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Sojourner Truth's America


Publication Year: 2009

This fascinating biography tells the story of nineteenth-century America through the life of one of its most magnetic and influential characters: Sojourner Truth. In an in-depth account of this amazing activist, Margaret Washington unravels Sojourner Truth's world within the broader panorama of African American slavery and the nation's most significant reform era. _x000B__x000B_Organized chronologically into three distinct eras of Truth's life, Sojourner Truth's America examines the complex dynamics of the times in which she acted, beginning with the transnational contours of her spirituality and early life as a slave. Washington then highlights Truth's awakening during nineteenth-century America's progressive surge, which propelled her ascendancy as a rousing preacher and political orator despite her inability to read and write. Throughout the book, Washington explores Truth's passionate commitment to family and community, including her vision for a beloved community that extended beyond race, gender, and socioeconomic condition and embraced a common humanity. For Sojourner Truth, the significant model for such communalism was a primitive, prophetic Christianity._x000B__x000B_Illustrated with dozens of images of Truth and her contemporaries, Sojourner Truth's America provides important insights into the turbulent cultural and political climate of the age while also separating the many myths from the facts concerning this legendary American figure.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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A Word on Language

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pp. ix

In this book, I use the term “race” as it was employed contemporarily. Race was a means of defining and marginalizing people on the basis of their phenotype, and was an almost totalizing concept in the historical period under study. Reform is a subtheme of this work; for emphasis, I have capitalized reforms that...

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pp. xi-xviii

This book was such a long time in the making, I am sure some people believed that I, like the main character in Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, was sitting at my desk writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Yet scholarly biographies take longer than other books, especially when a Southern...


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pp. xix-xx

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Introduction: The Three Lives of Sojourner Truth

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pp. 1-6

On June 1, 1843, the Sojourner boarded the Brooklyn Ferry in Lower Manhattan and headed for Long Island. A thrifty woman with a savings account, she carried only a few coins to “pay Caesar.” Once “vain in her clothes,” she carried only a few belongings in a knapsack. After disembarking on Long...

I. Bell Hardenbergh and Slavery Times in the Hudson River Valley

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pp. 7

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1. African and Dutch Religious Heritage

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pp. 9-17

“I am African,” Sojourner Truth told an audience. “You can see that plain enough.” Traveling the antislavery circuit, facing detractors as well as supporters, Sojourner acknowledged ties to the Motherland even as some whites declared her race to be descended from “monkeys and baboons.” She was not...

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2. “Home Is Like a Grave”: Domesticity, Spirituality, and Patriarchy

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pp. 18-31

“The Low Dutch,” Sojourner Truth recalled, “were very close and ignorant, and so, naturally, to this day, I can neither read nor write.” Nor did she go to church. “I knew God,” she added, “but I didn’t know Jesus Christ.”1 Nurtured in this narrow, Dutch-speaking insular world, it is a wonder that...

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3. Better to Me Than a Man”: Female Life, Labor, and Slavery in Rural New York

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pp. 32-47

Bell’s family remained together for two years after Charles Hardenbergh’s death in 1808, while his estate was settled. Advertisements appearing repeatedly in the 1808 Plebeian might have been for Elizabeth, “a middle aged Negro wench, brought up on a farm, for sale for life.” The deceased...

II. Isabella Van Wagenen: A Preaching Woman

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pp. 49

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4. Like Hagar and Her Children: Long Walks to Freedom

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pp. 51-68

In 1817, New York State passed a law emancipating all enslaved adults on July 4, 1827, if they were born before 1799. Individuals born after 1799 remained enslaved until the age of twenty-five if female and until twenty-eight if male.1 Free blacks and antislavery whites spread the news quickly. At first...

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5. “A Rushing Mighty Wind”: Isabella’s Baptism of the Spirit

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pp. 69-80

On March 1, 1832, Isabella dictated a record of her religious conversion. She carried this note in her carpetbag throughout her life, and it was preserved in a museum in Lansing, Michigan. The heading, dated 1827, is followed by a testament: “Isabella Van Wagner . . . experience . . . It is now five years...

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6. Sanctification and Perfection: Becoming a Religious Radical

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pp. 81-97

Isabella migrated to New York City with a “Mr. and Miss Gear” in 1828. She was more fortunate than most freed women relocating to urban centers. She quickly found employment because Miss Gear, a schoolteacher, introduced Isabella to “respectable” Methodist families, and she had excellent...

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7. “I Will Crush Them with the Truth”: The Commune of Matthias

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pp. 98-126

Isabella did not like Mrs. Bolton, and resented the reformed sex worker’s influence on Elijah Pierson. “Fair, fat, and forty,” well-dressed, and “pleasing and genteel in her manners,” Bolton secured the position of matron at the Magdalen Society by manipulating Pierson. When the Magdalen closed,...

