Larger Than Life, Sojourner Truth's Message Lives On


"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them."  

Sojourner Truth spoke these words at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention on May 28 1851, as part of her famous "Ain't I A Woman?" speech, and her message of equality and self-empowerment is as relevant today as it was 164 years ago. (Though it's likely Truth's exact words were amended by fellow suffragist Francis Gage, there is an undeniable power and strength in the sentiment.)  Over two hundred years after her birth as a Dutch-speaking slave named Isabella Baumfree, the life and work of this charismatic preacher, suffragist and abolitionist is being remembered with newly dedicated sculptures and musicals, a petition to have her likeness printed on the $20 bill, and continues to inspire today's activists striving for social justice.  

Towering over her peers at nearly six feet tall, Truth had "a heart of gold and a tongue of fire,"  and was an immensely spiritual woman who agitated alongside Frederick Douglas and William Llyod Garrison for universal suffrage and an end to slavery. Truth spoke with a passion and eloquence that could spur audiences to action and stop rabbles in their tracks.

By Randall Studio (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

ALA-notable author Ann Turner recently wrote My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth (HarperCollins, $17.99) which explores the life and times of this larger-than-life figure. Written in flowing free-verse, and told from Truth's fiery point of view, Turner recounts the heartbreaking story of Truth's early life and how those experiences informed her decision to change her name, became an itinerant preacher and champion for civil rights. Truth spent almost thirty years toiling in fields, enduring beatings and extraordinary hardship at the hands of masters who thought "my back was a cart for hauling rocks wood timber and grain".  She eventually escaped to freedom with the youngest of her four children, and from that point on became a courageous voice for oppressed people.  Her story is at once enthralling and harrowing, with enough challenge and heartbreak to fill more than one lifetime. (My Name is Truth is by no means a complete biography, but it's a great jumping-off point for further education, and Turner helpfully provides additional resources in the postscript.)

©2015 James Ransome, reproduced with permission from HarperCollins.

Truth practiced what she preached, and was incredibly self-sufficient, a model for women of any era to emulate. In 1846 she purchased a home in Florence, Massachusetts with the earnings from her speaking engagements and sales of her autobiography. (Since she could not read or write, Truth dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert of Northampton, Massachusetts.)  She was the first African-American woman to bring three lawsuits to court and win them all.  When her son was illegally sold to an Alabama plantation owner, Truth sued and retrieved her child. She filed a slander lawsuit when a newspaper printed that she was a witch and had poisoned a leader of a religious group, and won a $125 judgement.  And when she was hit by a street-car in Washington D.C. Truth filed a personal injury lawsuit, and again a judge ruled in her favor.
Turner touches on the first lawsuit where we see mother and child reunited, but it's bittersweet; at first the son doesn't recognize Truth, and "his back is a mess of scars, his soul too."
Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator James Ransome's watercolors capture the magnitude of Truth's life and impact on the American political and cultural landscape. Bright, bold images of a woman determined to incite change match the sonorous and passionate storytelling.
Complete with insightful author's notes, My Name Is Truth is a story of courage and determination, of a woman whose purpose was to call people out of slavery and into the light of freedom and equality. 

My Name is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth, by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome; HarperCollins Children's Books, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 6-10.