Why is there more than one version of Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851, “Ain’t I a Woman” speech?
Most people are familiar with the popular version of Sojourner Truth's famous, “Ain’t I a woman” speech but they have no idea that this popular version is not Sojourner's speech and is vastly different from her original 1851 speech.
This popular but inaccurate version was written and published in 1863, (12 years after Sojourner gave the "Ain't I a woman" speech), by a white abolitionist named Francis Gage. Curiously, Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical 'southern black accent', rather than in her distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Francis Gage’s actions were well intended and served the suffrage and women's rights movement at the time; however, by today’s standards of ethical journalism, Francis Gage's actions were a gross misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity. By changing Truth's words and her dialect, Francis Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and authentic voice. Francis Gage admitted that her amended version had “given but a faint sketch” of Sojourner's original speech but she felt justified and believed her new version was stronger and more palatable then Sojourner Truth's original version.
The most authentic version of Sojourner Truth's, "Ain't I a woman," speech was first published in 1851 by Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and was titled, “On Woman’s Rights”. This website is dedicated to re-introducing the original transcription of the speech and Sojourner's authentic voice.
Why it's important to hear both speeches?
The question of why there is more than one version of Sojourner’s speech is a fascinating story. It is also one that underlies our nation’s multiple perspectives; connecting the issues of gender and race addressed in the speech to contemporary social issues and the politics of language.
For many reasons Gage’s “faint sketch of the truth” version of Sojourner’s speech persists as Truth’s “truth” while the more authentic version, by Marius Robinson, is largely unknown. I believe Marius Robinson’s transcription of Sojourner Truth’s speech should be heard along side of Francis Gage’s version. If you are going to teach one version you must also present the other. They both have a place in American history.
The purpose of this website is:
(1) to provide a platform for the original 1851 Marius Robinson transcription of Sojourner Truth’s “On Woman’s Rights” speech".
(2) to rectify this historical injustice and to dispel the misconceptions due to Francis Gage's inaccurate portrayal of Sojourner.
(3) to offer a more truthful picture of Sojourner's words, her accent, her heritage and her distinct voice.
How can we honor Sojourner Truth's heritage?
In an 1851 issue of the Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, an article states that Truth prided herself on “fairly correct English, which is in all senses a foreign tongue to her. . .. People who report her often exaggerate her expressions, putting in to her mouth the most marked southern dialect, which Sojourner feels is rather taking an unfair advantage of her”. (qtd. in Fitch and Mandziuk 1997: 129)
In 1851the technology to record sound had not yet been invented and speeches were transcribed by reporters who did the best they could to record accurately. We will never know exactly what Sojourner said on that day in 1851 or exactly what her dialect sounded like, but the videos on this site help us move in the right direction. Truth, unable to read or write, could not offer her own rhetoric in the written form. Her words (as we read them today) are not her words, but a representation of her words by the person who transcribed them.
Because Sojourner’s specific Dutch dialect is officially lost, I have chosen to represent the speech in many different contemporary Afro-Dutch dialects. These women and their readings do not claim to embody Sojourner in any way, in fact none of them may be correct, but all of them are a nod to Sojourner’s authentic voice and her heritage. This is to counter the inaccurate Gage version of Sojourner's speech that effectively erases Sojourners identity and heritage and at adds to the erasure of the Northern slave history.
Why we should care?
I hope these speeches will become a reference point for people researching Sojourner Truth; and, that they will offer a more historically correct and dignified perspective that will pay long overdue respect to the author of these profound words.
How can we honor Sojourner Truth's legacy?
Sojourner’s story is the ultimate American story and deserves a more in-depth exploration then this site offers. The more we examine her life with all its complexities, the more we understand our nation’s history. Sojourner Truth exists today in many forms; as a person, as a symbol and as a myth. The preference for the Gage version of Truth's speech speaks to our need for symbolism and mythology in our historical narrative. However, to only see Sojourner through these lenses is an oversimplification of her identity and minimizes her life struggles and accomplishments. It is important to see her as a person who, despite starting life enslaved, rose-up and fought tirelessly with incredible conviction, faith and courage for human rights and personal freedoms.
Throughout her adult life, she worked against a society that thought of her as less than human. Sojourner’s struggle to establish her identity is reflected in the efforts by others to control her. And she is still struggling. Her struggle to define herself as a person, a woman, a woman of color, and a citizen did not end with her speech in Akron. At a time when we are fighting for the principals of liberty and justice around the world it is fitting that we honor the memory of one who fought her whole life for the realization of personal freedoms and human rights. Sojourner Truth's bold assertion of her own identity, “I am a woman’s rights,” serves as a timely reminder that the fight for equality has always been, and will continue to be, a constant challenge and an ongoing rhetorical and physical process within our democratic society.
"TRUTH IS POWERFUL AND IT PREVAILS"
~ Sojourner Truth