III. Sojourner Truth and the Antislavery Apostles

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pp. 127

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8. The Antislavery Vanguard,1833–1843

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pp. 129-140

When Isabella returned to her previous lifestyle, the Abolitionist movement was in full throttle. Although she had learned not to place her faith in religious leaders, and was never guided by institutions, her association with Zion Church placed her in the center of antislavery activism. She apparently...

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9. “The Spirit Calls Me There”: A Sojourner is Chosen

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pp. 141-155

Isabella’s son Peter grew into a tall, well-formed, active young man with a cheerful, mild disposition and a generous and winning personality.1 But racism stifled his prospects, and unemployment among black males was high. Most worked as porters, peddlers, chimney sweeps, and tub men (night...

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10. A Holy City: Sojourner Truth and the Northampton Community

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pp. 156-174

An amazing “colored woman” was inspiring an unusual flurry of liberalism in Springfield, Rachel Stearns wrote Maria Weston Chapman in February 1844. The black preaching woman could not read or write, Stearns added, but “the spirit has taught her.” She was especially effective in preaching tolerance...

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11. The Cold Water Army, Olive Gilbert, and Sojourner’s Narrative

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pp. 175-190

Hydropathy was among the most important new “isms” at Northampton, and Sojourner Truth claimed it saved her health. David Ruggles, among the first American practitioners of the European cold water cure, collaborated with Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft, a German immigrant, physician, and political...

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12. The Bloodhound Bill and Intensified Activism

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pp. 191-205

Prepublicity advertisements for Sojourner’s Narrative began in April 1850, with the following statement in the Liberator: “JUST PUBLISHED. And for sale at the Anti-Slavery office at 21 Cornhill, NARRATIVE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH, a Northern Slave emancipated from bodily servitude by the state...

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13. The New York Campaign

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pp. 206-220

In February 1851, Sojourner Truth prepared to join the campaign through central and western New York. “I am going with George Thompson on a lecturing tour,” Garrison had told her. “Come with us and you will have a good chance to dispose of your book.” The AASS would cover...

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14. “God, You Drive”: The Sojourner in Ohio

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pp. 221-247

“I got to Buffalo on the evening of the same day I left you,” Sojourner Truth informed Amy Post by letter in early June. She had “a beautiful passage up the lake” (Lake Erie) that night, and arrived in Cleveland the next morning. Cleveland, like Rochester, began as an insignificant little village. In 1796...

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15. “I Go in for Agitatin’”

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pp. 248-271

Sojourner Truth participated in abolition during momentous times, when the movement made great strides. Many histories insist that abolition’s “greatest contribution” and “most difficult tasks” occurred in the 1830s and early 1840s, but in fact the apex of the antislavery struggle lay ahead...

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16. Truth Is Powerful

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pp. 272-297

After the 1856 conventions, Sojourner Truth held meetings in upstate New York, visited her Rochester family, the Posts, and then went to Ohio. Among friends in Ashtabula County, she had a chance to celebrate J. W. Walker’s transition into the spirit world, but also to reflect on the void her friend...

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17. Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land

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pp. 298-333

Sojourner Truth had spent twenty years speaking against slavery, and the last seven lecturing throughout seven western states. Her health, which had been amazingly good, declined along with her spirits. For all of their successes in Indiana, emancipation seemed in doubt in 1862. Moreover, she refused to...

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18. “Was Woman True?”: Sojourner, Suffrage, and Civil Rights

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pp. 334-354

Sojourner Truth joined the newly revived woman’s movement, which had been quiet during the war in the interest of national solidarity. Indeed, in 1863, women had organized the National Woman’s Loyal League to support the Union and collect a million signatures advocating a Thirteenth...

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19. “I Am on My Way to Kansas”

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pp. 355-375

Sojourner witnessed the same heart breaking Washington scenes in 1870 she had left in 1867: “able men and women taking dry bread from the government to keep from starving.” This, she told a New York Tribune reporter, inspired her cause of getting land for her people. They should go out West,...

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Epilogue: Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

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pp. 377-379

Sojourner was largely housebound, though not bedridden, by the fall of 1882. Cared for by Diana and Elizabeth, she enjoyed visitors, particularly from newspaper reporters. She still made her own bed, poked the fire, and prepared her own breakfast, but her daughters did the cooking and household chores...


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pp. Image 1-Image 18


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pp. 381-454


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pp. 455-478

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 479-481

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093746
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034190

Page Count: 520
Publication Year: 2009