I am a woman’s rights.
June 1, 2018 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Sojourner Truth is famous for giving the "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Only she never gave that speech. A version of the speech she gave at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851, substantially rewritten by a white abolitionist during the Civil War to make Truth sound like a stereotypical southern black slave (even though she was a New Yorker with a Dutch accent), is what most of us know today. The Sojourner Truth Project aims to correct that error, providing side-by-side comparisons of the original speech with the popular version, as well as renditions of the original speech by Afro-Dutch women.
posted by Cash4Lead (41 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, this is fascinating. I am fascinated!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:20 AM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


Wow, just when I think I've heard it all, white feminists find a new way to be godawful.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:21 AM on June 1, 2018 [27 favorites]


Wow, this is infuriating. I am infuriated!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:22 AM on June 1, 2018 [10 favorites]


I am speechless at the beauty and strength of her words. I am also deeply confused and frustrated as the version I read in my history textbook in middle school was NEITHER of these, but it was closer to the incorrect one.
posted by Krazor at 7:30 AM on June 1, 2018 [14 favorites]


Godsdammit. What in the actual fuck. This is why we can’t have nice things.
posted by greermahoney at 7:41 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Christ, what an absolute asshole.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:45 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


The issue of the many versions of Truth's speech is really interesting. If Gage transformed Truth's words no doubt her heart was in the right place: it was in order to achieve the greatest amount of impact for the cause of abolition, and it's hard for me not to regard her version of the event, with its novelistic framing and use of more rhetorical tropes, like its constant repetition of the famous phrase "Ain't I a woman?" as partially responsible for historical impact of the speech. Even the use of dialect gives it a sense of immediacy. The Gage version places you right there in the room and paints a crystal clear picture that really moves the reader. But that picture is only so immediate and so clear because its shot through with the racist stereotypes that Americans have ready-to-hand in the backs of our implicit-bias wracked brains. It really is an object lesson in the dilemmas of rhetoric. You have to meet the audience where they are, but if they're in a bad place, filled with prejudice and hatred, you have to meet them there too, which makes you wonder how you ever pull them out of that hole in the first place.
posted by dis_integration at 7:48 AM on June 1, 2018 [21 favorites]


I knew that the later dialect version was essentially fake, but somehow had it in my head that the real speech had been lost—so thank you for the link here.
posted by enn at 7:49 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


That rewrite is infuriating and degrading, but would a racist-as-hell white audience circa the 1860's have believed that a woman of color could have produced that first speech? Note that it didn't achieve its subsequent fame until it was "rephrased" in a manner that conformed to the white prejudices of the era.

I'm conflicted because while said rephrasing is appalling, it might have been a necessary ingredient for the speech to have the impact that it did. Regardless, I'm glad for the sake of posterity that we have a copy Sojourner Truth herself seems to have approved of.
posted by Ndwright at 7:53 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


It really is an object lesson in the dilemmas of rhetoric. You have to meet the audience where they are, but if they're in a bad place, filled with prejudice and hatred, you have to meet them there too, which makes you wonder how you ever pull them out of that hole in the first place.

My issue with this sort of ruthlessly pragmatic take is that it conveniently forgets that Truth was an actual (amazing) person. Truth should get to decide how she is represented. Frances Gage decided she knew better, and just...what is even the word? Stole her identity? Turned her into a racist prop? Completely took away all agency?

The only way that would be mitigated is if Gage published her “pandering to racists” version with Truth’s consent and help, but from my brief perusal, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:54 AM on June 1, 2018 [34 favorites]


And I could well believe that sort of pragmatic rationalization was part of Gage’s motivation. But underneath that (assuming Truth wasn’t an active partner in this, which: I am fairly comfortable saying “naaaah”) was the feeling of racist superiority that allowed her to believe she had the right to rewrite Truth’s own words, and, in the process, obscure the woman herself. It is absolutely a violation, and one that Gage felt entitled to commit because, abolitionist or not, she was still hella racist.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:03 AM on June 1, 2018 [13 favorites]


There's an additional wrinkle here: Although Gage's adaptation is clearly meant to be a white person's idea of black dialect, later republishings of that adaptation -- and likely what we all remember from school -- apparently cleaned it up to make it sound more like "normal" speech. So it's not simply a matter of Gage opportunistically reworking Truth's message in the service of abolition, but also a matter of the many, many ways in which American history is distorted in order to minimize the ugly truths of our past.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:03 AM on June 1, 2018 [15 favorites]


I'm reminded of the "Welcome to Earf!" meme with Will Smith in Independence Day, even though watching that clip, he clearly enunciates "Earth" and the whole meme is just people's racist-ass imaginations misremembering things.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:04 AM on June 1, 2018 [14 favorites]



Sojourner Truth is famous for giving the "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Only she never gave that speech. A version of the speech she gave at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851, substantially rewritten by a white abolitionist during the Civil War to make Truth sound like a stereotypical southern black slave (even though she was a New Yorker with a Dutch accent), is what most of us know today.


