Friday, May 23, 2008

The real (Sojourner) Truth by Suzie

          I keep seeing Internet posts that misconstrue Sojourner Truth’s positions.  Some praise Truth for confronting racist white suffragists in her famous 1851 speech, usually titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” The latest example is by the Rev. Valda Jean Combs.
          Frances Gage published the best-known version of Truth's speech. (You also can read her speeches at the Sojourner Truth Institute.) Truth concluded:
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.
          Truth addressed her remarks to a white man who didn’t want to give women equal rights. If her speech was meant as a rebuke to white suffragists, no one seemed to notice at the time. They counted her as an ally and reproduced the speech.
          Combs makes another statement that has currency on the Web:
Sister Sojourner spoke out despite the pleas of white female suffragists who thought that demanding the vote for former slaves would doom their cause to failure.
          This is the opposite of what happened. Some people who wanted to guarantee rights for black men were afraid that extending rights to women would be too controversial. In an 1867 speech, Truth said:
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.
          That proved prescient, as it took until 1920 for the United States to give women the vote. By then, the KKK was reaching the height of its power, and many black men had been kept from voting. Black men and women would continue to face intimidation until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 
          Combs speaks of white women as if none worked for abolition and civil rights. In her book “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol,” Nell Irvin Painter describes how Truth, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many others worked against slavery and for the rights of women and blacks before the Civil War. During the war, they focused on enslaved blacks.
In 1863, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Women’s Loyal League, the first organization to petition Congress to make emancipation permanent and universal in the 13th Amendment.
          After the war, some people, such as Douglass, considered this the “Negro’s hour,” by which they meant “black men.” They thought women’s rights were too controversial to include in the 14th and 15th Amendments. They said black men were in greater need of rights because they were more oppressed. Some black women agreed with them, as did many white men and women.
        Anthony, Stanton and other women were outraged. They had worked all their adult lives for rights for women and blacks. They refused to support the amendments unless women were included.
       (It's not an exact match, but a modern-day equivalent might be the controversy over whether to support a bill ending employment discrimination based on sexuality if it didn't also include gender identity.)
        Stanton was furious that uneducated men, both black and white, were getting to vote before an educated woman like herself. She ripped into them, with every nasty description she could use. These days, a lot of people point to her statements as proof she was racist. But Douglass still considered her free of racial prejudice, as Painter points out. After all, Stanton wasn’t talking about an educated and eloquent man like Douglass. This was mostly a class issue.
        (The bias against ignorant people voting remains today. Many progressives say nasty things about people they consider ignorant, such as “white trash.” Look at what people have said about the West Virginia and Kentucky primaries.)
           The fight over the 14th and 15th Amendments led to a split in the suffrage movement. Although she eventually sided against Anthony and Stanton, “Truth sought to heal divisions in her community,” Painter says. In 1872 in Rochester, she, Anthony and others tried to vote in the presidential election, even though they knew it was illegal. (Anthony was arrested for voting.)
           Read Stephanie Coontz for more about the fight over the 14th and 15th Amendments.
         Combs says: “Sojourner's place was to speak when she was asked, and to sit down and shut up when her agenda diverged from that of her suffragist sisters.” I disagree, I think she contributed to the debate. Perhaps she can set an example to Democrats as they try to come together in the general election.
     ETA: I didn't mean to imply that the Voting Rights Act stopped all intimidation, only that that was its intent. Clearly, problems continue to the current day.