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sojourner truth

Education

Sojourner Truth's real 'Ain't I a Woman?' speech was nothing like the famous one we all read

A prime example of how historical distortions can paint a totally inaccurate picture.

The famous Sojourner Truth speech most of us learned is a fabrication.

For generations, students have read the extemporaneous speech Sojourner Truth gave at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, known widely as "Ain't I a Woman?" As a formerly enslaved Black woman speaking out against slavery and for women's rights, Truth made some powerful points in her speech—except the speech most of us read is almost nothing like the one she delivered.

The way "Ain't I a Woman?" is written makes it sound as if Truth walked straight off a Southern plantation. But Truth was a Northerner her entire life. The Southern dialect that permeates the popular version of her speech is a total fabrication.

It wasn't Truth who altered her speech, though. A white abolitionist woman named Frances Dana Gage published the speech 12 years after it was given, and her version is the one that became popularized, in all its glorious inaccuracy.


Let's start at the beginning.

Sojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree to parents who were enslaved by Dutch settlers in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. When she was 9, she was sold away to another New York enslaver, and by the time she was 14, she'd been sold to several different slave owners around New York State. After being raped by her final enslaver, harassed by his wife, and heartbroken over the man she loved being beaten to death by his owner on a neighboring farm, she escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826—the year before New York's gradual phasing out of slavery was set to be complete.

Truth chose her famous name in her forties, after a religious awakening in which she felt called to travel and speak out against slavery. She became a powerhouse in the early abolitionist movement. In addition to her fierce civil rights advocacy, she successfully sued one of her former owners for custody of her youngest son, who had been sold illegally, making her the first Black woman to take a white man to court and win.

During her adult life, Truth lived in New York and Massachusetts and eventually settled in Michigan. She traveled extensively, but since her entire childhood was spent in New York—and since her first language was Dutch—she wouldn't have had a Southern accent or spoken in a Southern dialect at all.

Since she couldn't read or write, the speech Truth gave in 1851 was never written down by her, so history relies on the people who were present to know what she said. The first attempt to publish a full account of her speech came a few weeks after she delivered it, when journalist Marius Robinson published his version in The Anti-Slavery Bugle on June 21, 1851. According to The Sojourner Truth Project, Robinson was good friends with Sojourner Truth, and there is documentation that she went over his transcription before it was published.

That version, titled "On Woman’s Rights,” begins:

"May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter.

I am a woman’s rights.

I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?"

It's a strikingly different account than the one published in 1863 by Francis Gage, which reads in part:

"Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have de best place eberywhar.

Nobody eber helps me into carriages or ober mud-puddles, or gives me any best place.

And ar’n’t I a woman?"

Gage's version has been altered over time to smooth out the spellings, and "ar'n't" morphed into "ain't," but the distinct Southern accent remains in the speech we famously attribute to Truth today. (For instance, check out the speech shared by The Hermitage museum, which is the version most of us have read, here. The two originally published versions can be compared side by side here.)

According to The Sojourner Truth Project, "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 than Sojourner's original version."

But changing her speech matters for a couple of reasons. For one, making Truth appear to be Southern adds to the oversimplification of slavery as only a Southern problem, when in reality slavery existed in the Northern states as well. They just abolished slavery earlier than the South, and without fighting a heinous, bloody war over it first.

Secondly, Truth herself did not care for people changing the way she talked, as The Sojourner Truth Project shares:

"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.'"

It also matters because the truth matters. As the United States grapples with its history of racism and slavery and Americans argue over the lenses and narratives through which we tell our national story, it's vital that we strive to be truthful. Learning about history requires that we constantly stay open to not only learning things we may not have learned, but also relearning things we may have learned wrong.

Check out The Sojourner Truth Project for more details about Truth and to see a more accurate representation of what she actually said in her famous speech. And listen this reading of Robinson's version of her speech, read by a woman with a contemporary Dutch accent in an attempt to get closer to Truth's original speech: