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The life of sojourner truth an african american slave and womens rights activist

Female, Black, and Able: Sojourner Truth, disability, race, gender, feminism, nineteenth century Abstract Sojourner Truth exists in American popular culture as a strong contributor to the movements for abolition and women's rights.

In order to maintain this image of strength and make the case that black women are just as capable as white men, Truth intentionally elided her disabled right hand. This article explores representations of Sojourner Truth in relation to her nineteenth century context and, in particular, social stigmas regarding race, gender and disability. The interpretations of pictures, a painting, and two events contained in Truth's Narrative suggest that Truth argued against gender and racial oppression by operating with an ideology of ability that suggested that both women and African-Americans are strong, powerful, and able.

As Truth maintained an ideology of ability in order to subvert gender and racial hierarchies, she offers a case study into the benefits of intersectional approaches to historical studies. Sojourner Truth exists in American popular culture as the bearer of a strong, working arm with a voice that powerfully contributed to the movements for abolition and women's rights.

With her arm and her voice, Truth used her body to confront social norms and construct new ways of existing in her nineteenth century context.

Sojourner Truth

In textbooks and popular children's stories, Truth has been established as a heroine who, with her famous question, "Ar'n't I a woman? According to her Narrative, Truth's body was not only black and female, but also disabled. Indeed, just the opposite occurred as pictures of Truth directed attention away from Truth's disability, often portraying her disabled hand performing tasks such as knitting. One painting even "corrected" her "disfigurement"! In brief, Truth, marginalized on account of her race, gender and disability, is represented as strong and able-bodied.

Although contemporary literary studies has demonstrated the limits of assuming a connection between author and text, this essay suggests that Truth's own self-representation called attention to her black, female body while directing attention away from her disability.

Such an argument is supported by Truth's self-compiled Book of Life and pictures of Truth because both suggest a relationship between Truth's self-representation and other's representations of her as far as they demonstrate collusion between Truth and others. This article analyzes pictures of Truth in addition to two events recorded in Truth's Book of Life: In each of these contexts, Truth confronted cultural discourses with her body. Although some contemporary biographers such as Nell Irvin Painter identify Truth's disability, none has fully explored the significance of Truth's disability in relation to her self-representation as strong and able-bodied.

Arguments for gender and racial equality are, in other words, often built on an ideology of ability and, although this article demonstrates this operative ideology in the limited case of Sojourner Truth, further studies need to consider the relationship between civil rights movements and ideologies of ability.

This analysis of Truth demonstrates the value of working at the intersection of race, gender, and disability in historical studies. It begins with a brief biographical introduction to Sojourner Truth before exploring Truth's nineteenth century context and, finally, how Truth used images and words in order to construct herself in relation to this context. Although this analysis focuses on an historical case, it also exemplifies the need to continue working at the intersection of race, gender, and disability in our contemporary context where, in particular, some feminist arguments for women's equality continue to rely on rhetorics of ability.

Born around 1797 in upstate New York, her parents gave her the name of Isabella, a name that she changed in 1843 when she announced to her employer that she would no longer answer to the name Isabella but Sojourner Truth.

Nell Irvin Painter, a recent biographer of Truth, suggests that this new name carries many layers of meaning for Truth as it attests to Truth's itinerancy, her spiritual authority, and her anxiety over having to prove the truth in several different legal contexts.

After working for John Neely for a year, she was sold to the Schriver family into what she hoped would be a better environment. This new arrangement only lasted a little over a year the life of sojourner truth an african american slave and womens rights activist Isabella was sold for a final time to the Dumont family where she probably endured sexual and physical abuse.

In the midst of New York's state-wide movement to abolish slavery, Isabella struck an agreement with Dumont that she would be freed about a year and a half prior to the date set for all New York slaves to be free: After making this agreement, Isabella injured her hand and, as a result of her injury, her farm and household work became less productive.

Due to her decreased productivity, Dumont reneged on his agreement to free her and she remained a slave until she freed herself and her youngest child, Sophia when, according to Painter's account, Truth received instructions from God.

Painter distinguishes between Isabella the slave, the life of Sojourner Truth, and the symbol of Sojourner Truth. While Painter's distinction between the life and symbol of Sojourner Truth makes an important contribution to studies on Sojourner Truth, the distinction between the life and the symbol is not as clear as Painter suggests.

Truth participated both in compiling and distributing her Book of Life and her portraits. It is, therefore, impossible to parse out which aspects of Truth's persona are "real" and which are "symbolic", which aspects of Truth's image are self-representations and which are other's representations of Truth.

  • As a women's rights activist, Truth faced additional burdens that white women did not have, plus the challenge of combating a suffrage movement which did not want to be linked to anti-slavery causes, believing it might hurt their cause;
  • After making this agreement, Isabella injured her hand and, as a result of her injury, her farm and household work became less productive;
  • This speech has become legendary and lies at the heart of many feminist understandings of Sojourner Truth;
  • Ain't I A Woman?
  • However, the reality is that Dumont had little option as all slaves in New York would be legally free by 1827.

