Friday, July 22, 2011

Required Activists: Sojourner Truth and Francis E.W. Harper

Okay, for the past few weeks I have been trying to keep it short and failing miserably. But there is seriously no reason for me to go long here. Today we will be reviewing a legendary speech by Sojourner Truth as well as a speech and the poetry of Francis E.W. Harper. Let’s do this.


With Sojourner Truth this is really a no brainer. “Ain’t I A Woman?” is a speech, but of course we could drill it down even more by linking it with feminist literature. I am always tempted to also put the speech with many other speeches made by abolitionist, but it really does focus much more on the rights of women than it does the rights of slaves or black people. The speech was made at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron Ohio, it is titled “Ain’t I A Woman?” and while she does mention the “negroes of the South” who were also fighting for rights, she decides to spend the rest of the speech focused on the power of women and why they deserve their rights like anyone else.

And much the same argument can be made about the speech by Francis E.W. Harper, “Women’s Political Future.” Harper makes an argument for women’s suffrage, and even makes a call to other women to use their power, influence, and intellect to fight for justice and do what is right.

Two of Harper’s poems also made the list: “Ethiopia” and “An Appeal to My Country Women.” To me, both have a sense of a country or a people stripped of what they hold dear and their desire and need to get it back. I would still put her with feminist, but the poems deal a lot more with slavery than the speech does, although she still calls for the reader of “An Appeal to My Country Women” to “Weep not for the Negro alone.”


Truth likes to employ effective repetition in “Ain’t I A Woman?” The title question itself gets asked four times in the short speech. It is also not the only question Truth asks the audience. Apparently at one point she asks a question and someone from the audience answers, making for some very effective call and response action, which is always fun. Truth also calls out nameless men as if they are right there at the convention, and the proceeds to refute points they made using her sharp tongue and brutal wit. My personal favorite: “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Zing!

In both “Ethiopia” and “An Appeal To My Countrywomen,” Harper uses a fair amount of nature imagery, and as I mentioned before, there is a general theme of a nation and/or people attempting to “lift their eyes,” and find some redemption. There is much use of words such as “outcast,” “fallen,” and “tortured” in “Appeal,” while in “Ethiopia,” the title country is a woman seeking to (or maybe she already has, I’m really not sure) take the “tyrant’s yoke from off her neck” and have her “cry of agony…reach and find the throne of God.”

Both “Appeal” and “Women’s Political Future” are calls to action, mostly directed at women. While Truth just makes the argument for women to have the same rights as men, Harper seems to go one step further and asks for someone to do something about it, while using a gentler approach than Truth’s biting rhetoric.


As I mentioned when I reviewed the Narrative of Frederick Douglas, there was a race between black men and women suffragists to earn the right to vote. This caused a predicament for black women as in order for them to be able to vote, both groups would have to be successful. So it is interesting that both Truth and Harper chose to align themselves with the women, and not the black men. As a black woman myself, I honestly cannot say which I would be moved to align myself with if I was in the same position.

Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree. In 1826 she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, and would later go to court to recover her son. Miraculously, she won the case and was the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. She said of her escape “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right” (love it!). Interestingly enough, different witnesses tell different accounts of what truth said, how she said it, and what type of reaction she got. Some say she was warmly welcomed and applauded, others say she was met with hisses and taunted. Some even say she spoke calmly, which I can’t seem to imagine as I always think of her being very lively as she is saying some of those less than gentle words. But that just might be me though…

Unlike Truth, Harper was born to free parents, but she would still grow up to become involved with abolitionism and women’s suffrage. And while Truth spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, Harper made her speech at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women. In 1892, she publishes lola Leroy, which is one of the first novels by an African-American woman and also sells well and is reviewed widely.

Okay, much better length-wise, but only because I cut down on my intro. Not sure how I am going to manage to say everything I need to within the four-hour time limit of the written portion of the exam. Yeah, you read right…FOUR hours. And from what I have heard, you need every minute of it.

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