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Sojourner Truth, d. 1883, Olive Gilbert, and Frances W. Titus
Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century; with a History of Her Labors and Correspondence, Drawn from Her "Book of Life"
Boston: For the Author, 1875.


Sojourner Truth (ca. 1799-1883) is the name that New York slave Isabella Van Wagenen adopted late in life and used while achieving international renown as an itinerant preacher and public speaker. Born into slavery, Van Wagenen passed through the hands of five masters before her emancipation in 1828. When her son was illegally sold outside New York state lines in the same year, Van Wagenen won his freedom in a lawsuit against Solomon Gedney, a wealthy white man. She subsequently moved to New York City, where she became a supporter of Robert Matthews, the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias. When Matthias's utopian commune disbanded, Van Wagenen left New York City, changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and began to preach. She eventually joined the Northampton Association, another organization with utopian pretensions. There she met Olive Gilbert (1801-1884), who served as the amanuensis for the 1850 first edition of Truth's Narrative.

The first 125 pages of the 1875 edition of Truth's Narrative are a reprint of the 1850 edition. The remainder of the text is a collection of newspaper articles and celebrity autographs taken from a personal collection of Truth's that she called the "Book of Life" (p. 131). When Truth decided to issue an updated version of her biography in 1875 to help pay for a grandson's medical bills, she asked Frances Titus (1816-1894) to publish excerpts from her "Book of Life" as a supplement to Gilbert's text, trusting "her scribe [Titus] to make the selections" (p. 256).

Titus was raised a Quaker, and she met Truth in 1856 at a meeting for Friends of Human Progress in Harmonia, Michigan. Like Truth, Titus was an advocate for abolition and women's suffrage, and when her husband died in 1868, Titus worked more actively for both causes. She started a school for freedmen in Battle Creek, Michigan, and became Truth's unofficial business manager, accompanying her on speaking tours in New York and Kansas. Titus stayed with Truth until her death in 1883, and the next year, Titus published a new edition of the Narrative [with a] Memorial Chapter, Giving the Particulars of [Truth's] Last Sickness and Death.

At the beginning of her extracts from the "Book of Life," Titus explains that she does not "arrange these accounts in the chronological order of events, but no effort has been spared to furnish correct dates" (p. 131). Still, Titus seems less interested in accuracy than in bolstering Truth's legend. For example, while the original Narrative written by Gilbert provides convincing evidence that Truth was emancipated in 1828, Titus claims that "Sojourner became free in 1817" when "the State of New York emancipated all slaves of the age of 40 years" (p. 308).

Titus adds more than twenty years to Truth's age, and her exaggerations effectually legitimize the sensationalistic claims from Truth's "Book of Life." Several newspaper advertisements in this section suggest that Truth "nursed George Washington" (p. 224). Other articles make Truth the embodiment of the first century of United States history: "She stands by the closing century like a twin sister. Born and reared by its side, what it knows she knows, what it has seen, she has seen" (p. 254).

While others frequently make Truth into a symbol and appropriate her fame to further political causes, Truth is not above assuming a symbolic identity out of self-interest. When "a little policeman" in western New York stops her on the street at night and demands her name, Truth "paused, struck her cane firmly upon the ground, drew herself up to her greatest height, and in a loud, deep, voice, deliberately answered, 'I am that I am,' " replying with an Old Testament name for God (p. 311). The policeman "vanished, and she concluded her walk" (p. 311). Truth's blasphemy here subordinates her devotion to a desire for respect and privacy, and makes herself into a figure of religious authority as well as national history.

The excerpts from the Book of Life that Titus selects for the Narrative emphasize Truth's connections with the nineteenth century's most important people. She visits President Abraham Lincoln at the White House, and he tells "Aunty Sojourner Truth" that if Southern slaveholders had "behaved themselves, I could not have done what I have; but they did not, which gave me the opportunity to do these things" (pp. 179, 178). Lincoln leaves his signature in Truth's Book of Life, and the Narrative reprints his autograph in a selection that includes autographs from such notable nineteenth-century figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Like Anthony and Stanton, Truth spoke out for women's suffrage, and Titus records details of Truth's attendance in 1851 at one of the earliest women's rights conventions in Akron, Ohio. Truth is not invited to speak, but when a heckler disrupts the convention, she rallies the attendants against "Dat man ober dar" who says "dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches" (p. 134). Reminding her fellow suffragists that African American women have suffered even more than their white counterparts, Truth bares her muscular arm and commands them in a voice "like rolling thunder" to "Look at me! Look at my arm! . . . I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and ar'n't I a woman?" (p. 134). For Truth, there is no separating the fight for women's rights from the fight to abolish slavery; every form of oppression must be eliminated.

Truth's powerful physique and speaking voice inspire most of her listeners, but hecklers consistently question her sex, publicly voicing the opinion that she is "an impostor . . . a man disguised in women's clothing" and "a mercenary hireling of the Republican party" (p. 138). At one abolitionist rally, Titus explains, a Dr. T. W. Strain and other Democrats in attendance even demand that "Sojourner submit her breast to the inspection of some of the ladies present, that the doubt [as to her sex] might be removed" (p. 138). Truth staunchly refuses and instead "uncovered her breast before them" publicly, reminding them that "her breasts had suckled many a white babe" and asking, "as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wished to suck!" (p. 139).

Truth's audacity continues to make her Narrative compelling reading, and still, "wherever folks is, an' I sets up my banner . . . folks always comes up round" to hear her story (p. 164).

Works Consulted: Ashley, Martin L., "Frances Titus: Sojourner's 'Trusted Scribe,'" Sojourner Truth Archives (The Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, 1997), 7 August 2008,; Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Zachary Hutchins

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