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 1863 popular version of Sojourner Truth's famous, “Ain’t I a woman” speech but they have no idea that this popular version, while based off of Sojourner’s original 1851 speech, is not Sojourner's speech and is vastly different from Sojourner’s original 1851 speech. I must acknowledge Nell Irvin Painter, a professor at Princeton University, specializing in American historian notable for her works on southern history of the nineteenth century. Professor Painter was the scholar who first rang the bell on this historical mistake.
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 Frances Dana Barker Gage. Curiously, Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical 'southern black slave accent', rather than in Sojourner’s distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Frances 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, her actions were a gross misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity. By changing Truth's words and her dialect to that of a stereotypical southern slave, Frances Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice. As well as unintentionally adding to the oversimplification of the American slave culture and furthering the eradication of our nations Northern slave history. Frances Gage admitted that her amended version had “given but a faint sketch” of Sojourner's original speech but she felt justified and believed her version stronger and more palatable to the American public then Sojourner's original version.
The most authentic version of Sojourner Truth's, "Ain't I a woman," speech was first published in 1851 by Truth's good friend Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and was titled, “On Woman’s Rights”. This website is dedicated to re-introducing this 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 the 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 Frances 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 many 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 their best to record accurately. Thus, 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 direction of truth. 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 people who transcribed them.
It is important to note Sojourner’s specific Dutch dialect is officially lost and is not rediscovered. Because of this, 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. The intent of these videos is to counter the hundreds of popular but inaccurate Gage versions of Sojourner's speech on the internet that portray Sojourner with a southern slave dialect. Gage's version effectively erases Sojourner's identity and heritage, adding to the oversimplification of American slave culture and furthers the eradication of our nations 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 nations need for symbolism and mythology in our historical narrative. However, to only see Sojourner through this lense is an oversimplification of her identity and minimizes her real life struggles and hard won human accomplishments. It is important to see her as a real 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 principles 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