Sojourner Truth was one of two great American black women whose light shone bright both before and after Emancipation (the other being Harriet Tubman). In this far-reaching analytical biography, we are shown Truth's life in the context of her times by an author with a tireless dedication to the subject matter.
Margaret Washington is an award-winning academic and activist, professor of history at Cornell University, and author of "A Peculiar People": Slave Religion and Community-culture among the Gullahs, considered a seminal work on that subject. She also spearheaded the modern release of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. In Sojourner Truth's America, she follows the life of the great abolitionist-feminist through the sweep of historical context.
Born a slave in New York in 1797, Truth's slave name was Isabella Baumfree. Her first language was Dutch, but she had to learn English early in order to work for an English-speaking owner. This flexibility of language undoubtedly contributed to her notable oratorical skills in later life. Isabella was a fractious slave when young, able, because she was highly intelligent, to sense that her treatment and that of all slaves was unjust and contrary to natural law. Her religion as a child would have been a mélange of African animism and a rather limited exposure to Christianity. That changed when she had a Christian conversion experience, receiving and later imparting at churches and camp meetings that quality known as charisma, "the 'pneuma' of the Holy Spirit, which she and others believed was divine grace bestowed by God."
Washington believes that the adolescent Isabella became a willing sexual partner with her white master, John Dumont, a relationship which may have begun as abuse and advantage-taking on his part but could have developed into equal manipulation on the part of Isabella, an attractive young woman whose distinctive African features and proud bearing brought her attention from many men. After she had been betrayed by Dumont many times, she "walked away" from his home, deeming "running" to be incorrect behavior.
Her life as a free woman and her religious zeal soon blended together. She was involved with cult leader Robert Matthias, also known as Prophet Matthias or Matthias Kingdom, who claimed to be "a Jewish teacher-priest of the most high." Together Isabella and Matthias were accused of poisoning a rival factionist. The attention that Isabella received in the press brought her notoriety, while her sermonizing and campaigning for an end to slavery brought her genuine approbation. Living in an abolitionist commune, she met Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Like Harriet Tubman, she worked on behalf of slaves who served in the Union Army. After the Civil War she sought land grants for former slaves.
There was a tendency to downplay Truth's accomplishments among some suffragettes of the time because, lamentably, white women did not share the concerns of black women and did not want their cause to be diluted with racial issues. Six feet tall and self-confident, Sojourner Truth has long been credited with making a memorable speech punctuated with the phrase, "Ar'n't I a woman?" Washington has examined the arguments regarding this disputed tirade and concludes that the speeches and sermons of Truth on record are sufficient proof of her power as a speaker, whether she actually said the legendary words or not.
Sojourner Truth shared the stage and pulpit with such notable leaders of the day as
William Lloyd Garrison,
Laura Smith Haviland,
Lucretia Mott, and
Susan B. Anthony, and earned her modest living by speaking emotionally and eloquently in defense of the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. In later years she became an outspoken opponent of capital punishment and the evils of alcohol.
Washington's book will be welcomed by students of black history and feminism in the United States. It also gives a unique perspective on the grassroots revivalism and purely American religious movements of the 19th century. Few women have had such an impact in their own times and in so many spheres as Sojourner Truth.