Sojourner Truth Day Speech

Sojourner Truth: Living the Legacy

Sunday, May 27, 2007
Heather J. Johnson, Chair
Northampton Human Rights Commission

It is an honor to be asked to remember Sojourner Truth, a passionate advocate for human rights.

The first time I became aware of Sojourner Truth, I was in college. I looked up at a poster my roommate had taped to the wall of my dorm room. The poster showed a beautiful black woman in a field with a scythe in her hand. And there was a quotation beneath her that said:

“And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?” And there were many more words with the ‘And ain’t I a woman’ refrain.

I’ve since learned that the woman in the poster didn’t look at all like Sojourner Truth and that Sojourner Truth herself may not have even said those words. Or at least not all of them, in a Southern dialect, as they are sometimes reported. Yet I never forgot them, or the spirit behind them. Little did I know then that I would eventually settle in a town where she once lived, and learn much more about her, thanks to the Sojourner Truth Committee and local historians like Steve Strimer.

Little did I know that I would often drive by a statue of her---a statue made possible by ten years of grassroots work by community members who believed in the power of a memorial to Sojourner Truth. Sometimes when I drive by I’ll see a car parked along the side street, and a person bending down to read the plaques. Sometimes there are children climbing and hugging the statue, or groups of people taking pictures of each other, posing with Sojourner Truth. And then there are times when there is no one except Sojourner Truth, with her commanding presence, holding her cane and gesturing to me with her outstretched arm.

This is our community’s statue, a public commemoration of an African-American woman who lived and worked here, a former slave---a slave from the North, from New York---a feminist and abolitionist, a revolutionary thinker, an inspiring preacher and storyteller, in spite of being unable to read or write. She was a woman whose words and song and wit and spirit were strong; who was a survivor of slavery, abuse, poverty, lack of education, and pain from the loss of her children sold away into slavery. We don’t see too many statues of women, much less African-American women, anywhere. We don’t see too many statues that bring to mind this kind of personal story of struggle and survival and strength and vision.

It is important that we are commemorating Sojourner Truth on Memorial Day weekend because she is part of the story of our community and our nation, a story that is often obscured and rarely commemorated with public statues, or with Memorial Day weekend community events like this.

We are a country with a very short memory. The now, the latest, the most recent advance is of utmost importance. Yet if we don’t remember our past, we won’t be asking the right questions. I hear the news today, and even though I didn’t learn about Sojourner Truth in my history class, I think about what I did learn: I wonder, What’s happened to habeas corpus? How can the world sit by and let genocide happen again---this time in Darfur? Is this a new Gilded Age, with a widening gap between rich and poor? Are our schools again separate and not equal?

When we examine the past, we can see more clearly the present. And we can see the path we need to take for the future. By commemorating Sojourner Truth, we remember the brutality of slavery as well as the efforts of the abolitionists and the first American feminists. We remember that Sojourner Truth was a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, the revolutionary utopian community right here in Florence dedicated to human rights and equality. We remember the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the actions of the conductors of the underground railroad, an example of civil disobedience by grassroots abolitionists.

Abolition isn’t front-page news today; it’s immigration policy and legislation. We hear about raids and deportations taking place across the nation, here in Massachusetts, and in Western Massachusetts. The slaves we read about in the United States are exploited immigrant workers, or sexual slaves. A number of communities around the country have declared themselves Safe Haven Communities for all immigrants. Churches across the nation are setting up safe houses for immigrants again, reminiscent of the Underground Railroad and the Sanctuary Movement for Central American refugees in the 1980’s. These are acts of community civil disobedience.

We learn from history that the targets of hate, discrimination and oppression may change, but it can be you or me, gay or straight, Black, White, Asian, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Native American, Mexican, Middle Eastern, any new immigrant, a person who is old or poor, someone who has a disability, a mental illness, a different religion or gender orientation. We learn from history that individuals like Sojourner Truth spoke out boldly for racial justice and women’s equality, and joined with others to create a more equitable society.

Today, I invite you to join with us on the Human Rights Commission, or the Sojourner Truth Committee, or with any of our local community groups working for social justice. I invite you to recommit yourself to creating and sustaining a community that is safe, welcoming, inclusive and equitable for all. Our work together will be a living legacy to the memory of Sojourner Truth.