HOW TO SEPARATE FACT FROM MYTH IN THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF SOJOURNER TRUTH

The facts of Sojourner Truth’s life are inspiring: Born into slavery in the late 1790s, she became an influential abolitionist and Pentecostal preacher, transfixing audiences from the mid 1840s through the late 1870s with her candid and powerful voice, not to mention her singing. Tall and strong, Truth was physically formidable, too. No one was using the term “intersectionality” in the 19th century, but Truth embodied this idea, declaring that her Blackness and her womanhood were equally essential facets of her identity.

But many people, both in Truth’s lifetime and in the approximately 140 years since her death, have found it useful to recast Truth as they wish to remember her instead of as she was. There’s no better example of this than “Ain’t I a woman?,” the hypothetical that Truth supposedly put to the audience when she addressed a women’s rights convention in 1851 in Akron, Ohio—the city where a public plaza will be dedicated in her honor this spring. There’s reason to doubt she said that, or at least that she said it in that way.

On the latest episode of the Smithsonian podcast “There’s More to That,” I speak with two historians who’ve dug into Truth’s complicated legacy and challenged much of what’s been written about  this American icon. Cynthia Greenlee reported on recent efforts to honor Truth for the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian. Nell Irvin Painter wrote the groundbreaking 1996 biography Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, and she’s hard at work on a follow-up volume titled Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That. Together, Greenlee and Painter help us understand us who Sojourner Truth really was, and why several generations of activists have claimed her as a symbol, at the expense of our understanding of her as a person.

A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on Killers of the Flower Moon; NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission; an all-Black, all-women World War II battalion; and more, find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Chris Klimek: To say that Cynthia Greenlee has always been interested in history would be an understatement.

Cynthia Greenlee: I also used to play the Black History Quiz Bowl when I was a kid. In fact, I was a pretty cutthroat competitor. So if you asked me who W.E.B. Du Bois was, I could tell you, and I could tell you what the W, the E and the B stood for. Which gets you extra points in the Quiz Bowl.

Klimek: But in addition to her trivia credentials, Cynthia is now a professional historian and writer. And lately there’s been one particular person on her mind—someone she had heard about her whole life, but who she surprisingly knew very little about.

Greenlee: I can’t remember precisely when I heard about Sojourner Truth. I feel like she’s always been there somewhere faintly in the background of my consciousness. She was certainly there when I went to college, I took a lot of women’s studies courses and I remember a big poster of her being in the women’s studies department where I went to school at the University of North Carolina. And, like many Americans, I think I knew her name because, one, it is distinctive, but also because she is a leading abolitionist figure. But how much did I know about her? Not all that much, really.

I noticed a couple years ago that I was starting to see more public history markers about Sojourner Truth. In 2009, there was the bust of her in the Capitol, which I believe was the first African American woman to be so noted by the placement of a statue there. And then more recently, things have seemed to pick up in terms of public history representations of her. So we see that there was a fight to get her on the women pioneers memorial in Central Park in New York City. Then I saw in the last couple of years that the State of New York created a state park in her name. So I kept just seeing her pop up. And not just pop up in terms of public history, but also in terms of kind of popular interpretations of her. I watched a show, “Dickinson,” which was about the life and the world of Emily Dickinson. She makes an appearance in a very anachronistic way.

And I also noted … maybe some of our listeners will have those T-shirts that have a list of women’s names on them, women in history. So I noticed that she was in all of these Black women historical T-shirts. My big question was: All these years after her death—she died in 1883—why are we still creating monuments to her, T-shirts to her? How does she captivate us so much? And I thought maybe there’s some “there” there for a story.

Klimek: But as Cynthia started to write the article that would later appear in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine, she discovered that the things Sojourner Truth is best known for may not have really happened at all.

From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where we can actually get to know the names you may see on a T-shirt or a poster. In this episode, here at the crossroads of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, we meet an icon who fits in both: Sojourner Truth. I’m Chris Klimek.

