“Now I hears talkin about de Constitution and de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold of dis Constitution. It looks mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says, God, what ails dis Constitution? He says to me, “Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.”
Sojourner Truth was one of those rare, remarkable individuals who rise far above their intended station in life. What future could have been expected for a Black female slave born into a nation controlled by free white men? Truth grew up with no schooling, and was unable to read or write. Who could have imagined that she would become one of America’s greatest orators, or that she would produce (through dictation to a neighbor) one of the nineteenth century’s most inspirational autobiographies?
Not much is known about Truth’s early years. Originally called Isabella, she was born at the end of the 1790s to slave parents owned by a wealthy Dutch family in Ulster County, New York. As a teenager working for a different household nearby in New Paltz (this section of New Paltz is now in the town of Esopus), she bore five children to a fellow slave, at least three of whom were sold and sent away from her.
After sixteen years in New Paltz, Isabella escaped in 1826 by fleeing to a Quaker family. By the time she reached New York City, three years later, the state had decreed the emancipation of slaves, allowing her to stop running and hiding. Working as a servant, she became involved with various religious movements; in 1843, feeling that God had called her “to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins and being a sign to them,” she renamed herself Sojourner Truth.
At six feet tall, Truth´s commanding presence was complemented by a tremendous natural charisma. Her speeches were direct, but clever, delivered in
Dutch-accented English. Truth became a powerful voice against racial oppression, and later, for the women´s suffrage movement. In 1851, at a women’s rights convention in Ohio, she gave her most famous speech, in which she repeatedly asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Her words were not formally recorded until twelve years later, when Frances Gage, president of the convention, set down her gripping account of the speech.
In a long article for the April 1863 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence … [Truth] seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease. … An audience was what she wanted—it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had things to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to any one.”
Sojourner Truth traveled as an itinerant preacher for about ten years. Then, after a brief time in Battle Creek, Michigan, she moved to nearby Harmonia, a utopian community, in 1857, where she remained for the next decade. In 1867, she returned to Battle Creek for the remaining years of her life. Her funeral there in 1883 was the largest that town had ever seen.
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