When Frederick Douglass went on the lecture circuit about his experiences as a slave, he was often challenged for sounding like he had spent his entire life in the North.
posted by ocschwar at 8:08 AM on June 1, 2018 [19 favorites]


It really is an object lesson in the dilemmas of rhetoric. You have to meet the audience where they are, but if they're in a bad place, filled with prejudice and hatred, you have to meet them there too, which makes you wonder how you ever pull them out of that hole in the first place.

Exactly, and there are obvious perils to either extreme. If you rewrite someone with a ruthless, pandering "ends justify the means" attitude, you risk perpetuating the very evils you're trying to fight (and denying the person their agency to boot). But if you make no effort whatsoever to meet the audience halfway, they won't listen to a word.
posted by Ndwright at 8:09 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I did not expect Sojourner Truth's first language to be Dutch. But it was!
posted by timdiggerm at 8:11 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


I came in to make the points that dis_integration made, counteracted with the caveats that Ndwright made. So I'll just add:

This is why history needs to be taught a damn sight better in schools, so people already have the means to access the original source material if they so choose, as well as a more nuanced understanding of "why someone would do something like that" if the source got edited between then and today.

And I do not say "more nuanced understanding" as an excuse for the people in the past, either. Every era has its memes, its social customs, etc., and these things do not operate in a vacuum. These memes and social customs change dramatically - fortunately - but writing off the errors of the past simply as "white feminism" doesn't really get at the root of "why they edited Sojourner Truth's speech that way". Yeah, it sucks that they did, but "white feminism" isn't why they did (at least, not the kind of 'white feminism' mindset you're thinking of, which i wouldn't say really showed up until the early 1900s, possibly not even until the 50s).

Definitely it sucked. Most of the force driving that particular suck isn't necessarily a driving force in this day and age, though. (Some parts are, yes, but that's why we have this project.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:20 AM on June 1, 2018 [9 favorites]


First thoughts, White ladies suck even when they try to help.

Second thoughts, these two phrases are beautiful and need to enblazoned on t-shirts and needlework pillows across the land.

"But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard."

"Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again."
posted by teleri025 at 8:26 AM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


"But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard."

"Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again."


Yeah...no. I’d really like to read Truth’s own annotations of her speech, but lines that sympathize with white men and accept the premise that women caused the fall of man can pretty much stay away from all t-shirts, as far as I’m concerned. (Although it does speak to Truth’s own political awareness and pragmatism! Which is interesting!)
posted by schadenfrau at 8:35 AM on June 1, 2018 [6 favorites]


Yeah, weird, it's almost like she can tailor her speech to her audience just fine on her own without some paternalistic white lady's help.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:38 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


Exactly. just makes me want more on Truth herself, which then becomes its own layer of terribleness. Like clearly Truth was a skilled politician and orator as well as a badass in all other areas (didn’t she win a fucking lawsuit against a white man to get her son back? After fucking escaping with an infant? I mean, damn); I’m most interested in hearing her own account of all of it. There’s a book of her own account from 1850, but she died after the Civil War. But that’s it. Like...that’s it? Really? Is that really possible?

I just...yeah. We could use more Sojourner Truth.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:50 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


Yeah...no. I’d really like to read Truth’s own annotations of her speech, but lines that sympathize with white men and accept the premise that women caused the fall of man can pretty much stay away from all t-shirts, as far as I’m concerned.

That's interesting, I read the first line as not so much sympathizing with the white man, but more the poor baby, it's rough for you, but you gotta get over it.

As to the second, I personally don't buy the whole women caused the fall shit, because I'm not Christian, but for her time, saying yeah we may have caused some shit, but you can't use that tool to hold us down for eternity is kind of revolutionary.

Also, I like the turn of the phrase between a hawk and a buzzard. It has more bite than "between a rock and hard place."

Regardless, the treatment of her speech throughout history has been epically shitty and it's good we are acknowleging her true voice.
posted by teleri025 at 8:50 AM on June 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


It's striking how modern the the six afro-dutch women sound at the beginning: "May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter." Like you can just feel the speaker taking a deep breath and gearing herself up to counter some white nonsense.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:59 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


If Gage transformed Truth's words no doubt her heart was in the right place

Too much racist nonsense - and racist nonsense that supports ongoing racist institutions today - gets excused that way. Allegedly benign intention doesn't prevent presumptuous overstep (nor does supposed good outcome justify it) and I just feel really uncomfortable seeing people equivocate on whether turning Sojourner Truth's original work into a minstrel show caricature was ok behavior.
posted by adiabatic at 9:01 AM on June 1, 2018 [26 favorites]


This is wonderful! I learned about Gage's changes to Sojourner Truth's original speech in a Women's Studies class a couple of decades ago, but for the longest time nobody seemed to be paying attention.
posted by camyram at 10:02 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


If we assume Gage's motivations were informed by unexamined racism and internalized misogyny rather than by a desire to mock Truth and debase her through minstrel dialect, then noting that she intended to increase the impact of Truth's words does not excuse her actions, even when it helps explain them.

It is necessary for examining why Gage felt she had to change Truth's voice to allow the audience to hear Truth to note that Gage believed herself to be enlightened about black people. Showing that her actions were not malicious is not making her actions admirable, acceptable nor neutral--allowing that the rewrite was without intended malice should give women like Gage a place to start examining their own unintended racism. And there are an awful lot of women like Gage still around. I'm quite possibly one of them and I struggle with this constantly at work, where I--a white woman lawyer--am charged with running a project on examining and improving judicial diversity.

The women who think the racism in Gage's re-write is okay might also benefit from hearing the re-write came from a place of unconscious racism. If they can be brought to see all the assumptions Gage made in choosing which words to place in Truth's mouth, then perhaps they can be guided through examining why those assumptions are false and harmful.

The women who don't need the exercise in unexamined bias, privilege and condescension that was Gage's re-write are not responsible for helping the other women do the work. But denying there is value in separating racist intent from racist outcome won't help the people who need to do better in seeing how they unintentionally perpetuate damaging institutions. Insisting that there is no behavior which feels like it comes from the right place that actually stems from the wrong place and does harm closes off the path for some women to see where they are causing harm and tells them they don't have to change.
posted by crush at 10:12 AM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


I often find myself wondering which of my present-day social-justice-minded thoughts and actions will be seen as racist, exploitative, and just wrong in 150 years. Honestly, I hope it's quite a few of them, because that will mean we've progressed a lot as a society and, hell, I won't be around to take it personally anyway.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it doesn't really matter to me how pure of heart the "translater" was, but I also don't feel the need to tear her apart. Of course she was racist. She was operating inside a political moment where the literal humanity of black people, and whether or not they deserved to be treated as such, was a central question of the day. We are living in a moment where the goalposts of this conversation have changed a bit, but still, so many of our political debates are about who gets to be fully human. If you are a white person in American society, you are also probably racist in some ways as well, and probably don't have the greatest instincts when it comes to issues of race and thus should not always trust those instincts by default.

I think examples like this are terrible, but can also be useful in helping us force ourselves to question our own assumptions and actions and push us to be better.
posted by lunasol at 10:17 AM on June 1, 2018 [16 favorites]


Wow.
posted by graventy at 11:07 AM on June 1, 2018


I don't see this as a need to tear her apart, though. Not everyone in the conversation is white, and more frankly not everyone is a non-black POC either, which is an important distinction; I'm young and black and this conversation even occurring anywhere other than behind the closed doors of black feminists or womanists and historians is astonishing and enlightening. I can think of several family members that I'd like to discuss this with after work. Finding another historical precedent of our speech being altered or co-opted in either direction is worthwhile, to me. It also gives a neat contrast to, say, how Zora Neale Hurtston's books, articles and interviews were dismissed and not even published despite being authentic reproductions of speech from primary sources. And that's a more recent occurrence.