Greenlee: You know, history is essentially a big collation of information, and some of that information is not always accurate. But there’s a difference between the myths we create about historical figures and the evidence we can use to say something about their lives.

Klimek: As we release this episode, officials are readying a Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza in Akron, Ohio. This is the place where Truth delivered her most famous speech.

Greenlee: Most people remember her, if they know her, by words she supposedly said of in 1851 at a women’s rights convention, which would be, “Aren’t I a woman?” Or you might say it, “Ain’t I a woman?” She’s in this room talking about women’s rights, and she steps forward and basically calls attention to herself and [says] that she is a woman even though she is Black and was enslaved. And she says, “I could do all the work that a man could do.” At least we think she says that, because there are multiple versions reported about what she actually said. And Sojourner Truth, we should know, could not read or write. So we’re listening to what other people said about her. And there is a roughly contemporaneous account that was published weeks later by a friend of hers, an editor, with whom she often stayed when she was in Ohio.

Klimek: This phrase—the phrase Sojourner Truth, has come to be known for—is nowhere to be found in that friend’s account.

Greenlee: That phrase shows up only 12 years later when one of the conference organizers publishes it and also publishes her comments in what seemed to be a Southern dialect more than a decade later. And this is the other thing that people seem to really get wrong about Sojourner Truth: People think slavery and they think of the South. And there’s some reason for that, because the South was willing to rupture the nation to preserve slavery. But what most people don’t understand is that there was slavery in the North. There was slavery in the heart of freedom, there was slavery in New York, and that’s where Sojourner Truth was from. And that’s where, in the late 1820s, she walked away from slavery and walked into freedom.

Nell Irvin Painter: I think that our understanding of Black American history is probably even shallower than our understanding of non-Black American history. However, our understanding of American history in general is extremely shallow.

Klimek: Nell Irvin Painter is a writer, artist and scholar renowned for her decades of research into African American history.

Painter: Most Americans do not know Sojourner Truth, but they do know two important things. One is that she is an important American in American history. That’s true, and it’s important. And the other thing is that she had been enslaved, that she used her enslavement to say, “I can speak for a working-class woman, a woman who worked, and I deserve my rights.” So she is a feminist, and people recognize her as important on those grounds.

Klimek: A lot of what the world knows about Sojourner Truth is owed to Painter. In 1996, she published a definitive biography called Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. One of the goals of this book is to separate the force of nature that was Sojourner Truth from that reductive and misattributed quote, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Painter: Most Americans know almost nothing beyond the slogan that she did not say and assume that she was a Southerner.

Klimek: That’s why Painter’s new book will be called Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That. It all goes back to Truth’s early life before she adopted the name we now know her by. She was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in the Hudson Valley.

Painter: She was enslaved as a child. She was born enslaved. She lived with her enslaved parents as a very young girl. And this is in Ulster County, New York. So her early years with her parents, who were heartbroken—the word we use now is traumatized—by the loss of their children to the domestic slave trade. And I see the domestic slave trade as it operated in New York State as one of the pivotal moments—moments, plural—and one of the most prominent themes in Sojourner Truth’s early life.

Klimek: Sojourner Truth’s family had no legal recourse when her siblings were sold away into slavery. New York State started to phase out slavery in 1799, but enslavement didn’t effectively end there until 1827.

Painter: So it’s her parents losing their children, she as a sibling losing her sibling, and then, when she’s an adult, almost losing her son.

Klimek: In 1826, Sojourner Truth escaped her enslavement. By this time she was an adult and was a mother to children of her own. When she left, she took her young daughter with her but was unable to take the other members of her family. The following year, her son Peter was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama.

Painter: There were laws, more than one law, saying that anyone who had been trafficked from New York state and who was not enslaved—which you were not after 1827 in New York State—was automatically freed. So Isabella, Sojourner Truth, had the law on her side.

Klimek: So she harnessed that law. In 1828, she became the first Black woman to successfully and legally win freedom for an enslaved family member. This was no easy feat.

