Sojourner Truth swept into the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention “with the air of a queen,” a tall, “almost Amazon form,” with “eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream.” But how much of the account that followed written by activist Matilda Joslyn Gage was accurate? History does not do justice to this noble, powerful woman, and her famous early exploration of the crossroads of gender and race.
Sojourner Truth demanded room for Black women in the suffrage movement. “Ain’t I a Woman?” emphasized Truth’s personal strength as evidence that women, even Black enslaved women, can reject oppressive male paternalism. Foundational to her work was to build solidarity between women and blacks in their shared campaign for dignity.
Contemporary Black activists credit Truth for speaking out at a suffrage meeting where, ironically, many women silently deferred to men. Truth challenged the fact that, as Angela Davis explains, “Black women…were virtually invisible within the protracted campaign for woman suffrage….” In the first chapter of Sojourner Truth: A Life; A Symbol, Nell Painter explains, “when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.”
But it was white activist Matilda Joslyn Gage who, 12 years after the fact, got credit for the most famous record of this speech. Despite the fact that Truth grew up in the north and Dutch was her first language, Gage’s version is full of colloquial southern speech patterns. But perhaps, just as Frederick Douglass was urged to speak in the dialect of the enslaved, perhaps Gage thought a similar portrayal would be more believable. Once again our stereotypes overshadowed a Black body.
We are only beginning to understand how overlapping oppression – such as those against women and Blacks – operate in tandem to divide and oppress. Truth’s early lesson about “intersectionality” can support today’s liberation struggle. As Black Lives Matters’ Patrisse Cullors explained on Sojourner Truth Radio, overlapping oppressions must be challenged if black women, and brutally mistreated black trans women, and others, are to be respected and protected like all others. This would be the best way to honor the legacy of Sojourner Truth.
Lesson #31: Racial stereotypes create myths that distort historical figures.
Lesson #32: Black women are often marginalized in liberation struggles.
Lesson #33: Those who write history greatly control our narratives.
Lesson #34: Black trans people make up one of our most vulnerable population groups.
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