Does The Sojourner Truth Project uphold its own mission?

Portrait, from Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. (New York: For The Author, 1853). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Rudy Malcom.

At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech, today regarded as one of the most significant abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history. Most people, California College of Arts student Leslie Podell believes, are familiar with a version of the speech constructed by Frances Dana Gage, who worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, other white feminists. Twelve years after the speech was delivered, Gage’s version ran in the New York Independent on April 23, 1863. It continues to be circulated as a manifesto of sorts, performed still because it affirms a black woman’s enduring strength and prominence. Yet Podell reveals that this popular version of the speech is “vastly different from Sojourner’s original 1851 speech,” on which it is based, citing the work of Princeton University professor Nell Irvin Painter, who specializes in the history of the American South during the 19th century (“The Sojourner Truth Project”).

It is worth noting that Gage did not necessarily change the speech with a conscious racist intent. Perhaps her memory distorted her recollection of it, or perhaps she sought to create a version of the speech that she believed would be politically effective. Regardless, though conceding that Gage’s actions assisted the suffrage movement at the time, Podell contends that “by today’s standards of ethical journalism,” the white abolitionist crudely misrepresented Truth’s words and identity, erasing her heritage and voice and inadvertently distorting the history of slavery in the North (“The Sojourner Truth Project”). Seeking to ameliorate this injustice, Podell created The Sojourner Truth Project, allowing viewers to compare Gage’s version of the speech with Robinson’s. Podell notes that “Painter was the scholar who first rang the bell on this historical mistake” and credits her on the resources page; however, Painter’s research is often obscured, implicitly misattributed to Podell by organizations such as the National Park Service and the Sojourner Truth Memorial. The question arises: At what cost has The Sojourner Truth Project made Painter’s observations more accessible?

Summarizing Painter’s research, Podell asserts that “Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical ‘southern black slave accent’, rather than in Sojourner’s distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent” (“The Sojourner Truth Project”). Indeed, early reports of the speech do not mention a Southern dialect; born and raised in New York state, Truth spoke Jersey Dutch until the age of 9 (Murphy). Podell posits that the most legitimate version of Truth’s speech is Rev. Marius Robinson’s transcription, published on June 21, 1851 — a few weeks after the speech was given — in the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle, titled “On Woman’s Rights.”

Sojourner’s Speech, Transcribed by Marius Robinson; Anti-slavery bugle. volume (New-Lisbon, Ohio), 21 June 1851. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035487/1851-06-21/ed-1/seq-4/.

Podell is right to cast doubt on Gage’s representation, which was published alongside commentary that contradicted numerous reports that Truth was met with respect; by contrast, Gage claimed that the crowd, largely white women, did not want Truth to speak because they thought she might damage the suffrage movement by conflating it in the public mind with abolition (Siebler). By contrast, Robinson, who was the editor of the Bugle and “Truth’s good friend,” was the first to endeavor to convey Truth’s words in full, without added commentary (“The Sojourner Truth Project”). No records exist of Gage collaborating with Truth on the transcription, whereas Truth collaborated with Robinson on the transcription (Sieber). Although she did not dictate it verbatim (Sieber), Podell implies that “one could infer… that even if he not capture every word she said,  that she must have blessed his transcription and given permission to print her speech” (Podell, “Compare the Two Speeches”). This is tendentious; it is possible that Robinson revised the speech to suit the audience of the Bugle: one likely more concerned with African-American issues than with suffrage (Sieber). The Sojourner Truth Project, however, glosses over this possibility. 

Nevertheless, the website (literally) highlights similarities between the two versions (in a way that Painter could not have). For example, in Robinson’s version, Truth is quoted as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” In addition, Robinson quotes Truth as saying, “As for intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full?” Similarly, Gage’s quotes her as saying, “What’s dat got to do with women’s rights or niggers’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have a little half-measure full?” (Podell, “Compare the Two Speeches”).

Even this example of “overt similarities,” however, indicates the harmful effects of Gage’s rendering, which imbues Truth with stereotypical diction, misportraying her persona and perhaps even diluting her vindication of women’s rights. There are also more extreme differences. Robinson’s version concludes with “but man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard,” whereas Gage’s concludes with “bleeged to ye for hearin’ on me, and now ole Sojourner ha’n’t got nothin’ more to say” (Podell, “Compare the Two Speeches”). Robinson’s version ends potently with an apt metaphor preceded by an evocative depiction of the state of women’s and African American’s issues. By contrast, Gage’s version ends almost laughably, robbing Truth of her rhetorical prowess and engendering a characterization of the former slave as someone who is less intelligent. In order to better honor Truth’s legacy, Podell had several Afro-Dutch volunteers read Truth’s speech aloud. “These women and their readings do not claim to embody Sojourner in any way, in fact, none of them may be correct,” she writes, “but all of them are a nod to Sojourner’s authentic voice and her heritage” (Podell, “The Readings”). Podell undoes Gage’s presentation of Truth as a caricature who asks  “ar’n’t I a woman?” and reifies her as an individual who declares “I am a woman’s rights” (Podell, “Compare the Two Speeches”).

Though valuable work, in this way, Podell acts as a white savior, when Truth might not need saving; Gage’s speech, despite its shortcomings, persists as a black feminist manifesto. In its impact, The Sojourner Truth Project repeats that which it condemns by posturing to its viewers the research of a prolific black woman as the achievements of a white one. Yes, Podell expands Painter’s study for the digital arena, perhaps more effectively than “tedious prose that might lose nonspecialists,” as described a review of Painter’s “painstakingly researched biography” of Truth (Urbanska). Ultimately, however, Painter’s words, like Truth’s, have been appropriated to serve a white woman’s agenda. As Podell concludes, “Sojourner Truth’s bold assertion of her own identity, ‘I am a woman’s rights,’ serves as a timely reminder that the fight for equality has always been, and will continue to be, a constant challenge and an ongoing rhetorical and physical process within our democratic society” (“The Sojourner Truth Project”).

Works Cited

Murphy, Larry G. Sojourner Truth: A Biography. Greenwood, 2011. https://archive.org/details/sojournertruthbi00murp_1. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

Podell, Leslie. “Compare the Two Speeches,” The Sojourner Truth Projecthttps://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/compare-the-speeches/. Accessed 6 March 2020.

Podell, Leslie. “The Readings,” The Sojourner Truth Project, https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/the-readings. Accessed 6 March 2020.

Podell, Leslie. “The Sojourner Truth Project,” The Sojourner Truth Project, https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com. Accessed 6 March 2020.

Siebler, Kay. “Far from the Truth: Teaching the Politics of Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’” Pedagogy, vol. 10, no. 3., 2010, pp. 511-533. Duke University Press, doi:10.1215/15314200-2010-005. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

Urbanska, Marie Olesen. “In Search of Sojourner Truth,” Los Angeles Timeshttps://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1996-10-06-bk-50883-story.html. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

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