Painter: She had to face all kinds of impediments. She was Black, she was poor, she was a woman. She was working for the extended family that trafficked her son. So there were all these social relations that were against her, but she was able to find allies, lawyer allies, who helped her sue to get her son back. And she got her son back.

Klimek: Can we talk a bit more about her transition into adulthood, from her early enslaved years to the period where she’s a roughly 30-year-old woman suing to have her son returned?

Painter: What we know about her early life is in her autobiography, and it’s not a whole lot. Isabella was a person with a lot of personal magnetism. She was a powerful figure even before she set out in her own life. She had embraced what we might call now a Methodist kind of religion. She was recognized as a powerful speaker and singer. So she was making her way as a public figure before she left Ulster County.

Klimek: She eventually made her way to New York City, one of many places where new and sometimes radical Christian groups were popping up as part of the Second Great Awakening. It was a time when many people thought the apocalypse would be coming any day now.

Painter: She fell in with sort of advanced Methodists and went so far as to join what is correct to call now a new religion, but what I call a cult. And that is that Kingdom of Matthias. And what I find so interesting … writing about this, I have to ask myself, “How could so powerful a woman be sucked in to what was obviously a scam?” Her friends said, “Don’t you see that guy is that shyster?” She went in, she contributed her furniture and her money, and even when he was unveiled, she wanted to go with him. So she was okay with Matthias. I don’t understand that.

Klimek: How did she acquire the name of Sojourner Truth?

Painter: The name Sojourner Truth came to her from the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in 1843. “Sojourner” is someone who is not here for long, that is an itinerant, and she condemned a settled ministry. This was a view of many New York Pentecostalists, that the spirit or Jesus or the Holy Spirit spoke to people directly. You didn’t have to get it from a preacher and especially not from a preacher who had been … “deformed” by education. Yeah. That’s what it was.

Klimek: Spoken like the professor that you are!

Painter: [laughs] Yeah! Itinerancy was one of her values. And “sojourner” is an itinerant. “Truth” is someone who tells you what you need to know. It was also the name that Matthias used. Truth was really important at the time, because in 1843, this was at the height of a movement called Millerism. And those people who were Millerites believed that the Second Coming was going to occur right about the time that Isabella remade herself as Sojourner Truth. And she wanted to warn people and tell them to get right with God before it was too late.

Klimek: In 1844, Truth headed north to Northampton, Massachusetts.

Painter: She ended up in a place that she thought she’d only stay for the winter, because it was just getting too cold and too awful for itinerancy, and she liked it. So she stayed. Northampton was a truly extraordinary community. And this is another one of the larger questions that I’m dealing with: How did an unlettered, at that point considered old, Black woman find a community of people who were mostly but not all white, who were better educated than she, who made her and her daughters feel very comfortable in a time in antebellum America in which the country is stone-cold white supremacist? So she is probably in about the only place in the United States that she could feel comfortable, that she could feel welcomed, and that there would be somebody who said, “Oh, let’s talk about your life. That’s really interesting.”

Klimek: What did she do during the Civil War?

Painter: During the Civil War, she went to Washington, D.C., and she worked in Freedmen’s Aid. That was kind of the next step for women who were coming out of the antislavery movement. During the Civil War, Maryland, for instance, was a slave state, but it was in the Union, and slavery had been abolished in Washington, D.C., and the war was raging in Virginia, which was a slave state and in the Confederacy. And so all of these places of upheaval were sending people out, away. Nowadays we think a lot about the question of migrants and where people go, and what do they do, and how do they live. Those questions were very, very alive during the Civil War and Reconstruction. So women who had been against slavery before the war saw the next step in taking care of people who were fleeing enslavement, and they congregated in Washington, D.C. So the question of taking care of migrants, that was the next step in antislavery.

Klimek: How does that work continue after the war ends?

