Sojourner Truth
    (c. 1797-1883)

    Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    One reason why Sojourner Truth has not appeared in conventional American literature anthologies until now is that the texts are stenographic transcriptions of spontaneous speeches. Thus, even the orthography is "made-up." Students may tend to dismiss this as nonliterature. Also, the interior structure of the speeches does not follow expected expository modes (i.e., there's no "beginning," "middle," and "end"), so they are vulnerable to rigidly "logical" analysis.

    Sojourner Truth offers a wonderful opportunity to raise large questions: What is literature? And what is American literature? Are speeches literature? Is it literature if you don't write it down yourself? What is the purpose of literature? It is useful to set these speeches for the students in the context of anti-slavery meetings, to describe where and how they were held, and also who participated. Students may have difficulty with these texts; old-fashioned close reading in class will help.

    I like to talk about "unpopular ideas": Sojourner Truth has several of these! It is also useful to place her in the tradition of oral literature.

    Responses to Truth vary widely, depending on the class. Some students may make the argument that she is hostile to men. Generally discussion goes in the direction of contemporary issues involving women.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Why did racial equality take precedence over equality of the sexes? How can we explain the conflict between racial and gender equality? What is the difference between Sojourner Truth's argument and the contemporary argument for "comparable worth"?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Ordinarily, we are able to separate a writer from her work. In this case, we have not only oral presentation, but also a style of presentation in which the speaker presents herself as the major character in the work. In some sense, therefore, she is the subject of her work. To what literary and quasi-literary categories could you assign these speeches (fiction, autobiography, prophecy)? How do they "violate" traditional genre boundaries? Where does oratory end and drama begin? These speeches provide a splendid opportunity to demonstrate to what extent our literary categories are a construct, one that not only defines and makes rules, but one that also excludes.

    Original Audience

    Because Sojourner Truth's speeches were transcribed and preserved by her admirers, it is by no means clear how her original audiences really responded. We have the laudatory side only. Just the same, it is apparent that to many of her contemporary listeners, she was a figure of mythic proportion. To get at the issue of audience, it's useful, first, to have the students identify the issues of continuing importance that she raises. Second, it is helpful to show them a contemporary parallel (such as Barbara Jordan's "We the People" speech) as a means of generating discussion.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Frederick Douglass ("What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?") and Henry Highland Garnet ("An Address to the Slaves of the United States") show the tendency of abolitionist literature to regard slavery as a phenomenon affecting black men and, coincidentally, to consider the abuse of black women largely as an affront to their husbands and fathers. Truth's views can usefully be contrasted with those of some writers, black and white, who believed that women could best exercise power by influencing their husbands.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. What issues does Sojourner Truth raise that you consider to be of contemporary importance?

    2. Compare the positions on civil rights taken by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.


    Lerner, Gerda. "While the water is stirring I will step into the pool." Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: 1973.

    Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, et. al. "Sojourner Truth." History of Woman's Suffrage, 3 vols., 1881-1886. New York: 1970.