Thursday 23 February 2012

In search of the Truth, in African-American History Month

It is African-American History Month here in the States, and this year's theme is the contribution of African-American women to American culture and history. So I thought I would take the time to draw attention to a particularly remarkable nineteenth-century woman.

Isabella Baumfree, or Sojourner Truth, as she later re-named herself, was born into slavery in New York State in 1797, and passed between several masters before escaping in 1826, a year before she would have become free under New York's emancipation programme. However, she later maintained that she had not run away: 'I did not run off,' she said, 'for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.'

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper and became associated with several unorthodox religious societies. In 1843, she declared herself a Methodist, and left New York City to tour as an itinerant preacher, speaking on a variety of subjects, including the abolition of slavery, temperance, and rights for women.

After a spell at a utopian, silk-manufacturing collective in Northampton, Massachusetts, Truth settled privately in that same town, buying a house and supporting herself by selling her memoirs, which she had dictated to a friend. She left Northampton in 1857, moving to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then on to Washington D.C. during the American Civil War. Here she worked for the National Freedmen's Relief Association, helping the thousands of emancipated southern slaves, freed during the war, that flocked to the capital looking for safety and work. She also met President Lincoln in his office in 1864.

After the Civil War, Truth toured the north and west of the U.S., speaking in behalf of the freedpeople, and campaigning for government land to be set aside for the former slaves. No land was ever granted, however, but Truth continued to work in support of the freedpeople until her death, at Battle Creek, in 1883.

Throughout her life, Sojourner Truth spoke on gender equality and racial equality, and never conceded that there could be a difference between the two concepts. She concentrated on each issue when it was relevant, and often severely castigated men for refusing to grant rights to women, but she never let that get in the way of her belief in the universality of human rights.

One episode in her life that particularly appeals to me is her stubborn reluctance to choose sides in the debate over voting reform in the late 1860s, between those who supported African-American male suffrage, on the one hand, and those who supported women's suffrage, on the other. The American Equal Rights Association, which had been formed in May 1866 as a way of co-ordinating the supporters of the two causes, split over which should be the priority. Truth refused to oppose the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would enfranchise only African-American males. But she also refused, unlike many other suffragists, to disassociate herself from those women who did oppose it - women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who turned to racially-insensitive invective to further their argument. It always saddens me when supporters of different progressive reform movements come to blows, especially when those people seem to be unable or unwilling to empathise with other groups in seemingly similar positions to themselves.

One final point - Sojourner Truth lived and died illiterate. I have spent the last few minutes trying to write something on that fact, attempting, unsuccessfully, not to sound either patronising or as though I'm underestimating the problem of illteracy, so I'll leave you to make up your own minds about the relevance of that fact. But I wanted to mention it because it gave rise to probably my favourite quote of hers:

'Sojourner, can't you read?' asked Harriot, the young daughter of the aforementioned Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 'Oh no, honey,' Truth answered quickly. 'I can't read little things like letters. I read big things like men.'