Painter: After the war ended, there were still migrants who needed help, needed support, and Sojourner Truth and the other antislavery women were still involved. But then the question is: What do you do for these people? And she actually got involved in getting people to places where they could find work, where they would not just be supplicants. So she actually took some people to Michigan, where she was living from the 1850s, and tried to get people into situations where they could find work. The problem was that employers, who were largely farmers at this point, wanted strong young men, and the migrants were families, and they were old people, and they were women and children. There was really a mismatch between supply and demand. So then she thought, “Well, why can’t people go to places like Kansas?” And she actually went to Kansas. Sojourner Truth was interested in resettling the migrants in the West. By this time, we’re talking the ’70s, and she’s an old woman and she’s not well so she can’t be an actor, really, in that.

Klimek: So how does all of this tie into her involvement in women’s suffrage? How did she become involved in that movement?

Painter: Suffrage became a question in the last years of the Civil War and then into Reconstruction. It was a really wide-ranging movement for lots of kinds of human rights. And so one of those human rights was universal suffrage. By the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, it was very clear that the Congress would not go for women’s suffrage, and were former abolitionists and supporters of universal rights going to block Black men’s suffrage because it didn’t include women suffrage? And women in that time largely assumed to be white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been calling for suffrage along with their ally Frederick Douglass since 1848. But then we get the crunch in the ’60s of the either/or. So Sojourner Truth, who was not a firebrand … I mean, we’re talking about a woman preacher, basically, who had advanced ideas, but she was not someone who was going to burn the house down.

And so she spent a couple of years trying to do both: to support universal suffrage, to support women’s suffrage, to support Black male suffrage. And by 1867, it just was not possible, because of the Congress and also because Elizabeth Cady Stanton, especially, and Susan B. Anthony had gone on a really white supremacist tear, and they were talking about Black people and working people … well, Black men and working men in really bigoted ways as the question of women’s suffrage was really heating up in 1867, 1868. So when Sojourner Truth had to decide which side she was on, she came down on the 15th Amendment—that is, on the side of Black male suffrage.

Klimek: Wow.

Painter: But it was very uncomfortable for her. So it was a tough time. It was really a searing time for the supporters of universal rights.

Klimek: When and how does Sojourner Truth start to become famous?

Painter: Well, she had a really great press agent in Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Klimek (narration): You probably recognize Stowe as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that galvanized so much abolitionist support in the north that Abraham Lincoln supposedly cited it as the spark that started the Civil War.

Painter: In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe published an essay called “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl” in the Atlantic. And that’s what really made Sojourner Truth known. It made her known as a faithful pilgrim, a religious figure, and quoted her saying to Frederick Douglass, “Frederick, is God dead?”

Now that’s a rhetorical question, and for that essay, the scenario is when Sojourner Truth confronts Frederick Douglass, she cuts off all discussion, she brings the house down. The word that Stowe used was electrifying. So that’s 1863, April. Also in April, 1863, Frances Dana Gage, who was doing Freedmen’s Aid work in South Carolina, read that and said, “Geez, I’ve got a better Sojourner Truth than that.” So Gage borrowed Stowe’s scenario, but made a different Sojourner Truth. The refrain that Frances Gage made up is, “Ar’n’t I a woman?”

Klimek: Gage was a white abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In fact, she had introduced Truth before her speech at the Akron Convention in 1851. But as you’ve heard, in publishing what she remembered of this speech, she also mischaracterized her subject.

Painter: What Gage did that was really true was that Sojourner Truth was class-race-rights, and that’s what Sojourner Truth did stand for. So what Gage said about Truth’s message is true. The actual words are not. Stowe’s version was the one that was known through the rest of the 19th century. But when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put together their compilation of the documents of women’s suffrage, they included Gage’s [version of] Truth. So at the turn of the 20th century, Gage’s Truth gets embedded as the facts about women’s rights. And sometime in the 20th century, somebody decided that wasn’t Negro enough or Black enough or Southern enough. And so what has become more popular now is, “Ain’t I a woman?” And in the early 20th century, Sojourner Truth is circulating as Stowe’s Sojourner Truth, as a religious figure, as someone who is kind of quaint.

