Sojourner Truth was born a slave named Isabella in — or around, there weren’t records kept — 1797, in Ulster County, New York. She was owned by a Dutch family until she was nine, and when she was sold to an English-speaking family, they beat her harshly because she didn’t speak their language and couldn’t immediately respond to their commands. She had four owners by the time she was thirteen. She had five children, one of which died in infancy and one of which was the result of rape.
New York began to legislate abolition around the turn of the century. In 1799 there was a Gradual Emancipation Act that freed enslaved children born after 1799, but indentured them until they were in their 20s. In 1817 a new law passed, extending that period again until 1827. But then, Isabella walked off her master’s property with her youngest child. She had had enough: she liberated herself. She had realized that no one was going to do it for her. She developed her own vivid, original ideas about Scripture, God, and Jesus, and she told others about them; she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, because she felt called to go to the country and tell others what she’d learned. She worked hard for others, trying (unsuccessfully) to get land grants for freed slaves; she was a strong, raw, spontaneous preacher; she made Frederick Douglass uncomfortable because she was enormously popular even though she was “uncultured.”
This narrative is nakedly revealing. I don’t know about you, but I might have made the assumption that living in the North might have been better, or living on a small farm instead of a plantation might have been better, or living in a state that was actively working toward abolition might have been better, or having a kindly-disposed master might have been better. No. Absolutely not. There is nothing, not one single thing, that can ameliorate chattel slavery. It is sheer, unspeakable hell.
I might also have assumed (maybe because I was told this) that the enslaved family was a weak institution, because it was so difficult to keep it together. This document stands as a witness to the ways families told narratives about ancestors, gave the names of the last generation to the new generation, and pursued lost children to the last ounce of resource and energy. The story of Sojourner Truth’s father — “emancipated” when he became too old and sick to work, and left to die alone — is heartbreaking. There is an echo of redemption for it when Sojourner finds her son Peter — sold away from her illegally into Alabama, abused by his owners — and gets him back into her arms. “Oh my God!” she says. “I know’d I’d have him agin. I was sure God would help me to get him. Why, I felt so tall within–I felt as if the power of a nation was with me!”
This narrative was not written directly by Sojourner Truth, who was illiterate. It was dictated to her friend, Olive Gilbert, and in 1850 it was privately published. It was published again only once until the civil rights era, when people began to clamor for the voices of significant black figures back through history. Gilbert, an ardent abolitionist, did indeed embellish the narrative in a 19th-century sentimental way, but not much: mostly with her own opinions on how terrible it is to be a slave. Dictated memoirs to white ladies can be dicey, but in my opinion, Sojourner Truth’s experience comes through very vividly, and quite often there are actual quotations, so her real voice resounds in the text. Gilbert tells us plainly that until “by some Daguerrian act, we are enabled to transfer the look, the gesture, the tones of voice, in connection with the quaint, yet fit expressions used, and the spirit-stirring animation that, at such a time, pervades all she says,” we will never really understand how impressive her narrative is. I believe it. I wish I could have met her, heard her preaching, sat with her for an afternoon.
It’s possible that The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is actually the first slave narrative I’ve ever read. I was trying to remember whether I’d read one in high school, perhaps, as part of my American literature class, but I don’t think so. It’s the length of a novella, 100 pages long or so, and it is absolutely fantastic: sharp and clear as a night sky, fresh as the day it was written, hot with pain, brimming with emotion. I think everyone should read it. I think you should.