Ain’t I a woman: The speech that never happened.
I originally wrote this article for Huffpost a couple of years ago but it is worth sharing again for Women’s History Month. The fact remains that white feminism has never included Black women and when given a chance they will erase us from all visible movements and important progress in history.
We are all guilty of reciting this poem as we know it in its current form. But what most don’t know is France Gage exaggerated Truth’s speech for reasons unknown. We can only assume Gage’s exaggerations are based on racism and the need to box Black women in stereotypes to fit their own personal narrative.
“What Frances Gage did to Sojourner Truth’s speech — and later, her image — was so much more deliberately sinister.”
Reflecting on Black History Month and anticipating Women’s History Month allows me time to reflect on some of my favorite heroes. I was on Twitter when an interesting tweet was retweeted into my timeline. At first, I thought I was reading it wrong — my heart suddenly stopped. I was feeling betrayed, ignorant and most of all naïve. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I Woman” is purposely exaggerated.
“I first learned of the lie of ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ as an undergrad. One of my instructors, a professor of African-American studies and a Black woman mentioned it, offhand, near the end of class. It was like she dropped a bomb! We had so many questions that class accidentally carried over; folks were queuing at the door waiting for us to get the hell out!” explains Shafiqah Hudson, a freelance author from Philadelphia who also has a B.A. in Africana Studies.
"Ain't I A Woman?" was a White protofeminist's WILLFUL MISINTERPRETATION and belittling of Sojourner Truth's charisma and oratory gifts.
— Fiqah (@sassycrass) February 6, 2016
“This was back before Internet resources were that comprehensive and Wikipedia hadn’t really become a go-to thing, so I headed to my campus library and picked up a biography. I skimmed it — no time to read another whole book but I was able to confirm that Truth was born and raised in New York and spoke Dutch before she spoke English. She probably would not have sounded like a former slave from the South and there are multiple accounts of her transcribed speech that were presented for publication by Francis Gage over a decade after it was given,” Hudson explains to me as she recalls being just as shocked as I was when this information was revealed.
Truth was born and raised in New York and her native language was Dutch, so the implication she spoke with a slave dialect is completely false.
The version we all have embraced is exaggerated, but why? What is the purpose? Was it intentional?
“Oh, it was absolutely intentional. Abolitionist (and friend of Truth’s) Marcus Robinson transcribed her speech as faithfully as he was able to, with minimal editorializing. (At the time, Francis Gage, a convention organizer, was seriously preoccupied with event management.) Robinson and others present during Sojourner Truth’s speech reported that she was warmly received and sincerely applauded when she finished speaking, which varies hugely from Gage’s first published account 12 years after the event.
Here’s the original speech:
Marcus Robinson — One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner Truth. It is impossible to transfer it to paper or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity: “May I say a few words?” Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded:
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? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.
As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, — for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right siI want to say a few words about this matter.
I am for 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? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, — for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold.
The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. de up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him.
Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
However, Francis Gage is responsible for the rendition that we have all recited in school and quoted faithfully.
“In my tweets, I described Frances Gage as a White protofeminist. She was concerned primarily with
suffragist issues, which Black women at the time, so many of us then enslaved, had very little to gain from directly. Gage’s offense wasn’t limited to her absolutely atrocious rendering of Truth’s speech in what she must have believed was credibly authentic Southern African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Truth, who prided herself on how well she spoke English, her second language — had 5 children; Gage declared that she had said she had 13!. (Ascribing exceptional fecundity to Black people was and is a strategy used by racists to dehumanize us; the roots of the “welfare queen” go right on back to slavery.) Truth didn’t speak in detail about never being treated in a chivalrous manner. Finally, she didn’t refer to other Blacks as “niggers.” That was all Gage”.
Why would Gage intentionally change who Truth really was?
I asked Hudson what she thought and she replied, “Gage, ironically, did not view Truth as a woman — her concept of womanhood, like those of her suffragette compatriots, was intimately bound to Whiteness. A woman was White. period. Gage could accept that Truth was an extraordinary person, but she could not view her as an equal, and a sister. That would have required a complete overturn of her socialization. Because, like her contemporaries, she had a lot of unexamined race bigotry. A lot. Gage’s account, tellingly, centers her, not Truth. In a very “Anyway… back to me!” It’s not that different in tone from that awful White woman yoga class on xoJane.”
The attempts to water-down historical black pioneers are not just alarming but it leaves even more room for confusion. If we can’t trust our history books, who can we turn to in attempts to discover who we are? If you think that’s disturbing, check out this Dick Gregory video as he recalls the day Malcolm X was murdered and his explanation on why Alex Haley didn’t write Roots or Malcolm X himself.