Updated: Feb 22
When most of us think of February, we think of love, which often comes with the idea of roses, chocolate and romance. Besides being a month for celebrating love, February is also a month for celebrating African American leaders in our country. How many of us take time to think of the African American women who helped to form our nation and give us the lives we live today?
One of the well known African American women leaders in the early 19th century was Sojourner Truth. At birth, she was called Isabella Baumfree. Isabella was born to slaves James and Elizabeth Baumfree in 1797. The family lived in Ulster County, New York.
"Around age nine, she was sold at a slave auction to John Neely for $100, along with a flock of sheep.
Neely was a cruel and violent slave master who beat the young girl regularly. She was sold two more times by age 13 and ultimately ended up at the West Park, New York, home of John Dumont and his second wife Elizabeth.
Around age 18, Isabella fell in love with a slave named Robert from a nearby farm. But the couple was not allowed to marry since they had separate owners. Instead, Isabella was forced to marry another slave owned by Dumont named Thomas. She eventually bore five children: James, Diana, Peter, Elizabeth and Sophia." (1)
Isabella eventually escaped slavery along with some of her children. At one point she went to court for her son who had been illegally sold after New York's Anti-Slavery legislation was in place, and won the case. She was the first black woman to win against a white man. Isabella eventually would change her name to Sojourner Truth as she felt God's call to ministry.
"During the time she lived in Florence [Massachusetts] and afterward, Truth made a living as a public speaker, successfully brought cases to court, marched and performed sit-ins for reform causes, petitioned Congress, met with presidents, and tried to vote in the 1872 election. She also broadened the definition of “reformer” beyond the white, educated, middle-class women who primarily made up the women’s movement. In her life and person, Sojourner Truth combined the causes of abolition, racial equality, and women’s rights, and was a significant advocate for social justice." (2)
Some of Sojourner Truth's most famous words were in a speech she gave in Akron, Ohio. While there is no exact transcription of her speech (there are two different accounts), one phrase that has come through is the title of this post "Ain't I a Woman?"
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain'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 ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?" (3)
Years ago, I first heard these words in Your Story Hour's telling of Sojourner Truth's story. Even then, I was captivated by the ring of the words.
A couple weeks ago at the Inauguration, many of us were captivated by the ringing of the words of another woman of color, Amanda Gorman. Gorman is the youngest Inaugural poet and recently graduated from Harvard University. I, like many others, was moved by her words at the Inauguration and so have included the poem below the video.
Amanda Gorman's The Hill We Climb:
"When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it." (3)
These words, I have no doubt, will ring down the ages. They bring healing and strength to remind us that we live in "a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished".
Art and poetry have a power to move and remind us of the things that matter to us most. In this country one of those is the idea that "all men are created equal". As I mentioned last week, Colonial Williamsburg is one of my favorite places to visit. This past summer as my husband and I were looking for things to watch on YouTube, we came across this program by Colonial Williamsburg, called Created Equal. I highly recommend watching the program below - it is a powerful and moving program talking about the history and point of view of persons of color in American history through spirituals and famous speeches.
Whether young or old, past or present, African American women and men continue to play a major role in American history and inspire all of us with their strength, courage, and perseverance. They have carried our country in major ways that we need to remember and acknowledge. I hope you will continue to celebrate Black History Month this year, both with me here on the blog and in your own personal research and reading. Their story is our story.
*Picture of Sojourner Truth from the National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.
Andrew Jackson's Hermitage - Sojourner Truth Ain't I a Woman 1851 PDF
Fordham University - Modern History Sourcebook: Sojourner Truth; Ain't I a Woman?
Historical Geocaching - Visiting Sojourner Truth's Grave
National Park Service - Sojourner Truth
National Women's History Museum - Sojourner Truth
PBS - This Far By Faith - Sojourner Truth
Wikipedia - Ain't I a Woman?
Women & the American Story - Life Story: Sojourner Truth (this source includes teaching materials)