On The Misuses of Truth

I recently saw a Tweet that read:

Those commenting on Great Thunberg would do well to remember that Joan of Arc led an army, Jane Austen wrote her 1st work, Sojourner Truth escaped slavery, Anne Frank kept her journal & Malala won the Nobel Prize at the same age.

Young women are fierce when changing the world.

Fair enough. But as a scholar of African American studies, I did a double-take. This claim made me check my math to confirm what I knew. Greta Thunberg is 16 years old. Sojourner Truth, born in 1797, freed herself and her infant daughter in 1826 – when she was almost 30 years old. What an odd mistake, I thought, meanwhile unsurprised that even such an iconic Black woman could be so misused.

I teach accounts of Sojourner Truth’s speeches almost every semester. When I do, my students recognize Sojourner Truth’s name. They often also recognize her carte de visite photographs. And yet, even while Truth’s name and image are familiar, the vast majority of my students (and of U.S Americans more generally, I assume) have been taught almost nothing about her other than the fact that she was enslaved and somehow got free.

This represents a structural failure of the U.S. education system to even include —let alone value — Black women. When they do appear, Black women like Truth typically stand as emblems of a vague national movement towards emancipation, rather than as individuals who made decisions about their lives. My students, I believe, know enough to check facts before making claims about someone like Sojourner Truth. I hope my courses will prevent them from writing tweets like this one. This individual tweet is a small thing, but it stings. It astounds (though it does not surprise) me that, in the absence of real education about Black women, that some white women will – quite literally – just make things up.

The tweet raises several questions: Why include a Black women in this list at all if you don’t have accurate information about them? Why did this person not perform a simple Google search to fact-check her biography – information which is readily available? Was this the only Black woman this person could name? Did she learn this misinformation somewhere? Is she confusing Truth with someone else? (Might this someone else be Phillis Wheatley, who was born about 50 years before Truth and was emancipated soon after the publication of her first volume of poetry around age 20, but is known best as a child poet?) If Sojourner Truth, in all her iconic Black History Month grandeur, can be mischaracterized or mistaken like this, how (in the hell) can we regular, everyday Black women expect white people to get us right? When Sojourner Truth can be so misrepresented, it makes perfect sense that we will always be mistaken for that other Black woman, obscured, misread, and reinvented to serve whatever white purposes for which someone else thinks we might be useful.

Of course, this tweet appears in a media landscape in which Black women’s names are often omitted entirely. This omission is, itself a form of violence that compounds the other violences committed against them. Black women have names and lives and communities and stories and truths and it is absolutely necessary to #SayHerName. But it is insufficient.

In this tweet, Sojourner Truth is arbitrary. She is mere window dressing, meant to add Black content to help legitimate this person’s message and affirm its “wokeness.” But it does not honor Black women and girls; it disrespects us. This is Classic White Feminism. Those of us Black women working and learning in predominantly white institutions have had constant reminders that Black women and girls do not matter more than as easily exchangeable tokens for many of our colleagues. Some, however, do invoke our names when they need to prove that something is “diverse” or “inclusive.” They invite us to participate for the sake of optics but ignore us when we offer criticism or advice for structural change.

When we do good, they might claim our work as theirs. When we succeed, they loudly voice retroactive support in order to obscure their past opposition. They fail, again and again, to lift us up in their feminist circles, all the while pretending that their feminism is not white, that it does not exclude us: See here, we’ve included Sojourner Truth!

But Sojourner Truth, who did not read and write herself, has a history of being misrepresented by white women. Many scholars (myself included) have written about this misrepresentation. But the specific mistake of relegating Sojourner Truth to youth hits me in a particular way.

Even if the mistake here (almost doubling Truth’s age at the time of her self-emancipation) seems small, this change reveals an expanse of what this tweet’s author is missing about her and other Black women. When she left her enslaver’s property, (and she notes in her narrative, “I did not run away, I walked away by day-light”) she was a grown woman, and a mother of five children, four of whom were still living. Truth did not leave her enslaver’s home alone. She brought her infant daughter, Sophia, with her. And when her enslavers illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, to the south, she sued – successfully – to get him returned to her.

Among the many indignities they face, Black women have often been designated “girls” in the racist pattern of infantilizing Black people. Even a woman who stood over six feet tall can be made small, her womanhood again denied, though differently than it had been in other contexts. In the irony of racist logic, Black girls are often prematurely-aged, denied childhood and its attending privileges as they are (as many enslaved girls were) made to bear women’s burdens too early. As Frederick Douglass’ 1845 autobiography recounted, enslaved people did not always know their exact ages, as such biographical details were often kept from them by enslavers who wanted to control their narratives. Yet even with existing documentation, Sojourner Truth’s age becomes malleable in the hands of writers who do not care about these details. Making her into a 16-year-old child, this writer puts a spin on Truth’s story that it did not need. It erases half of this woman’s life in slavery, a life that included her own actual children.

Because actual children are, of course, the point of this tweet, we might consider other Black girls, past and present, who this tweet might have legitimately mentioned. Harriet Jacobs, for example, was around sixteen years old when she began a sexual relationship with a man who was not her own enslaver, a plan she used to eventually secure her future children’s freedom. We might think also of Mari Copeny, an eleven-year old activist better known as “Little Miss Flint.”

But perhaps these Black girls’ names aren’t at the ready as Sojourner Truth’s name is. Perhaps this is an occasion to change that. If others could not only name but truly appreciate Black women, perhaps our lives, our stories, and our truths wouldn’t be regarded as so easily interchangeable and disposable.

 

Brigitte Fielder is Avidly’s Sojourner Truth Correspondent.

Images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery