The Truth about Sojourner Truth

Portrait of Sojourner Truth by Randall Studio, Restored by Coffeeandcrumbs via Wikimedia

I’ve always just assumed that Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech was a direct call out of the hypocrisy of the primarily white feminist movement at the Seneca Falls Convention. The phrase “ain’t I a woman” is juxtaposed with a section of her speech describing the way that men believe women should be treated, the implication here being that Sojourner Truth is a woman too, but she hasn’t been treated in this way—why? The obvious answer, in my head, was always that Truth is African American so of course she won’t be treated the way white woman are. In my mind, it was a clever piece of rhetoric designed to expose the failures of white feminism.

Unfortunately, the reality is disappointing and somewhat disturbing—the famous version of Sojourner Truth’s speech isn’t the actual speech Sojourner Truth gave at the convention. The version that everyone knows today is a fictionalized one, written and printed by Frances Gage in the New York Independent in 1863, 12 years after the actual speech. While Gage does utilize a few phrases from Truth’s actual speech, she spends more time judiciously editing Truth’s words until they barely resemble the original speech. And worst of all, Gage has Truth speak in a stereotypically “black” dialect even though Truth herself did not actually speak that way.

The implications of this “editorial” choice are very, very disturbing to me. Because what we really have here is a white woman taking a black woman’s words and rewriting them into a racist stereotype, most likely without permission. Gage has helped herself to the image and words of Sojourner Truth and used her position of privilege to twist them into a racist caricature for her own ends. And sure, I haven’t considered Gage’s intentions here, but honestly they shouldn’t matter—impact over intention. When it comes to the lives of people of color, the consequences of your actions speak louder than your intentions.

People have tried to defend Gage’s actions, or at the very least tried to explain her actions in a historical context—oh, but she made the speech famous, isn’t that a good thing; Gage was just doing what she believed was best; oh y’know Gage probably didn’t even realize her actions were problematic because racism was the norm back then…

But history is too often used as an excuse to hide behind. And I understand that we can’t necessarily apply our standards and understandings of race to the past, but I think we should also examine why we feel so intent on trying to defend Gage. Why do we feel as though it is necessary to try and explain Gage’s actions, to make them seem less terrible? Because, quite honestly, they’re pretty bad. And they should be understood as such—it should be understood that this type of overwriting should not be accepted today. It happened in the past, but it shouldn’t happen in the future, and we can’t prevent that unless we are clear about the status of Gage’s actions. We have to be willing to take a stand on issues like this—yes, it is important to understand them in a historical context and understand the nuance, but it is equally important that we make a judgement from a contemporary standpoint. Give racists an inch and they’ll take a mile, after all.

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