Sojourner Truth: Less, more than legend

December 27, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Staff Writer

On June 1, 1843, a 6-foot-tall, jet-black woman named Isabella Van Wagenen felt called upon by God to travel and preach his word. The 46-year-old former slave left New York City to become an evangelist, preaching in Long Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and would join the anti-slavery movement as a speaker advocating abolition and women's rights.

Her fame as an abolitionist would grow to legendary proportions, particularly because of one speech given at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Part of the speech, as reconstructed years later by Frances D. Gage, another women's-rights advocate who presided over the convention, was the famous passage:

Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or give me any best place. And ar'n't I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into bartns, and no man could head me -- and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it) and bear the lash as well -- and ar'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chillen, and seen 'em mos' all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard -- and ar'n't I a woman?

Those familiar with Truth's life may believe that she delivered that speech in those words, but it ar'n't so, the author says. He insists that the tone and style of the passage were more Gage's than Truth's. Furthermore, Gage wrote her account of the speech 12 years after it was given, and admitted she gave only a

"faint sketch" of it.

Mr. Mabee also takes Gage to task for her assertion that Truth's speech "turned the convention around," from one that had been dominated by men hostile to women's rights to one that was in favor of them. Reports of the convention written right after it happened don't support Gage's account, he asserts.

So there you have it. Carleton Mabee is one of those nit-pickers who insist that history be accurate. But he has a way of making accurate history interesting. (He has won a Pulitzer Prize and two other minor prizes for three of his other books.) Mr. Mabee effectively and tantalizingly lays to rest several myths about Truth:

* That Truth's failure to learn to read may have been because of a learning disability, not because she was denied the opportunity by the slave system. There were schools open to slaves and free blacks when Truth was a child in upstate New York, and the state of New York had a law that required slave masters to teach slave children to read the Scriptures.

* Truth was not the first black woman to speak publicly against slavery.

* Truth did not work with the Underground Railroad, as some historians have contended.

* She did not influence President Lincoln to use black troops in the Civil War. Truth didn't meet Lincoln until Oct. 29, 1864. Lincoln had already been committed to the use of black troops. In fact, in a Sept. 12, 1864, letter to Isaac Schermerhorn, Lincoln wrote:

We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.

A man who had come to such a conclusion in September 1864 would hardly need Sojourner Truth's advice the next month about the use of black troops. The author explodes some other myths about Truth, but they will not be revealed here so as not to spoil the fun for other readers.

When not myth-busting, Mr. Mabee provides some glimpses into the character of Truth. At times she sounds like a forerunner of today's black conservatives, chiding free blacks for accepting "free handouts" from the Freedman's Bureau and urging them to move West to farm and develop the land there.

Mr. Mabee would be the first to admit that the success of his book is not his own. His daughter, Baltimore psychotherapist Susan Mabee Newhouse, "worked with me so closely . . . that her name has been placed on the title page as an associate author," he writes in the preface. Whoever gets the credit, "Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend" should be a welcome addition to the libraries of historians everywhere.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter on the Metro staff of The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend"

Author: Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse

Publisher: New York University Press

-! Length, price: 320 pages, $35

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