Sojourner Truth was not born as Sojourner Truth. Her original name, when born in New York in 1797, was Isabella Bomfree. In 1827, having been a slave for thirty years, she ran away with her infant daughter, Sophia, to a nearby abolitionist family by the name of the Van Wageners. They bought her freedom, and a few years later, she renamed herself Sojourner Truth, saying that God called on her to preach her own personal truth. After moving to New York City in 1828, she became a charismatic speaker for various religious matters. As a preacher, she met various abolitionists, just some of them being William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Later, she familiarized herself with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two passionate women who fought vehemently for their rights and equality. From what we know about her relationships with very powerful and influential figures like the ones mentioned above, we can surmise that Truth combined her affinity for public speaking about religion with a passion for women’s rights and abolition. Due to this fervor, Truth produced one of the most inspiring and rhetorically moving speeches about equality of all time.
In 1851, she gave her most famous speech about women’s rights, titled “Ain’t I A Woman?” In this speech, Truth championed for both equality of the sexes and equality of race. Delivered at a state convention in Akron, Ohio, this speech was performed not only in front of women campaigning for their rights, but men as well. Not all of these men supported the women’s rights movement; so, as most argumentative speeches go, Truth faced a room of people not fully supporting her cause. She did not let this sway her, though, for her speech was undeniably well received, as we can see with its fame a century later. Marius Robinson, a male attender of the convention, was so inspired by her speech that he published it in The Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper.
In order to understand why Truth’s speech was so successful, we must analyze it rhetorically. With audience considered, let’s now look at the background of the speech. The phrase used by British abolitionists to argue the cruelty of slavery was, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Eventually, women’s rights activists borrowed this phrase, changing it into “Am I not a woman and a sister?” Eventually, women’s rights activists borrowed this phrase, changing it into “Am I not a woman and a sister?”
Truth, inspired by this phrase, thus used it to influence the majority of her speech. Her main point is that she’s a woman, so why aren’t people treating her like her white equals? “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!” (Truth 179) Being a black woman, not only once but twice oppressed, Truth was constantly aware of her difference amongst the majority of society. Some of the most powerful rhetorical elements in her work are the use of personal narrative, rhetorical questions (we can see this plainly in the title of her work), and repetition of a single phrase to prove her point: “Ain’t I a woman?” In comparing and contrasting Sojourner Truth’s text to another, the main focus is personal narrative. The text compared to “Ain’t I a Woman?” to is Angelina Grimké’s Speech at Pennsylvania Hall.
To give some background on Grimké’s speech, it was given in 1848 in Pennsylvania. Grimké and many of her fellow women’s rights advocates and abolitionists joined together for her final speech, given in the Pennsylvania Hall. Just outside the building, a mob formed. Rocks were thrown at windows, profanities shouted. But Angelina Grimké did not let this deter her from delivering a very well known speech in both women’s rights and abolitionist history. Rather than dissuading her from her purpose, the anger of the mob only influenced Grimké to work harder and ignite her passion. At the end of the night, the mob ended up burning down Pennsylvania Hall, indicating their outrage at what had just happened there.
Although many forces worked against Grimké and her colleagues, they came out on the positive side of history. That being said, I mainly want to focus on Angelina Grimké’s personal narrative technique in her speech at Pennsylvania Hall and how it compares to Sojourner Truth’s. Grimké says: “As a Southerner I feel that it is my duty to stand up here to-night and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it—I have seen it. I know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing: I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences, and its destructiveness to human happiness.” (“Angelina Grimke Weld’s speech at Pennsylvania Hall”) She claims to have experienced slavery first hand, seen it, and bore witness to its horror. Though, when compared to Sojourner Truth’s explanation of slavery, Grimké’s narrative pales:
“I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Truth 179)
That is not to say that Grimké’s speech is ineffective. It just needs to be analyzed under a different lens. Grimké cannot claim to have experienced the horrors of slavery when she herself has not personally experienced them. She was a white woman, and though oppressed for her gender, she was never oppressed for her race. Although African Americans needed white allies to speak for them when they couldn’t, it seems almost insulting for a white woman, never knowing true enslavement, to speak as though she had.
Sojourner Truth’s narrative as a free woman and previous slave only solidifies her credibility through storytelling. Why do people tell stories when attempting to persuade their audience? It presents detail, characterization, and emotionally hooks the audience (Hart, Roderick P., and Suzanne Daughton). To be speaking in front of white men and women who don’t support your cause is one thing; to present traumatic stories from your enslavement in an effort to slap the doubt from your audience’s face is ineffable. That is something that Grimké could have never done, and while her argument is effective, she cannot attest to ever being as credible in the woes of slavery the way Sojourner Truth was. With that being said, I think Sojourner Truth’s argument is the most effective and moving.
“Angelina Grimke Weld’s speech at Pennsylvania Hall.” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2939t.html. Accessed February 25th, 2019.
Hart, Roderick P., and Suzanne Daughton. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. 3rd ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.
“Sojourner Truth Biography.” Biography, 2 April 2014, https://www.biography.com/people/sojourner-truth-9511284.
Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I a Woman?” Women’s Rights Emerges Within the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1830-1870, edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar, Palgrave McMillan, 2000, 179-180.