to publish—two weeks after “The Libyan Sibyl” appeared—her own version of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 comments. Gage pointed out that Truth was still active and living in Battle Creek, Michigan. Gage also reorganized Truth’s words and heightened the drama by borrowing Stowe’s scenario. In place of Stowe’s “Frederick, is God dead?” Gage substituted a rhetorical question of her own invention: “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” So, while Truth was associated during the nineteenth century with Stowe’s “Frederick, is God dead?” by the mid-twentieth century, Gage’s secular, feminist “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” had replaced Stowe’s more evangelical phrase as Truth’s identifying words.
Meanwhile, Truth was celebrating the turn of national politics for the first time in her life. With the outbreak of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, she jettisoned her Garrisonian disdain of politics to campaign for Lincoln’s reelection. She visited Lincoln in 1864 and stayed on to assist the impoverished freedpeople clustering in the District of Columbia, a mission that occupied women abolitionists now that emancipation had practically been assured. The end of the war dried up the supply of jobs in Washington, presenting a further challenge to abolitionists. In 1867 Truth and another abolitionist, Josephine Griffing, attempted to find employment for Washington’s refugees in the North and West, but the logistics of so ambitious an operation exceeded the two women’s resources. A frustrated Truth envisioned another solution: the refugees’ permanent resettlement in the West. The quest for Western land engaged the balance of her public career without diminishing her feminist advocacy.
Like many old abolitionists, Truth had long supported a range of women’s rights, including—but not limited to—the right to vote. And like many old abolitionists after the war, Truth espoused “universal suffrage” (voting for women and former slaves). But once the Fourteenth Amendment inserted the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time, explicitly limiting citizenship rights to men, abolitionists divided. On one side, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments unless women were included, while on the other side, male, female, black, and white abolitionists refused to hold black men’s votes hostage to the politically inexpedient cause of woman suffrage. (Potential Democratic, erstwhile Confederate white women voters badly outnumbered potenti...
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