Friday, February 1, 2019

Sojourner Truth Was A Disabled Social Justice Activist

Truth is powerful and it prevails.
Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, albumen silver print, circa 1870
from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
It's Black History Month, and the corporate response to this year's remembrance is to finally lead with Sojourner Truth. They might tell you her name was Isabella Baumfree, although she left her slave name behind when she gained freedom. They might tell you she escaped her bondage with her infant daughter. They might add she successfully went to the U.S. court system and sued to free her son from bondage. They might post all or part of her iconic speech some titled "Ain't I A Woman?"

What few if any will mention, so I mention it every February, is that Sojourner Truth became a famous human rights activist and Black feminist after suffering repeated physical and emotional injury at the hands of her slaveholders.

So when you read about Sojourner Truth, understand that she was a disabled black feminist who went on to become a public speaker despite not knowing how to read or write,  learned about and understood the justice system enough to enlist help and use it to fight for her son's freedom outright rather than try spiriting him through the underground railroad. She recruited Black soldiers to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War. She eventually became a property owner through her own efforts. She accomplished all this while living with the effects of surviving physical and emotional abuse and pain that defined the arc of her life.

People question Sojourner Truth's competence to deliver speeches in English and point to the conflicting voices in her memoir.  I actually don't. As professor Jewon Woo points out in "Performing Bodies and Performative Texts," Sojourner Truth's illiteracy did not deny her agency in the creation of literature related to her life experiences or speeches. Per Professor Woo, "that the lack of her own authorial voice paradoxically highlights Truth’s control over their writings. I argue that because her story was not being fixed by one scribal voice, Truth could weaken the authority of literate others and present herself as a central force of various observers’ writings collected in the Narrative. " Professor Woo's work aligns with the presumption of competence rarely granted to disabled people. 

We know Sojourner Truth went on mass speaking tours with other emancipated slaves, and we know she obviously could not give speeches across America in Dutch, nor could she have recruited English speaking  Black soldiers who were emancipated slaves into the army speaking Dutch.

There is this lack of willingness to accept that history is always written as if freedom and any level of competence for African Americans came exclusively from white abolitionists' singular efforts and not a united effort where African Americans were equal partners in their own liberation.

For someone who was disabled and a woman from what was then one of the most marginalized groups to create a successful career as a public speaker and generate a memoir with support from literate abolitionists also defies modern presumptions of incompetence that cast an ableist shadow over the lives of adults with neurodivergent labels like nonverbal autism, where literacy is often denied them because of structural ableism. Probably the greatest barrier to literacy for nonverbal autistic people is a structural ableist attitude that insists making any genuine effort to make neurodivergent nonspeakers literate is a waste of time.

We have evidence that many literate slaves defied unjust laws and threats to their lives and taught others by lamplight in secret. Holes were literally dug in the ground for this exact purpose. The presumption that she would not speak in the dialect written during her speech shows a lack of willingness to understand the successes disabled people have had throughout history in creating and customizing adaptive solutions to barriers by disabled adults as well.

 Because of conflicting historical accounts of Sojourner Truth's life, how she spoke English remains a mystery. There is no recording of her speech and sparse and conflicting outlines of her life. We do know that she enlisted the help of literate abolitionist friends like Olive Gilbert, to write her memoir. I am trilingual. I can assure you that if you grow up around more than one language, disabled or not, you can learn to grasp many languages because your brain is prepared to simply code switch when needed. To this day, African Americans code switch from AAVE to English by necessity. Why is it hard for historians to fathom that Sojourner Truth may have done the same? 

I also need to point out that the narrative of Sojourner Truth's life intersected race, religion and political ambitions and agendas. This complicates accurate views of her life since Christians used her to stand for evangelical devotion, abolitionists used her to represent the reason their cause was just, and political forces needed her to recruit Blacks for war. 

When you read about Sojourner Truth today, remember everything she accomplished after freedom was accomplished as a Disabled Black Woman. She dared to be a feminist when Black women were made to march behind so as not to upset white Southern feminists. She dared to do what no one else had done and yet her disabled identity is ignored or erased.

 Right now, in the age of infantilization, ableism, hate crimes against marginalized people and the presumption of incompetence, remembering Sojourner Truth and reclaiming her Black Disabled feminist identity need to happen.

Here's her groundbreaking speech as reported by Marius Robinson, and the later version by Gage. Read it understanding that this was a woman who was disabled and neurodivergent and instill disability pride in your loved ones of color.

The Speech
Marius Robinson, who attended the convention and worked with Truth, printed the speech as he transcribed it on June 21, 1851, issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle.

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity: "May I say a few words?" Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. [sic] 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? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

The Speech reported by Gage
This appears in History of Women's Suffrage
Matilda Joslyn Gage's version appears in 1863 and while there is evidence of Truth's agency in the transcription of Robinson's version of her speech, the same is not true for Gage's version here:

"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de n[expletive]s of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?

"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. "And a'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a'n't, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a'n't I a woman?

"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" ("Intellect," whispered some one near.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or n[expletive]'s 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 my little half-measure full?" And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.

"Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?" Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, "Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him." Oh, what a rebuke that was to that little man.

Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of Mother Eve. I can not follow her through it all. It was pointed, and witty, and solemn; eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting: "If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em." Long-continued cheering greeted this. "'Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."

UPDATE: The original post cited Sojourner Truth had ID based on TBI as her primary disability. While this was well documented with Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth's memoirs refer to frequent beatings and abuse resulting in a disabled hand and neurodivergence which first manifested in hallucinations when she was enduring a period of sustained physical abuse by slaveowners.   

Because the original version of this post was called into question and it was implied that posts like mine might be considered fake news, I am now honor-bound to provide references for historical information to allow the post to remain published without the taint of fraud. I am always open and grateful for fact-checking because I am also the primary carer for a high support needs son and time constraints may cause errors in my blog posts, but it is was quite painful to note that such calls for fact-checking did not occur about the blog posts of any other blogger in our 889 member group prior to this post, and this makes me wonder how much of this demand was prompted by my race or the fact that I am discussing a disabled woman of color. 

Please note that because this is a blog post and not an academic or commercial publication,  I am simply listing the references without regard to style. KC

Sojourner Truth

Performing Bodies and Performative Texts, Jewon Woo

Resisting the Status Quo: The Narratives of Black Homeschoolers in Metro-Atlanta and Metro-DC, Cheryle Fields-Smith, University of Georgia, Monica Wells Kisura, Trinity Washington University
How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women, Brent Staples
Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: an African American Anthology, Rowman and Littlefield

 Narrative Of Sojourner Truth, Dictated by Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883); edited by Olive Gilbert; Appendix by Theodore D. Weld. 
Boston: The Author, 1850.

History of Women's Suffrage, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage

Sojourner Truth: a life, a symbol, Nell Irvin Painter

Sojourner Truth, Bold Prophet: Why Did She Never Learn to Read? Carleton Mabee

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