Sojourner Truth

Rivers and Mountains

Written by Olivia Jobe

In response to Dr. Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Everybody wants to know your story. Where did you come from? How did someone like you get here? What rivers and mountains did you have to cross? Those who wait with bated breath to hear your tale share the same face as the ghost of your past. When they look at you, they see a miracle, an adventure, a story. They want to hear your story’s beginning (although you can never truly share those beginnings because you don’t know them.) You can’t ask your mother, just like she can’t ask hers. All you know is that life did not start here. There was a place where people the color of the deep earth spent their days under the sun. Instead of bent backs, heads were held high to keep gourds of water still. Instead of strange fruit swinging from the trees, songs of mothers and fathers were sung under the Baobab tree. They tell you that kings and ghosts traded the lives of those from the earth. Miles and miles they marched until they were greeted by the sea. One by one they walked through the door of no return into a darkness that swayed with no rhythm. Children wailed, women cursed the men above, and the men looked on at chained limbs. When they could, mothers gave their children to the sea. The next light they would see was the harsh blazes of a southern sun from bent backs. 

It is your beginning and the happy ending they seek. You share partial truths but not the unfiltered horror. You save that for the night when you see and smell the old plantation. You give stories of days under the hot sun that end with prickly fingers, painted red. You tell them that ghosts used to wander through the quarters at night looking for women to haunt. They left them with blond-haired and blue-eyed reminders of their witching hour. Maybe you give them a memory of when you saw another’s back turn from midnight to streaks of lightning that glared red. You have enough stories to fill the rivers and mountains you crossed to get here. Yet your only hope is maybe these stories stuffed into books, leaflets, and proclaimed on podiums will make it so you are the last to ever have to cross those rivers and mountains. 

Olivia Aminatta Jobe is a writer, TEDx speaker, and master’s candidate in Sociology at the University of Oxford. She has published work with FreshU, Radical In Progress, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her writing and research focus on the lived experiences of Black people across the diaspora through the intersections of race, gender, religion, and fashion.

Sojourner Truth

“I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.”

– Sojourner Truth, quoted in Fitch and Mandziuk, Sojourner Truth as Orator (1997), page 107.

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Sojourner Truth was born into enslavement in New York State. Her exact birth date is unknown, but it is believed she was born around the year 1797. Her birth name was Isabella Van Wagenen. Early one morning in 1826, after her enslaver reneged on a promise to free her, Isabella walked out of enslavement carrying her baby daughter, Sophia. After becoming involved with the infamous Cult of Matthias in New York City in the 1830s, Isabella gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843. Truth’s reasons for renaming herself were complex and no doubt included personal motivations that we can only speculate upon. However, two motivations behind the renaming that we can be certain of were to free herself from the name that she had carried in enslavement and to create a strong public identity; to give herself, as she put it, “a name with a handle” (Narrative [1884], “Memorial Chapter,” 25-26). That name would go on to be very well known during her life, and up to the present day, after Truth rose to become a prominent public figure for her work as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. When she spoke at conventions, Truth would use her fame to raise money by selling copies of her autobiography and carte de visite portraits. Carte de visites were an early form of photographic portraiture that created small, portable portraits of their subjects that could easily be sold or traded (see Fig. 1). There are three versions of Truth’s autobiography, which were published in 1850, 1875, and 1884. Those autobiographies were ghost-written by two white women – Olive Gilbert in 1850 and Frances Titus in 1875 and 1884 – because Truth chose to remain illiterate throughout her life, proudly declaring that “I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations” (qtd. in Anthony 926). Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1883.

I have already written an article for Project Myopia about Truth’s choice to remain illiterate and how that decision makes it difficult to determine the reliability of words that are attributed to her. In this article I would like to discuss eight words that we can attribute to Truth without doubt: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” In 1864, when Truth began copyrighting the portraits that she sold at conventions, she added those eight words just below her picture (see Fig. 1 and Grigsby 63). Even if the use of those words on her portraits did not make them so reliably traceable to Truth herself, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” could easily be believed to be an accurate rendering of Truth’s own words, because they carry one of the signature patterns that appear across the canon of her literary record: straightforward declarations and rhetorical questions that have various and complex implications. Other examples of that pattern include “I am a woman’s rights,” from her 1851 Akron speech, and her interruption of Frederick Douglass mid-speech in 1852 with the succinct question “Is God gone?” (Fitch 107; Mabee 88).

