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Truth Telling: A reflection on Sojourner Truth


Photo Credit: Robert Cooper


Today, I'm thinking about Sojourner Truth. I have often shared during my reenactments of her, the story of how Sojourner successfully took a white man to court to get her son back from being sold down south. At that time, the New York state law had made it illegal to so. She was the first Black woman to take a white person to court and win. On the front page of today's Times Union newspaper is an article that discusses finding the documents of that case.


What I can say about my time studying Sojourner Truth's story as part of my creative process to bring her to life on stage, is that not only was she the first but this wasn't the only time she won in court. On another occasion, Sojourner had been accused of attempting to poison a white couple, the Folgers, while also fighting another accusation by Matthias, a radical religious leader, of being an accomplice to a murder he was on trial for. Truth was found innocent and then took the couple to court, suing them for slander and won.

And if you think that's it, there's more. While in Washington DC after the Civil War, Sojourner Truth fought against segregation among other work she was doing to help the newly freed. She tried to board a 'whites only' street car and was attacked by the conductor who she then had arrested, taken to court and won her case against him. It goes without saying that Sojourner Truth has quite the courageous history, much of which I learned as an adult. Every time I have performed as her in front of an audience, there's at least one person who approaches me later and says how much of her story they didn't know.

I haven't done a reenactment of Sojourner Truth since before the pandemic but her story still gives me courage. I can't talk about voting rights without thinking about her. Even now, I am reminded by her fight to keep fighting for justice. Still, I can only imagine the parts of her story we will never know. Because she was never taught to read and write, her own narrative was penned by another set of hands. Even her famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech was revised by a white woman named Frances Gage to reflect a southern dialect that Sojourner Truth never had. For that reason, I have spent so much time searching for her voice, her Dutch accent, her New York state tongue. And it's that part that sticks to my gums today. How many other truths are buried somewhere in someone's records?

 

Today, simultaneously, Cheslie Kryst occupies my thoughts. Last night, I read the article she wrote in Allure, "A Pageant Queen Reflects on Turning 30". In it she says, "My challenge of the status quo certainly caught the attention of the trolls, and I can’t tell you how many times I have deleted comments on my social media pages that had vomit emojis and insults telling me I wasn’t pretty enough to be Miss USA or that my muscular build was actually a “man body.” And that was just my looks. My opinions, on the other hand, were enough to make a traditional pageant fan clutch their pearls." Throughout history, Black women have had to deal with perceived masculinity on their bodies. In recent times, I can reference how people have projected these racist tropes on Michelle Obama, Venus and Serena Williams as examples. I thought about Sojourner Truth reading the article. Sojourner standing over six-foot tall in front of a crowd that accused her of being a man. I see Sojourner Truth open up her bodice to bear her breasts and tell the crowd she had "suckled many a white babe to the exclusion of my own offspring." And here we are in 2022. May Cheslie Kryst rest in peace. May Sojourner Truth's legacy live on. May our stories, especially at the intersections of identity, especially the stories that are buried away, especially those revised without consent, especially at the margins of our society be told. And when they are told, may it be truth and nothing but.

 

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