We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth by Nancy Koester

We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth cover imageSummary: A good biography about a woman that many recognize but don’t know much about.

For the past several years, I have joined the Renovare Book Club. The current book they are reading is The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. I was broadly aware of Sojourner Truth. I knew she was born enslaved, and at some point, she left slavery and sued for the freedom of a child. She won that case, one of the earliest examples of a formerly enslaved person winning a court case against a white person. I also was aware of her work as an abolitionist and feminist speaker and her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” But besides the very broad strokes, I was unfamiliar with her story. Because I knew her book was coming up, I picked up this recent addition to the Library of Religious Biography series to get some background.

Nancy Koester is a Christian history professor specializing in the 19th century, especially in how women participated in reform movements as a way of social uplift and ministry. Koester also has another volume in the Library of Religious Biography series on Harriet Beecher Stowe, which I have not read but put on my to-read list.

As I said yesterday in my review of Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner about the Underground Railroad, several books I have read this year have overlapped in theme and content. Sojourner Truth was a character that was present in many 19th-century events. She was an abolitionist speaker who shared a stage with Garrison and Frederick Douglass. She was a part of early women’s suffrage movements like the Akron Ohio Women’s Convention in 1851, where she gave the Ain’t I a Woman speech. She was involved in various Christian reform and utopian movements, including the Prophet Mathias, the Millerite Adventist camp meetings, the interracial commune-like Northampton Association of Education and Industry, and the later utopian communities around Battle Creek, Michigan.

Part of what struck me about her association with these utopian and perfectionist movements was that only these fringe movements would allow her to speak as a woman. She believed that soon after she originally left slavery with her infant daughter, she had a vision from Jesus that called her to preach. Her initial preaching was more spiritually oriented calls to repentance. But over time, justice and reform became a large part of her message, although she always understood her work as a type of ministry.

She was very interested in self-improvement as a formerly enslaved woman who worked with many former slaves before and after the Civil War. Sojourner Truth was enslaved in New York, where there were many slaves, but slavery there tended to be smaller and less specialized work. She cooked, cleaned, cared for children, and worked in the fields and with animals. In her later work for the Freedman’s Beaurea, she realized that southern slavery was more specialized, leaving those former slaves less prepared for independent work because of the specialization and orientation toward field labor and less general labor. After the Civil War, when she was in her mid-60s, she continued to support herself through speaking and sales of her book, but like many others who had given their lives to the work of justice, she had not saved much for her later years, and by that point three of her five children had died, and the remaining two were more likely to need her support than able to support their mother.

The sexism and white superiority within both the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement meant that Sojourner Truth often worked as a housekeeper to support her speaking instead of her speaking being enough to support her own livelihood. Before escaping slavery, she had five children. But as was common, children were sold. Koester has some details, but her children were likely the result of informal marriage and rape.

Her first partner, Robert, lived on a nearby farm. His enslaver objected to the relationship because Sojourner’s enslaver would own any children. (At the time, Sojourner went by the name Isabell; it was only later that she chose Sojourner Truth.) Robert’s owner and son beat Robert badly when he snuck to see Sojourner and forbid them from meeting again. Her enslaver, John Dumont, intervened to stop them from killing Roberts, but she never saw Robert again. He died a few years later, likely in his late 20s or early 30s. Truth’s son, James, was the result of that relationship. Diana was the result of rape not long after but died in childhood. The final three children were with another enslaved man, Thomas, which seems likely to have been an arranged marriage by her enslaver.

John Dumont promised Isabell/Sojourner that if she continued to work well, he would free her a year before he was legally required to free her. After the birth of her youngest child, it became clear that Dumont would not free her as he had promised. One morning, just before dawn, Isabel/Sojourner took her daughter and just started walking. She eventually came to Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen’s home, and they took her in. She worked for them until Dumont discovered her. Van Wagener paid Dumont $25 to keep him from taking her and the baby.

Not long after, Sojourner discovered that Dumont had sold her five-year-old son to an enslaver in Alabama, an act prohibited by the law. Sojourner walked to the courthouse and eventually found a lawyer willing to sue Dumont and the new owner to return her son. It took months, but he was returned, although he had been badly mistreated during that time. Soon after, she moved to New York City to earn more money to support herself and her children, although it doesn’t appear that she ever had custody of all of her children at once.

Truth’s story is far too long to recount fully, but it is extraordinary. I am about halfway through the Narrative of Sojourner Truth now. This autobiography was told in the third person (not unusual), but because Truth never learned to read or write, it was told to Olive Gilbert, who wrote the dictated autobiography. I am glad I am reading it with the additional context of reading a longer biography first. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is widely available since it is in the public domain. It is around 100 pages, although a few different versions are available.

One last note is that at the end of this biography, there are three different editions of Truth’s speech Aint’ I a Woman, along with a discussion about that context. The most well-known version uses a ‘slave dialect’ more commonly associated with southern slave speech. Sojourner Truth was from New York, and her first language was Dutch. She didn’t learn English until she was about nine years old, and the accent that she did have was a Dutch accent. Later editions have attempted to recreate the speech as it may have been without that interpretive lens.

We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth by Nancy Koester Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition

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