Of the many possible interpretations of “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance”, one possibility is that the words indicated Truth was selling pictures (shadows) to raise funds to support her life (substance). After all, Truth used the words as a tagline beneath the pictures that she sold to support herself financially. Another interpretation of the phrase requires us to account for the relationship between Truth the public figure and the private life of Truth the formerly enslaved woman. From the moment that she renamed herself in 1843, Truth carefully curated a public persona that had an uncertain relationship with her former life as an enslaved woman, which included some differences between her private life and the biography she retold on stage as Sojourner Truth. For example, she deliberately helped foster the inaccurate belief that she was over one hundred years of age (Fitch 93). Those public autobiographical retellings were given on stages where abolitionists would routinely demand that formerly enslaved people retell traumatic stories of suffering and display their scarred bodies in order to support and inspire the abolitionist cause (Douglass 361-362). As a formerly enslaved woman who stood upon those stages recalling, and denouncing, the horrors of slavery, it seems likely that Truth established a separation between her true biography and her public persona to protect herself from having to relive the traumas that she had endured as an enslaved woman. To put that interpretation in the terms of “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance”, the public figure of Sojourner Truth was a shadow (a performance) that served to provide protective distance between that public performance and the substance of her private, individual life. Within the context of the lives of nineteenth-century African American women, that second interpretation of Truth’s “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” reads it as a defiant assertion of her right to control the public representation of her life.

The complexity of Truth’s declaration that “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” means that those eight words alone would provide an excellent route through which to introduce undergraduates to the study of Sojourner Truth and the lives and literatures of African American women in the nineteenth century more broadly. Much of the study of that literature and history comes down to what we know, what we cannot know, and what we have no right to know. What we do know often comes from what African American women said about themselves, which corrects the scant historical records kept about Black women in the nineteenth century. Still, much is left that we cannot know, and the gaps in the available history speak volumes about how racist and sexist dismissals of the importance of Black women’s lives and art have shaped the creation and maintenance of historical records. What we have no right to know is the details of personal traumas that formerly enslaved women and men did not want to expose to the public. 

Figure 1: Sojourner Truth Carte de Visite, Front and Back. Source: Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/lprbscsm.scsm0880/?sp=1)

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Selected Bibliography

Anthony, Susan B., Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, editors. History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. 2, Susan B. Anthony, Rochester, 1881. Project Gutenberg, url: https://gutenberg.org/files/28039/28039-h/28039-h.htm. Accessed 23 February 2022.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Miller, Orton & Mulligan, New York and Auburn, 1855. Documenting the American South. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass55/douglass55.html. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Fitch, Suzanne Pullon, and Roseann M. Mandziuk, editors. Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song. Greenwood Press, 1997.

Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo. Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance. University of Chicago Press, 2015. ProQuest, url: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=4437704. Accessed 02 March 2022.

Mabee, Carleton and Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1995.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Truth, Sojourner with Olive Gilbert and Frances W. Titus. Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a Bondswoman of Olden Time. Review and Herald Office, Battle Creek, Michigan, 1884. Documenting the American South, url: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/truth84/truth84.html. Accessed 21 February 2022.

—. with Olive Gilbert. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. J. B. Yerrinton & Son, Boston, 1850. Documenting the American South, url: docsouth.unc.edu/neh/truth50/truth50.html. Accessed 10 April 2019.Washington, Margaret. Sojourner Truth’s America. University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Kiefer Lambert (né Holland) completed his PhD and a short postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh between September 2018 and October 2023. He now works in professional services at the University of Manchester, where he supports academic staff with their funding applications.

Maïa Walcott is a multidisciplinary artist working across mediums and specialising in illustration, painting and sculpture. Her focus is on British Caribbean home-making traditions and how Caribbeans used art and culture to make a new ‘home place’ in Britain. She has illustrated for major organisations like the Wellcome Collection and has contributed her art to publications such as The Colour of Madness and The Bad Mind Zine.

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