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Bust of Sojourner Truth in the US Capitol
Bust of Sojourner Truth, in U.S. Capitol Emancipation Hall, by artist Artis Lane

Seeking Sojourner's Truth

Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver-Velez

Every time I walk onto the campus where I teach, at SUNY New Paltz, I pass the Sojourner Truth Library. The library was named for her in 1971, and houses a large collection of her papers and articles. I love to enter the library to view the mural, created by artist Rikki Asher, and 13 graduate students.

When I drive through Ulster County New York, where I live, I'm often reminded that Isabella Baumfree, born around 1787, who later took the name of "Sojourner Truth" in 1843, was enslaved here, along with many other black women and men. Slavery in New York began in 1626, when NY was still New Netherland.

In my mind I used to hear her saying "Ain't I A Woman", which is what I was taught about her when I was younger. It is highly likely that she never uttered those words, oft repeated during black and women's history month.

They were more than likely the creation of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a white female abolitionist and suffragist.

We know today that Isabella Baumfree grew up speaking Dutch, would not have had a southern accent, and was careful and meticulous about her speech. Yet Gage wound up publishing bizarre distortions of Truth's speech at the 1851 Women's Convention, in Akron, Ohio in increasingly stereotyped "southern negro dialect":

"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?"

"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. 'And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"  

Truth, always dressed neatly and conservatively, was not the kind of woman to have bared her arms, much less to have spoken thusly, yet this was the myth that was allowed to stand for years, until recent work by historians has come to paint a far more detailed and accurate portrait.

If you have an hour to spare I highly recommend you listen to/view this book discussion with historian Nell Irwin Painter, about Truth, and her book Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
Painter has written an absorbing and enlightening study of the well-known feminist and antislavery activist that proposes a few unsettling alterations to the record. One revision concerns that famous line "Ar'n't I a woman." Painter believes it was invented by Frances Dana Gage, a well-known feminist, in her 1863 portrait of Truth, based on her appearance at a women's rights convention that Gage chaired in 1851. Painter concludes that Gage was trying to outdo Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrait of Truth in the article "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl," which, Painter asserts, also played loosely with the facts, starting right off by claiming that Truth was African born. But Painter's purpose is not to debunk myths. She diligently covers all phases of Truth's life: the early years in her hometown, Hurley, New York, when she was Isabella Van Wagenen; the momentous change from Isabella to Sojourner Truth (when she was 46) and the development of her career as an itinerant preacher and later as a feminist and an antislavery activist; and Truth's life as a symbol, which began before she died, in the stories of Gage and Stowe, and continues to grow. Painter skillfully situates Truth in her times, with her contemporaries, in this masterful interpretation that leaves its subject tougher than ever
State University of New York at New Paltz history professor emeritus Carleton Mabee, has published the other text on Truth that is a must read.
Book Cover
Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend
Many Americans have long since forgotten that there ever was slavery along the Hudson River. Yet Sojourner Truth was born a slave near the Hudson River in Ulster County, New York, in the late 1700s. Called merely Isabella as a slave, once freed she adopted the name of Sojourner Truth and became a national figure in the struggle for the emancipation of both blacks and women in Civil War America.

Despite the discrimination she suffered as both a black and a woman, Truth significantly shaped both her own life and the struggle for human rights in America. Through her fierce intelligence, her resourcefulness, and her eloquence, she became widely acknowledged as a remarkable figure during her life, and she has become one of the most heavily mythologized figures in American history.

While some of the myths about Truth have served positive functions, they have also contributed to distortions about American history, specifically about the history of blacks and women. In this landmark work, the product of years of primary research, Pulizter-Prize winning biographer Carleton Mabee has unearthed the best available sources about this remarkable woman to reconstruct her life as directly as the most original and reliable available sources permit. Included here are new insights on why she never learned to read, on the authenticity of the famous quotations attributed to her (such as Ar'n't I a woman?), her relationship to President Lincoln, her role in the abolitionist movement, her crusade to move freed slaves from the South to the North, and her life as a singer, orator, feminist and woman of faith. This is an engaging, historically precise biography that reassesses the place of Sojourner Truth—slave, prophet, legend--in American history.

Kay Siebler also explores some of these issues in Far from the Truth: Teaching the Politics of Sojourner Truth’s“Ain’t I a Woman?”.

We do have Truth's own story available in full online, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated by Sojourner Truth; edited by Olive Gilbert; Appendix by Theodore D. Weld, first published in 1850.

Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6165 (3-11b)
"I sell the shadow to support the substance"
Sojourner Truth photograph card
I remember being struck, the first time I read it, by one story she relates about the cruelty of slavery and the complete lack of value of black life.
Many slaveholders boast of the love of their slaves. How would it freeze the blood of some of them to know what kind of love rankles in the bosoms of slaves for them! Witness the attempt to poison Mrs. Calhoun, and hundreds of similar cases. Most 'surprising' to every body, because committed by slaves supposed to be so grateful for their chains. These reflections bring to mind a discussion on this point, between the writer and a slaveholding friend in Kentucky, on Christmas morning, 1846. We had asserted, that until mankind were far in advance of what they are now, irresponsible power over our fellow-beings would be, as it is, abused. Our friend declared it was his conviction, that the cruelties of slavery existed chiefly in imagination, and that no person in D– County, where we then were, but would be above ill-treating a helpless slave. We answered, that if his belief was well-founded, the people in Kentucky were greatly in advance of the people of New England–for we would not dare say as much as that of any school-district there, letting alone counties. No, we would not answer for our own conduct even on so delicate a point.

