Isabella Baumfree

2017-11-19

in History, Politics

Prior to Thursday, I can’t say for sure whether I had heard of Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist born into slavery in New York around 1797 and perhaps best known for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

It’s interesting as a primary source historical document in part because the speech was delivered extemporaneously and the most widely-discussed account, by Frances Dana Barker Gage, seems likely to have been substantially modified.

I am reading Carleton Mabee’s 1993 book Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend.

It will perhaps be a useful corrective to the history of feminism I have been taught in various political science and political theory classes, which in my experience tend to begin with Mary Wollstonecraft‘s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman or with the suffragette movement in Britain or America.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. November 20, 2017 at 8:07 pm

“Much that was written about Truth in her time and ours has been written without stating sources, which has encouraged mythmaking. Several of her twentieth-century biographers have invented conversation for her, without making clear to readers that they were doing so, which added to the myths. Even her story of her life as published in her Narrative, first in 1850 and later in revisions, should be used cautiously. The first version was based on her recollections when she was already about fifty-three years old, and was supported by few written records. Moreover, because Truth was illiterate, her Narrative was written down by friends who interpreted her life to some degree in terms of their own interests and experience.

I believe this book to be the first biography of Truth ever published that has been seriously concerned to discover the best available sources about her, to stay close to those sources, and to state what they are. Because the sources remain limited, portions of her story necessarily remain elusive. Recognizing that limitation, I have tried to tell the story of her life as directly as the most original and reliable available sources permit. Writing for the general reader, I have tried to avoid academic jargon. Writing for the long-term, I have tried to avoid currently chic or political interpretation.”

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. ix–x

. November 22, 2017 at 2:31 pm

Sojourner Truth, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance”

Born Isabella Baumfree to a family of slaves in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner Truth sits for one of the war’s most iconic portraits in an anonymous photographer’s studio, likely in Detroit. The sixty-seven-year-old abolitionist, who never learned to read or write, pauses from her knitting and looks pensively at the camera. She was not only an antislavery activist and colleague of Frederick Douglass but also a memoirist and committed feminist, who shows herself engaged in the dignity of women’s work. More than most sitters, Sojourner Truth is both the actor in the picture’s drama and its author, and she used the card mount to promote and raise money for her many causes: I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. SOJOURNER TRUTH.

The imprint on the verso features the sitter’s statement in bright red ink as well as a Michigan 1864 copyright in her name. By owning control of her image, her “shadow,” Sojourner Truth could sell it. In so doing she became one of the era’s most progressive advocates for slaves and freedmen after Emancipation, for women’s suffrage, and for the medium of photography. At a human-rights convention, Sojourner Truth commented that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.”

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