Black people interested in history didn’t know what to do with that figure. So she’s hardly there. If she’s there, she gets mentioned by name, but nobody says what she did. It’s only with 20th-century feminism and particularly second-wave feminism of the ’60s that we really get Sojourner Truth all over the place as a great American. I remember this from women’s studies dorms. There would be a big poster with a photograph of Sojourner Truth, but the caption was not the caption that Sojourner Truth used, which was, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” The caption became Gage’s Truth: Ain’t—or, aren’t—I a woman?

Klimek: Has it been controversial for you over your career to say this?

Painter: Nobody believes me! Nobody believes me. People who have read Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, which goes through this process very carefully, they forget. They still go around saying, “Ain’t I a woman?” It’s like it goes in one eye and out the other, because it’s so easy to make an important American into a slogan. The slogan cuts off any further discussion, basically. It’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s it. We don’t need any more.” Once you say the slogan, that’s all you need to know.

Klimek: Why have you made her such a big part of your academic career, your research, your body of work?

Painter: So in the 1980s, I had published three books. I was a full professor and I love to write and I love history, and this is at a time, as I mentioned before, that I would see photographs of Sojourner Truth on the doors in women’s studies and then there would be, “Ain’t I a woman?” And at the same time, the verbal depiction of Sojourner Truth was this feisty, tear-down-your blouse, show your … She was a Black Power, Sojourner Truth. Yet the photographs are of this bourgeois woman who’s well-dressed and who’s sitting with her knitting. I am a knitter, and I know you don’t go around tearing down your dress and being a Black Power figure with your knitting. So my question was: how to reconcile these two depictions of this important figure about whom I knew not much. So I started looking into it, and it was absolutely fascinating.

Now, my first book came out in 1996, and Sojourner Truth has changed a lot since then. Sojourner Truth has been getting around now. There are statues in Northampton, in San Diego. There’s the suffrage statue in Central Park with Susan B. Anthony, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So there are a lot of Sojourner Truth public monuments that say … I mean, monuments are the way we say, “This is an important person in history.” And so we have several statements that say, “Sojourner Truth is an important person in our history, and we want to recognize that materially in a statue.” That was not the case when I published before.

Klimek: Is now a particularly important time for us to be thinking about Sojourner Truth’s legacy?

Painter: Yes, it is. And I say that first because of what a fraught time we’re in. For me, it’s a very worrisome time, and Sojourner Truth lived in a very worrisome time. She was active as a self-published author in the 1850s, which were as bad or worse than now. So one lesson that comes out of that is that if you do stuff, if you’re an activist, things change. You can do something. That’s one thing. She did something. Another thing is that if you look on the local level, if you look at communities like Northampton, there are people who are congenial, who are not out there doing bad things. So I guess the answer is not to despair.

Yeah, that’s it. Not to despair… but to do.

Klimek: Thank you, Dr. Painter.

Painter: You’re welcome.

Greenlee: She is the gift that keeps on giving, let’s just say that. Because she crafted so many movements.

Klimek: Historian Cynthia Greenlee, again.

Greenlee: She is an abolitionist. She is a woman who believes in suffrage. She is a woman who is the foremother of feminism and particularly Black feminism. So we can use her in a lot of different ways. It’s not uncommon for social justice or social movement folk to pick the thing that most aligns with their goals, their agenda, and their movement. And so I think that really happens to her.

Klimek: Cynthia can see how Sojourner Truth’s story was twisted and molded in all sorts of ways over the years by people facing different kinds of obstacles.

Greenlee: We see African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century using her in books like the ones I read when I was growing up in the ’80s that are volumes of Black contributions to history. Because at that point, we’re still having arguments about whether or not African Americans have history, or history that’s worth talking about or reading. Then we start seeing people move into the ’50s and the ’60s when we’re in the main thrust of the modern civil rights movement. And so we see more complicated stories about her. Then we keep moving, and women’s rights-ers of the modern period, people we might call the second-wave feminists, are trying to marshal her as one of their icons.

One, because she does kind of belong to all of us, but also because they’re reckoning with racial fissures in their own movement, and they really, really do need to show that: “We are not just a white woman’s movement.” And so, as we keep moving, African Americans use her in a different way. And so this is where the phrase goes from “Aren’t I a woman?” to “Ain’t I a woman?” And we see African Americans embrace this as a demand in a way for equity and recognition. And as a demand that has righteous anger deeply embedded in it.

Klimek: Do you think that that’s why the myth persists specifically within the Black community, just because she serves that purpose so powerfully?

Greenlee: I think that she is a model in some ways of resistance. I mean, there are also some other things that make her not a model of resistance. She lived much of her life in utopian and religious communities that were largely populated by white people. So she’s not an easy figure for some folks who are intent on a history of Black militancy always. But she’s present in almost every movement for Black freedom over her time. She’s out there working for 40 years, and if she didn’t give you something you could use, that’s a surprise.

Klimek: Even though we know she probably didn’t say, “Aren’t I a woman?” or “Ain’t I a woman?”—why has that speech remained so influential? And is it important to you whether she actually, literally said that or not?

Greenlee: It is important to me whether she said it or not, even though, Chris, we will never be able to say with any certainty whether she did or didn’t. This is the challenge of working with historical documents. You never know why someone records this and not this. For people who have grown up in the 20th and 21st century where we think a little bit more about how race, gender,and sexuality work together, we have taken those words really seriously and want to believe them, right? Every generation and many movements will take whatever piece of a story is relevant, and as history changes, as we know more about, for instance, slavery in New York State, we can build out the world in which Sojourner Truth lived and understand more about it and make better and different interpretations.

Sometimes people are like, “Oh, revisionist history is terrible.” Well, revisionist history is terrible when it has nothing to do with the historical record. But revisionist history can also be incredibly important for us to understand the changing state of knowledge about a particular subject. And so if we thought the same thing we thought about Sojourner Truth now that we thought 20 years ago, I would be really disappointed.

Klimek: Dr. Cynthia Greenlee is a journalist and historian who writes about the intersection of Black Americans, gender and the law. She’s the author of the Sojourner Truth story in the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Dr. Greenlee, thank you for this conversation.

Greenlee: Thanks so much, Chris. This was fun.

Klimek: Before we let you go, let’s give you a dinner party fact. This is how we like to end our episodes, with an isolated little nugget of knowledge that you can pass along to a friend or acquaintance at your next social function. For this installment, Painter told us something we didn’t expect at all—and neither did she! It’s something she pieced together while researching her new book.

Painter: One of the things that I’ve learned this time around is that there’s six degrees of separation between Sojourner Truth and Donald Trump. I know that sounds crazy.

Klimek: Here’s how the math works out. Sojourner Truth spent the last 20 or so years of her life in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Painter: Remember that Battle Creek is the home of the Seventh Day Adventist church.

Klimek: It was also home to a particular Seventh Day Adventist named John Harvey Kellogg.

Painter: Dr. Kellogg had his sanatorium, and people came to get better. You had to be a vegetarian, no caffeine, no smoking, no alcohol and so forth. So one of the people who came was C.W. Post, who was already a wealthy person, and he came, and it worked for him. And so he started producing cereals and foods and so forth.

Klimek: Post and Kellogg would go on to become major competitors in the cereal business. But that’s another story. Back to C.W. Post.

Painter: His daughter was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was very rich. She was an heiress, and she built … ready? Mar-a-Lago. She wanted this great place, which she built. And she got old, and it was big and it was expensive. I don’t remember if it was her will or when she was old, but she wanted to give it to the state of Florida. She wanted to give it to the United States, and everybody turned it down because it would cost too much to keep up, and it fell into disarray. And many years later, Trump bought it, I think in the ’80s, for a song.

Klimek: We actually ran a piece on the history of Mar-a-Lago on SmithsonianMag.com a while back.

“There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-Checking is by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thank you for listening.

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