Indeed, there are strong indications that the extant images and stories of Truth bear, in some way, Truth's stamp but contemporary scholars only have access to this stamp by looking at it through other's representations. Parsing out Truth's "real" persona is further complicated by the reality that Truth strategically positioned herself within existing cultural discourses in a manner that allowed her to successfully navigate nineteenth century society and politics.

As she positioned herself in light of cultural discourses, Truth participated to some extent in her own symbolification. Although Truth's nineteenth century context has been explored extensively from the exclusive perspectives of race, femininity, and disability, scholarship is only beginning to consider the relationships between these stigmas.

The emergence of critical theories of intersectionality, such as feminist disability theory, suggests that the separation of these discourses into separate discourses of oppression fails to identify how discourses of oppression perpetuate and sustain one another. As Douglas Baynton suggests, "It may well be that all our social hierarchies have drawn on culturally constructed and socially sanctioned notions of disability.

It is impossible, in other words, to explore Sojourner Truth's subordination from the perspective of race minus a consideration of her gender or disability. Rather than this add-on approach, Baynton's study of disability in history shows how oppressive discourses build on one another and often pit oppressed groups against one another, thereby sustaining cultural normativity. For an example from the late nineteenth century, consider John Williams-Searle's argument that the marginalization of male disabled railroad workers corresponded to the marginalization of women.

Williams-Searle states, "Limits on a man's ability to be economically productive, such as unemployment or injury, also imperiled his manhood. Railroaders, miners, and others in dangerous occupations recognized that a disabling injury posed a central threat to manliness as they understood it. Moreover, Williams-Searle's argument suggests that the stigma of disability in the nineteenth century is also connected to the cultural identification of women as weak and, as a result of their weakness, subordinate to men.

When women — early suffragettes in particular — responded to the cultural notion that they were weak by claiming their strength, they continued to assume the value of ability and, thereby, attempted to resolve their subordination by continuing the oppression of another. Baynton and Williams-Searle's arguments suggest that the exclusion of women and African-Americans in nineteenth century society was predicated on an exclusion of those with disabilities.

By exploring how black and white women were excluded from society based on their assumed lack of physical and intellectual ability and how black men were excluded from society based on their assumed lack of intellectual ability, the following paragraphs suggest that the exclusion of women and African-Americans from society assumed the exclusion of those with disabilities.

Understanding how predominant cultural discourses built problematic stereotypes of women and African-Americans on an ideology of ability creates a foundation to understand the depth of the stigma of disability in Sojourner Truth's context.

There has been extensive historical engagement with the nineteenth century "cult of true womanhood" as well as women's fight for suffrage. The industrial revolution made it possible to bifurcate society into two spheres: With this bifurcation came the gender definition of the spheres, which was particularly notable in the the life of sojourner truth an african american slave and womens rights activist class.

This bifurcation assumed that women worked in the private sphere while the men worked in the public. In the nineteenth century, the medical model of gender distinctions provided scientific support to the separation of the sexes into different spheres. Although histories of this period typical in women's studies usually highlight women's attempt to gain access to the public via their fight for suffrage a fight began in the 1850s and continued until the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920scholars should no longer tell the history of women as if it is disconnected from the rest of a cultural context.

In particular, the argument that relegated women to the private sphere is built on an ideology of ability. Men are more physically able than women so they should work in the factories and more intellectually able than women so they should be educated and participate in public discourse.

Sojourner Truth

Rather than challenge this ideology of ability, women attempted to argue for their rights based, at least in part, on their capabilities. Second, the racial hierarchy, which assumed the superiority of Caucasians, assumed an ideology of ability. As many feminists have explored and critiqued the culture that oppressed women in the nineteenth century, many African American liberationists have critiqued the culture that enslaved Africans and their descendents.

As with the cult of true womanhood, this racial discourse is also sustained by an ideology of ability. A surface level argument for racial equality might, therefore, suggest that African-Americans are just as physically and intellectually capable as Caucasians. Yet, as with arguments for gender equality, such an argument relies on an ideology of ability. The stigmas of race, gender, and disability change when non-"normative" race, gender, and ability are combined into one body as they are in the case of Sojourner Truth.

The existence of black women posed a challenge to the ideal nineteenth century woman.

Alerts In Effect

As the reality of black women showed, this picture of nineteenth century womanhood was an ideal only achievable by a few. The "cult of true womanhood" was not a cult for all women. Indeed, its membership was rather exclusive. As Marcia Riggs notes, "In effect, the 'cult of true womanhood' was a classist and racist ideology of womanhood. These caricatures furthermore suggest that stigmas surrounding black women were not only dependent on race and gender hierarchies but also directly dependent on ideologies of ability.

In particular, equating black women with their sexuality equates black women with regard to the ability to produce and reproduce. The following section turns to a variety of sources in order to development the argument that Truth constructed her body in a manner that both sustained and challenged aspects of her particular context.

By arguing that Truth's body was a result of her context, the following section identifies manners in which Truth was aware of this construction and was an agent in intentionally constructing herself to challenge her context as well as manners in which Truth was passively constructed by her context as everyone is.

Because I am concerned with the construction of Truth's body, I am not seeking "objective" historical data but, rather, I recognize that everything we know about Truth is constructed and, therefore, a result of a particular context.

With this background, the following sections examine pictures, a painting, and two eventful speeches through which Truth's body is shaped in opposition to cultural expectations. Representations of Sojourner Truth in Picture and Painting In the 1860s cartes-de-viste, a new cheap form of photographic memorabilia or communication, swept the United States. Sojourner Truth used the popularity of cartes-de-viste as a fund-raising mechanism and sold them at her public appearances.

Truth's pictures for the cartes-de-viste were mostly taken in 1864 and depict Truth, holding knitting needles and dressed in simple Quaker dress, next to a table with flowers.

  1. By arguing that Truth's body was a result of her context, the following section identifies manners in which Truth was aware of this construction and was an agent in intentionally constructing herself to challenge her context as well as manners in which Truth was passively constructed by her context as everyone is. While Painter claims that Truth's portraits "also reminded purchasers that she symbolized the woman who had been a slave", Truth's pictures do not invoke her experiences as a slave.
  2. First, Truth's case suggests a complex relationship between cultural expectations regarding disability, gender, and race. Born around 1797 in upstate New York, her parents gave her the name of Isabella, a name that she changed in 1843 when she announced to her employer that she would no longer answer to the name Isabella but Sojourner Truth.
  3. In both versions, Truth referred to her bodily capabilities in order to establish women's equality with men. 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!
  4. Rockwell, Anne and Gregory Christie. This complex relationship cannot be understood by exploring Truth's gender and race apart from her disability.
  5. Contemporary scholarship often focuses on how Sojourner Truth made room for African-American female bodies in a context where bodies were only recognized as white male dominant , African-American subordinate due to race , or female subordinate due to gender. The Identity Crises in Feminist Theory.

Under the photo, the caption states, "I sell the shadow to support the substance. Truth conceived the picture of her body as a shadow that provided financial support for her disembodied? This section contends that these images of Truth were carefully arranged with attention to how the images would function in Truth's cultural context.

Cartes-de-viste were arranged differently for different purposes. Abraham Lincoln used cartes-de-viste in his campaign for presidency, "freak-shows" produced cartes-de-viste to further intrigue and allow gazers to linger without the shame of lingering that manifests when examining a human other face-to-face, and former slaves used cartes-de-viste to highlight their visible scars in order to move viewers toward abolition. Each of these uses called for a different type of representation.

Truth's portraits represent her as a genteel woman. While Painter claims that Truth's portraits "also reminded purchasers that she symbolized the woman who had been a slave", Truth's pictures do not invoke her experiences as a slave. Painter describes the objects used in the photos as "simplified tokens of leisure and feminine gentility. As a genteel woman, Truth sustains the cultural discourse on the nature of femininity while also challenging the cultural discourse on the nature of black femininity.

In these photographs, Truth draws attention to her cultural femininity, thereby challenging the association between blackness and maleness.

The cartes-de-viste, therefore, represent a complex engagement that mirrors the complexity of Truth's own engagement with her culture as a black woman. These cartes-de-viste interact not only with cultural discourses on race and gender but also engage with cultural stigmas against disability as they attempt to direct attention away from Truth's disabled hand. In most of the early photographs, Truth's hand appears to grasp the knitting string, but in a later image ca.

  • Truth's case demonstrates that scholarship must be constructed on the fault lines of identity — especially where race, gender, and disability and their stigmas collide in a singular body;
  • Yet, such scholarship valorizes Truth's contribution while overlooking what Truth had to alienate in order to make a place for African-American female bodies;
  • The cartes-de-viste, therefore, represent a complex engagement that mirrors the complexity of Truth's own engagement with her culture as a black woman;
  • Look at my arm!

As photographs of someone with a disability but attempting to hide that disability, they can be categorized as "realistic" using Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's taxonomy of visual rhetorics of disability. They also manifest the "social mandate to hide disability" which Garland-Thomson identifies as an aspect of the "realistic" category of disability photography. Truth's "hidden" disability becomes even more apparent in a painting where she appears with Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln is showing Truth the Bible given him by the colored people of Baltimore. He looks down, she gazes into the distance. In the painting, Truth holds her right hand up and out, with an open palm. It appears Truth is either gesturing to the bible on the table or waiting for something to be placed in her hand.