Read an Excerpt
From Imani Perry’s Introduction to Narrative of Sojourner Truth
The reader of the Narrative should remember that in many ways it is a biography rather than an autobiography. The Narrative was written by Olive Gilbert, sitting at Truth’s proverbial knee, and treats Truth’s life from her birth until her forties. Gilbert was a woman Truth met while a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (1843–1846), a progressive intentional community in Northampton, Massachusetts. Intentional communities were comprised of people who chose to live cooperatively, according to shared ideals that were often rooted in a set of theological or philosophical beliefs. The members of the Northampton Association operated a collectively owned silk mill and believed in equal rights for women and African Americans; they were advocates of abolition.
The Narrative was first published in 1850 at Truth’s own expense and predated her celebrity as an abolitionist, although she had delivered her first antislavery lecture six years earlier. While the Narrative speaks little of her abolitionism, it reveals much of her life’s mission. Sojourner Truth first and foremost was a woman who lived an evangelical life. It is through her vision of Godly purpose that she came, later in life, to abolitionism. Indeed, one of her most famous, and well verified, comments was one in which religion dramatically dovetailed with abolitionism. At an antislavery meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, Truth listened to Frederick Douglass, who, despondent at the persistence and growth of antebellum slavery, advocated taking up arms in defense of the enslaved. Truth’s poignant response to his fervor was, “Frederick, is God dead?”—thus silencing the brilliant and famous abolitionist with her pious conviction.
Sojourner Truth was unlettered, while Douglass was learned. She was a northerner, while Douglass was a Maryland native. This contrast was symbolic of Truth’s life. Her Narrative, a tale of New York slavery, lay outside the mainstream of slave narratives. Until she moved to New York City, she had never lived in a black community. Her native tongue was Dutch. But Truth’s testimony of northern slavery in her Narrative, which revealed slavery as a national legacy and problem, was dramatically verified by the passage of a stricter Fugitive Slave Law in the same year as the book’s publication. The Fugitive Slave Law dictated that those suspected of being runaway slaves could be arrested without a warrant and turned over to a claimant on nothing more than the sworn testimony of the owner. A person suspected of being a slave could neither ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her own behalf. Federal marshals who did not arrest an alleged runaway could be fined $1,000. The law not only endangered the formerly enslaved, but all black people. Moreover, the law discouraged those who might assist runaways by providing that any person aiding a runaway in any manner was subject to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. And one who captured a fugitive slave was entitled to a fee, thereby encouraging the kidnapping of free blacks for sale to slave traders. The law signaled a move toward the nationalization of slavery. This was ironic, given that most northern states had either already begun the process of emancipation or formally abolished slavery two generations prior. Nevertheless, the political power wielded by the South protected the peculiar institution and extended its power around the nation.
Truth’s Narrative thus emerges at the precipice of transformations that would lead to the Civil War. As she developed as an abolitionist, the nation careened toward dissolution. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott vs. Sandford that slaves had no rights as citizens. For Dred Scott this meant that living in a free state, where his master had moved his household, did not guarantee Scott and his wife their freedom. The court moreover declared that a black man had no rights a white man was bound to respect, and that the government could not outlaw slavery in new territories, as had been provided in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and subsequent laws. The decision virtually guaranteed that the nation would have to contend violently with slavery as a national question. Sojourner Truth’s life unfolds in the midst of this transformative period in history.
Truth’s critical work before the Civil War and after as an abolitionist minister, and later as an advocate for the freed people, necessitates that we include The “Book of Life” in this volume, in order to provide as full an account of her importance as possible. The “Book of Life” is Truth’s scrapbook, published in 1875 with editorial comments by Frances Titus, Truth’s helper in her final home of Battle Creek, Michigan. The work is a motley assortment of newspaper clippings and articles about Truth, along with the many signatures she collected as she traveled, from prominent abolitionist activists, reformers, and suffragists. While the “Book of Life” fails to have a narrative structure, it is useful for any student of Truth; it shows us what was important to her, what she collected, saved, and hoped to keep as a record of her time as a champion for African Americans, women, and the Gospel.