[Frances] Gage‘s report, gradually becoming well known, wove myths about [Sojourner] Truth, myths that helped build up Truth into a heroic figure. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the frequent uncritical use of Gage’s report in recent years has led to misleading interpretations not only about Truth and her place in history, but also about early black-white relations at large.
When we compare Gage’s 1863 report of Truth’s speech with available records written in 1851 soon after the event, the comparison suggests that we should heed Gage’s own warning that she had “given but a faint sketch” of Truth’s speech. The comparison suggests that, unless evidence to the contrary shows up, important parts Gage’s report regarding the atmosphere of the convention, the contents of Truth’s speech, and the effect of the speech on the convention should be considered false. The comparison suggests that Gage, the poet, intended to present the symbolic truth of Truth’s words more than the literal truth; that Gage, the novelist, imagining that Harriet Beecher Stowe was looking over her shoulder, felt pressed to make Truth’s story more compelling than it was; that Gage, the passionate advocate of blacks’ and women’s rights, embellished her report to strengthen the causes she favored, imposing her own ideas and expression on what Truth said. Disappointing as it may be, the comparison makes it unlikely that Truth asked the thrilling question, “Ar’n’t I a woman?“, the principal words by which Truth is known today.
If we depend on contemporary accounts as more likely than Gage’s to be reliable, then we perceive that when Sojourner Truth began to speak, there were no signs of panic, no hissing, no mobbish opponents whom she could overcome. Then we find that Truth’s words, unadorned, if less dramatic and smooth than Gage wanted them to be, did not make her the one star of the convention, as Gage indicates, but nevertheless made her impressive.
When Truth’s biographers, following Gage, say that she turned the convention around from opposing to favouring women’s rights, we have to suspect that they may be telling us more what Gage wanted us to believe than what really happened. When recent writers on women’s and blacks’ history claim that white women advocating women’s rights were hostile to black women’s participation in the women’s movement, and they base their claims especially on Gage’s account of the supposed hostility to Truth at Akron, we have to wonder whether they are distorting history. Unless evidence to the contrary turns up, we have to regard Gage’s account of Truth’s asking the “Ar’n’t I a woman?” question as folklore, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It may be suitable for telling to children, but not for serious understanding of Sojourner Truth and her times.
Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 80â€“81