Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Narrative of Sojourner Truth cover imageSummary: An autobiography from Sojourner Truth as told to Olive Gilbert.

This year’s final book for the Renovar√© Book Club was Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Because I did not really have any background with Sojourner Truth, I read the new We Will be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth by Nacy Koester as background before starting the autobiography.

One of the parts of the Renovare Book Club that I most appreciate is the podcast/video interviews and weekly emails with links to information and background. In the first podcast, in preparation for reading Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the host suggested that we come at the Narrative without other background materiaial, so as to understand her words on their own terms. This is common advice and not entirely wrong. But at the same time, this advice is influenced by the “plain reading of the text.” And as much as I appreciate that advice, it needs to be tempered because there is real value in expertise, and experts can give you far more information and background than what is possible when reading without the assistance of experts.

In this case, I do not think reading the Narrative without any background would have been helpful for me. Sojourner Truth was a complex figure outside the standard Southern slave narrative. She spoke only Dutch until the age of 9 and spoke with a Dutch accent her whole life. Her most famous speech, Aint’ I A Woman, was transcribed with a Southern slave dialect and likely was significantly distorted in form because of that.

And I think that there are nuances about the cultural movements around her that I would not have understood without Koester’s biography, especially the influence of utopian religious communities and groups like the Seventh Day Adventists and Millerenites. At the same time, I understand the impulse to encourage direct access to historical documents. Older texts are more challenging to understand than current books and biographies. But without direct access to historical documents, we lose out because our understanding of history is always mediated through interpreters. I do not want to discount the importance of those interpreters because they provide value. But as we gain access to historical tools, we can better understand those historical documents in context and in ways that give regard to what they meant at the time without distorting them.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth: Free from Project Gutenberg in a variety of ebook formats, Kindle Unlimited ebook/audiobook

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