"Ain't I a Woman" and Historical Revision
By the time Frances Dana Gage created “Ain’t I a Woman?” she was years removed from the original incident. Her writing competitor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had already capitalized on Sojourner Truth’s image in her April 1863 Atlantic Monthly article, “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl” (151). Stowe wrote her own narrative for her own purposes, “writing quickly about marketable subjects” and not for “political conviction” (153). Gage similarly uses Sojourner Truth for her own gain, namely to make herself appear the benevolent and competent president of the Women’s Rights Convention of which her nemesis Jane Swisshelm said Gage was incompetent as (170). Both Stowe and Gage inaccurately represent Truth as an African Amazon whose illiterate speech mannerisms support white Americans’ image of blacks as Southern illiterates. But both either attribute Truth with intelligent reasoning that silences crowds (Gage) (166) or with intelligent reasoning as exotic art (Stowe) (154).
But these depictions of Sojourner Truth are inaccurate. They are depictions that white Americans could accept, written by white women for commercial gain. Ironically, it was other women, and not men, who shaped Truth into a symbol for America. Marius Robinson’s report of the Akron Women’s Rights Convention of 1851 depicts Sojourner Truth in standard dialect and without commentary (125). As secretary of the convention, Robinson’s report would have no monetary inducement to narrate a Sojourner Truth the American public could accept and who could be mythologized.
So why do we ignore Robinson’s report, and why are we drawn to Stowe’s and Gage’s narratives? People want stories. As a veteran composition instructor, I have learned that tough issues written as narratives are much easier to understand than strict reporting. Personally, my own love affair with The Atlantic happened when I realized that I was reading long political articles and enjoying them. The reason was that they were written as narratives, with characters, conflict, and attempts at resolution. Gage and Stowe did what we all try to do as writers: make ourselves behave better than we do, create excitement in the activities we report, and generate talk of our marvelous writing. Sojourner Truth’s persona by the time of the Convention was the result of Truth’s own recreation of her narrative. It attracted Stowe and Gage (178), but they changed the historical record. They were not historians, so keeping an accurate record was not part of their thinking; earning an income and fame by capitalizing on the older Sojourner “Truth’s refashioning herself over long years of adult life and through access to uncommon sources of power” provided the impetus to write (178). Here was a new a fascinating object, for neither woman appears to see Truth as a subject. They make her a symbol in their own narratives.
Nell Painter is a historian. Her task is to uncover the real Sojourner Truth, no matter how difficult it is to sift through layers of history not written by Truth herself. Her job is to show us how to discover the most accurate version of Truth, and that would be Marius Robinson’s notes written close to the time of the actual speech (174). When the national memory is wrong, someone must work hard to find the person behind the symbol, even if (white) Americans need a symbol to identify with and to take action to right injustices done to other humans. Through Painter’s work we see a more complete picture of Sojourner Truth, a woman attracted to religious extremities, who bore the marks of abuse and co-dependence, a woman who is not like the exaggerated Southern nursemaids (white) Americans think of when thinking of black women. In this case, Nell Painter works to create a full human subject, not just an object.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.