The next evening, he very magnanimously overthrew his own position and established ours, by informing us that, on the morning previous, and as near as we could learn, at the very hour in which we were earnestly discussing the probabilities of the case, a young woman of fine appearance, and high standing in society, the pride of her husband, and the mother of an infant daughter, only a few miles from us, ay, in D– County, too, was actually beating in the skull of a slave-woman called Tabby; and not content with that, had her tied up and whipped, after her skull was broken, and she died hanging to the bedstead, to which she had been fastened. When informed that Tabby was dead, she answered, 'I am glad of it, for she has worried my life out of me.' But Tabby's highest good was probably not the end proposed by Mrs. M–, for no one supposed she meant to kill her. Tabby was considered quite lacking in good sense, and no doubt belonged to that class at the South, that are silly enough to 'die of moderate correction.'

You can follow Isabella Baumfree's path out of enslavement at "On the Trail of Sojourner Truth in Ulster County, New York"

Let's also revisit the unveiling of a bust of Sojourner Truth, sculpted by Artis Lane.


Today, Speaker Pelosi and Members of Congress were joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to unveil a bust by sculptor Artis Lane of Sojourner Truth. The bust is the first sculpture to honor an African American woman in the US Capitol and was donated by the National Congress of Black Women.
There was resounding applause for FLOTUS when she said
...and just as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott would be pleased to know that we have a woman serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the First Lady of the United States of America.  (Applause.)  So I am proud to be here.  I am proud to be able to stand here on this day with this dedication.

And just as many young boys and girls have walked through this Capitol -- I see them now, and they see the bust of suffragists and hear the stories of the struggles of women, what they had to endure to gain the right to vote -- now many young boys and girls, like my own daughters, will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.  (Applause.)

Full program here.

Last year, a park was dedicated to Isabella Baumfree/Sojourner Truth, in the town of Port Ewen, where a statue of her as a 12 year old, carrying jugs of water was unveiled.

In Battle Creek Michigan, where Sojourner settled as an adult, and lived in a commune, there is also a major monument to her at the Sojourner Truth Institute.

To truly understand our histories we have to keep searching for the truth.

Sojourner Truth, who could not read or write, is still able to speak to us today.

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                  News by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
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The best picture win for Steve McQueen and his “12 Years a Slave”. LA Times: Oscars 2014: For Steve McQueen, a fast rise and a strange journey.
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The best picture win for Steve McQueen and his “12 Years a Slave” on Sunday may not have been a surprise for the many who saw the movie on the fall-festival circuit and predicted big things for it even then.

But, in a larger sense, it was a highly unexpected turn for the producer-director, who just six years ago was an acclaimed provocateur artist in his native Britain who had never made a feature film. Even immensely talented directors can pay decades of dues before landing on the Oscar podium (see under: the Coen Bros), but McQueen has gotten there in what in movie terms is the bat of an eye.

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, McQueen, then not even 40, premiered his first movie, “Hunger,” to a somewhat unsuspecting audience. Though his art was known by some, even many of the plugged-in cineastes who attended the festival had little idea who he was. That famous name only added to the confusion.

                        Steve McQueen

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Lupita’s beautiful speech made us cry. But the conversation around her fame and beauty proves that finding a happy ending for all black women will be more complicated. The Root: Lupita Overcame Her Color Issues. But What About All the Other Lupitas?
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The tale of Nyong'o's journey from bargaining for lighter skin as a child to stepping into the spotlight of adoration has a fairytale, made-for-Hollywood quality. What can be glossed over in this celebration is that the story of colorism—the plot twist in her hero's journey that transformed her from an actress to an inspiration—was not.

To see how it's playing out you have to look just under the surface of the red-carpet commentary and just past the effusive social media praise, where the "Gorgeous!" "Flawless!" and "Perfect!" refrains could fool an observer into believing that we've all come out on the other side of dysfunctional "white is right" thinking.

Yaba Blay, author of One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, knows as well as anyone about how harmful that colorism-fueled attitude can be when it comes to black women's beauty. Her most recent project, Pretty.Period, is what she calls “a visual missive in reaction to the oh-so-popular, yet oh-so-offensive 'compliment,' 'You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.' " ("Our collective response is: 'No, we're pretty, PERIOD,' she says.")

