Sojourner Truth, Slavery
Sojourner Truth is an American icon, one of those figures of whom many people have heard. Mostly, her fame stems from a phrase that she never actually uttered, "Ar'n't I a woman?" Nell Irvin Painter demolished that story in 1996, showing that the phrase was an editor's addition, although, as Painter herself notes, the tale of Truth punctuating a women's rights speech with those words refuses to die.1 Now Margaret Washington [End Page 326] has treated Truth's words and her life in the full, rich detail that the woman deserves.
Washington's title echoes David Reynolds' prize-winning account of another iconic nineteenth-century figure, Walt Whitman.2 Whether or not Washington intended the reference, the comparison is well taken, even to the point that her book's opening vignette took place while "the Sojourner" was crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Washington reveals an American life that was every bit as rich and just as revealing about their shared time as Whitman's was. Like Whitman, Truth found she possessed a powerful voice, and she honed it throughout her long life. Unlike him, she spoke rather than wrote, because she never learned to read or write.
Sojourner Truth chose both the name by which history knows her and the wandering, restless identity the name suggests. She had grown up as Isabella, or Bell. It was a slave name, and to abandon it was to follow a ritual that was common among Black Americans who freed themselves, as she did. But as Washington shows, Isabella was not simply a name that her enslavers had imposed. It carried an independent heritage that reached back to Truth's grandmother and, deeply, to the Catholic heritage of the Kingdom of Kongo, from whence her ancestors had been taken and whose memory was not lost.
Washington's first great achievement is to evoke the African-Dutch world of Ulster County, New York, in which Isabella spent childhood and young womanhood. Northern slavery was dying, and in Ulster County it died hard. Young Isabella suffered through physical work, deprivation, sexual exploitation, and having one of her children sold south, despite that practice being forbidden by law. But Washington shows more than suffering. Hudson Valley practice included a customary right for slaves to seek a new owner if their situation required. Truth did so. After she claimed her own freedom she successfully used the legal system to retrieve her son from the south. But though he returned, there was no happy ending. He had been traumatized for life.
Rather than wait for New York's gradual emancipation law to reach her, Isabella walked away from her enslavement. She did not need to make a furtive journey north, just a twelve-mile dawn trek to another Dutch household, where she found refuge. The man who claimed her [End Page 327] came after her, but her enslavement was over. That she succeeded was a sign that Ulster County slavery finally was softening, but primarily it shows her own intense determination. That walk began a life of journeying, both through American space and within herself. In map terms, her journey took her first to New York City, and then on to Long Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, back to upstate New York, and ultimately to Michigan, where she finally settled. In social terms it took her through the failed utopian "Commune of Matthias" and the far more practical abolitionist, but still utopian, community in Northampton, until she found her own way. The one place she did not go was conventional marriage. She had had to endure the conceptions of her children, and she refused to be ashamed either of the experiences of her life or of the children those experiences brought. But once free, she was her own woman, belonging henceforth to nobody but her herself and her God.
Through it all she maintained both an intense religious faith and her independence of mind. She emerged by the power of her thought and of her voice to a...