The naked truth about Sojourner Truth

February 18, 2004|By Carol Mason

A PROMINENT African-American woman bares her breast before a pulsing audience. The media go wild, and fallout from the act reverberates for years.

But the year is 1858, not 2004, and the woman is Sojourner Truth. Sadly, the comparison between Ms. Truth and a modern Janet Jackson ends almost before it begins.

A slave from her birth around 1799 to her emancipation in 1827, Sojourner Truth inspired black and white audiences as a preacher, a prominent abolitionist and a fervent supporter of women's rights. Addressing a congregation in northern Indiana in 1858, she took on the hecklers who accused her, as many powerful women in her day were accused, of being a man. Jeering, they called for her to prove her sex.

The Boston Liberator later reported that Ms. Truth deliberately "disrobed her bosom" -- no wardrobe malfunction for her -- "not to her shame ... but to their shame." She had "suckled many a white babe," she told the crowd, "to the exclusion of my own offspring." Ms. Truth, a gaunt 6-footer, proved her point that day with a bared breast, an image that we have discovered still shocks an audience.

Some years earlier, Ms. Truth was reported to be baring muscles, not breasts, to make her point. Women's physical weaknesses, the logic went, entitled them to fewer rights than men. Sojourner Truth countered that logic with her very being. Addressing a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, she said she had "plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed. Can any man," she asked, "do more than that?"

While Sojourner Truth's breast baring was a sensation for her contemporaries, she is far better known today for her muscle baring. Unlike Ms. Jackson, Ms. Truth still serves, more than 100 years after her death, as a symbol of hope for the oppressed. She was a black woman of towering strength who stood up to those would enslave her and keep her quiet.

Her continuing fame is in no small way due to an account of that 1851 speech published 12 years later that was written by a woman reformer, Frances Dana Gage. In acting as Ms. Truth's self-appointed publicist, Ms. Gage was attempting to jump-start her own faltering writing career and ensure her own place in the pantheon of women's rights leadership.

Copies of Ms. Truth's 1851 speech -- dubbed "Ar'nt I a Woman?" -- are often requested by library patrons who come to the African American Department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The speech is a screenwriter's dream: The language is simple, the dialect sounds authentic but comprehensible and it builds to an emotional climax.

"Ar'nt I a woman?" Ms. Truth asks, and demands of the audience that they look at her. "Look at me, look at my arms ... I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns ... and arn't I a woman?" She whips up the crowd into a frenzy asking again and again, "Ar'nt I a woman?"

Only it didn't happen that way. Ms. Gage made it up. She had been there running the meeting, but she probably wasn't taking notes -- and she apparently didn't put pen to paper for more than a decade.

In her book on Ms. Truth, scholar Nell Irvin Painter, of Princeton, makes a good case for the speech being fabricated by Ms. Gage. At its core are the ideas expressed forcefully by Ms. Truth -- and Ms. Truth was by all accounts a powerful orator -- but it's definitely not the same speech. An account written by the recording secretary of the meeting and published after never says anything about the extraordinary repetitive questioning and gives an extended account of what she did say.

Ms. Gage's concoction is an interesting historical footnote that, in the end, takes nothing away from Ms. Truth's genuine and enduring ability to inspire and persuade. I'm sorry now that I will have to hand out "Ar'nt I a Woman?" to Enoch Pratt patrons and students with a caveat, but I'm not at all sorry about having found out more about Ms. Truth.

Too bad about Janet.

Carol Mason is a librarian in the African American Department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

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