- New introductions commissioned from todays top writers and scholars
- Biographies of the authors
- Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
- Footnotes and endnotes
- Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
- Comments by other famous authors
- Study questions to challenge the readers viewpoints and expectations
- Bibliographies for further reading
- Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
At a time when most black women were slaves or servants and even white women were expected to sit quietly in the corner, Sojourner Truth transformed herself from a runaway slave to a well-known campaigner for abolition and women’s rights. Born a slave in New York State around 1797 and given the name Isabella by her owner, she had already fled to freedom when New York’s 1827 anti-slavery law officially emancipated her. Deeply religious, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth and became a traveling lay preacher and lecturer. Though she was illiterate, her extraordinary speaking skills electrified audiences and brought her widespread fame.
Sojourner Truth dictated her Narrative to fellow feminist and abolitionist, Olive Gilbert. First published in 1850, it reveals the striking differences between slavery in the North and in the South. For example, while hideous conditions could be found in either region, Northern slaves were much more isolated from other African-Americans, and therefore more psychologically dependent upon their masters.
An essential document of American history, Narrative of Sojourner Truth swirls with the fiery insights of this complex, accomplished, and magnetic woman, a preacher and a suffragist, and one of our most consummately human figures.
Imani Perry is an assistant professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden, New Jersey. She holds a Ph.D. from the Harvard Program in the History of American Civilization and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Perry is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the intersection of law and literature in African American cultural history, and the role of aesthetics in African American political discourse. Her book Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop was published by Duke University Press in 2004.
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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.