We were not always taught these kinds of revisions or informed of these conversations in school. I grew up in a part of the American South where the only private schools were blatant all white academies that popped up right around integration. I know older people right now who love that speech and hold it dear to our heritage and have no idea that it was partially faked / rewritten.
posted by Freeze Peach at 11:47 AM on June 1, 2018 [26 favorites]


Yeah, good point, Freeze Peach.
posted by lunasol at 12:01 PM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, how did I not know about this? It's so important!

And is there anything racism doesn't fucking ruin?
posted by medusa at 1:36 PM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


Hey tobascodagama! Don’t worry! White feminists can always make Sojourner Truth-related stuff worse! To use a local example...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:42 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Now I'm feeling really bad for a girl I know who performed that monologue a few months ago.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:00 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I can't wait to tell next year's 8th graders in my US History class about this!
posted by usedsongs at 6:25 PM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


People twist the words of others for their own benefit all the time. And history is essentially fiction: the stuff that gets written down is just a tiny, tiny fraction of what actually occurred. Let this blatant example be a constant reminder to us of these facts.
posted by mantecol at 9:02 PM on June 1, 2018


Mind, blown. Wow. Off to do a lot of reading about Sojourner Truth now...
posted by latkes at 10:33 PM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


tobascodagama: white feminists find a new way to be godawful.

Not new by any means. Just one that you hadn't heard about yet.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:10 AM on June 2, 2018


Is it possible that the stress on "I am a woman's rights" ought to lay on the word "am"? That is, "I am a woman's rights." I'm not sure it makes sense in contemporary standard English either way, but it makes more sense to me if I suppose that she meant "I exemplify the rights of women". Alternatively, unless her dialect was different, it looks to me as if there's a missing word or a transcription error: "I support women's rights" or "I want a woman's rights".
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:51 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Joe, I read it under the "exemplify" interpretation.
posted by inconstant at 7:16 AM on June 2, 2018


The History Chicks podcast covered this topic in their approx 2-hour (!) episode about Sojourner Truth's life -- really engrossing, but hard to listen to at times. (Note: They mention offhand sometimes that the podcast is rated G but I have to disagree with them on this episode. No cursing or anything like that, but considering it involves slavery, racism and sexism, I would at least add content warnings for mentions of violence, torture, abuse.)

Overall I thought they did a good job and I learned a ton about Sojourner Truth's amazing life (so many rabbit holes). Some of the things I remember related to language:

(again, warnings ahoy)

- Sojourner Truth's family spoke Dutch because they were slaves for a Dutch family, and that's the only language she knew as a child. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree. (The Dutch family, btw, were the Hardenberghs, related to the first president of what would become Rutgers University.)

- At 8 or 9 years old, she was separated from her family and auctioned off to storekeepers who were just awful to her. I won't get into any further details here but the couple were not fans of the Dutch and severely punished her for not knowing English.

- After a couple of years, her father (freed, but elderly and really struggling to survive) saw her on a visit and somehow convinced a barkeep to help and buy her from that couple. The barkeep's family was more humane and and it was the first time in her life where she got to sleep in a real bed. While working for them, she learned how to smoke a pipe, as well as a bunch more English (and curse words) in the tavern.

- Years later... she found out one of her previous slaveowners had sold her son (only 5 or 6 years old) to a man in Alabama, which was against New York law. As schadenfrau mentioned above, Truth made her case in court and she won! One of the first black women to win a legal case against a white man.

Looking into the case some more, to me this is one of the most amazing things about her -- can you imagine her accomplishing this, undeterred by any of the hurdles that she had to overcome? Not knowing how to read or write, not knowing the law, not knowing the process, going into a court for the first time; finding people who helped her where she managed to get enough money for a lawyer, and pleading her case to a grand jury of all white men. It's even more remarkable knowing that she hadn't understood English as a kid and had to start learning it under really harsh circumstances.

- As a free person, she first lived with a kind family, the Van Wageners, and she changed her name to Isabella Van Wagener (even her son went by Peter Van Wagener). It wasn't until she was in her mid-40s (!) and started preaching (wherever she would be welcomed as a female black preacher) that she reinvented herself and started going by Sojourner Truth. She had a deep voice and was also a talented singer who created her own hymns; my guess is they were all in English, but maybe not. I'm kind of curious how often she spoke Dutch later in her life, and if the Van Wageners spoke Dutch and whether they spoke with her in Dutch or English or both.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 12:52 AM on June 3, 2018 [17 favorites]


Very much enjoyed that podcast, rangefinder!
posted by amanda at 8:42 PM on June 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


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