                       Lupita Nyong'o

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The South Lawn, the excellent group blog about all things Southern and progressive, black labor organizer Doug Williams begins: “suffice it to say that when a city councilman named Chokwe Lumumba announced that he was running to be the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city, I was skeptical.” South Lawn: Rest In Power: A Remembrance of Chokwe Lumumba.
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Jackson was a majority-white city as late as the 1980s. But when the last vestiges of Mississippi’s particularly virulent strain of Jim Crow were dismantled in education, housing, and employment, white residents began fleeing to [the surrounding] suburbs. … As the city emptied out…the economic and political power shifted along with it [and the] new suburbanites managed to maintain a measure of control over their former neighbors through their ownership of local businesses. … But while Jackson had seen sixteen years of unbroken Black leadership, there was little to show for it in the way of concrete policy change for its Black citizens. Nearly 50 years after we first gained free access to the franchise, it is no longer enough that we simply seek descriptive representation; we must seek substantive representation of our interests and aspirations.
Enter Chokwe Lumumba. Williams drum rolls Lumumba’s early and game-changing policy initiatives, saying:
Seeing Chokwe’s initial successes in Jackson gave me hope that I would live to see a day that Southern progressives would not be faced with the same meaningless choices that we are constantly confronted with when we close that drape behind us and participate in our democracy. …

I will never understand why God chose to take Chokwe at a time when his voice is so crucial to everything that I hold dear as a Southerner, a leftist, and as a Black man; none of us will. But it is at times like this where my faith is a crucial component for my ability to move on. And not my faith in God; but rather my faith in movements and communities.


                  Photo: Chokwe Lumumba’s Facebook page

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Singer Akon has launched an ambitious endeavor that aims to improve the lives of over one million people in Africa. The Grio: ‘Akon Lighting Africa’: Singer aims to bring electricity to 1 million homes in Africa.
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His new initiative “Akon Lighting Africa” hopes to bring electricity to one million households by the end of 2014 to help promote energy sustainability and sufficiency throughout the continent.

“The lack of electricity is currently a major problem in Africa,” reads the website for the campaign. “A significant number of households in rural areas and even urban cities do not have access to electricity. This is a real obstacle to Africa’s Sustainable Development.”

Akon, who is Senegalese-American, has partnered with local charities and corporations to aid in the efforts of the campaign by addressing Africa’s energy issue and installing solar equipment in households.

The “Right Now” singer will travel and meet with leaders in nine countries in nine days to discuss the project including Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and the Ivory Coast.


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Angela Corey -- who has cemented her crown as the Country's Most Tone Deaf State Attorney -- will attempt to send Alexander back in prison for triple the amount of her original sentence. Jezebel: ​Marissa Alexander Faces 60 Years For Firing Warning Shots.
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Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison, is set for a retrial in July. Even though her conviction was thrown out, State Attorney Angela Corey will try to send her back to jail for triple the sentence—twenty years per count. Really, there is someone in Florida who actually thinks that sentencing a woman to 60 years in prison, basically doling out a life sentence, for not killing anyone while she was being attacked is a sound, reasonable decision. And she's the State Attorney.

As a reminder, Alexander was convicted and sentenced for firing warning shots—just warning shots—at her husband who, during an argument, attacked her. She is currently at home waiting for her retrial. As the Florida Times Union reports:

She has said the incident, which happened days after she'd given birth, began when Gray accused her of infidelity and questioned whether the newborn child was his.

Alexander told him to leave and locked herself in the bathroom until he broke through the door, grabbed her by the neck and shoved her to the floor.

She ran into the garage but found she couldn't leave because the garage door wouldn't open, according to the report.

She got a gun from the glove compartment of a car in the garage, went back into the house and when Gray saw her, she said he charged, saying he was going to kill her. Alexander fired the gun.

Alexander said it was a warning shot. Prosecutors dispute that and say the bullet hit the wall, not the ceiling, and it could have killed Gray or his children.

And despite invoking the Stand Your Ground law, you know, the law that is supposed allow the use of deadly force out of defense, the Circuit Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt ruled that Alexander probably wasn't in "genuine fear" of her life.

                           Marissa Alexander

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Voices and Soul

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by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Poetry Editor

It seems everywhere we look, another devastation has dropped it's heavy hand on the Earth; wars and rumors of wars, global warming typhoons, polar vortex sub zero freezing, earthquakes, volcanic pyroclastic flows, pandemics, the greed that would level mountaintops, that would pollute air and water and the very blood that courses through our very veins.

Jayne Cortez has determined that we shouldn't just take it, we shouldn't just cower at these devastations. Instead, we should...

Push Back The Catastrophes

I don't want a drought to feed on itself
through the tattooed holes in my belly
I don't want a spectacular desert of
charred stems & rabbit hairs
in my throat of accumulated matter
I don t want to burn and cut through the forest
like a greedy mercenary drilling into
sugar cane of the bones

Push back the advancing sands
the polluted sewage
the dust demons the dying timber
the upper atmosphere of nitrogen
push back the catastrophes

Enough of the missiles
the submarines
the aircraft carriers
the biological weapons
No more sickness sadness poverty
exploitation destabilization
illiteracy and bombing
Let's move toward peace
toward equality and justice
that's what I want

To breathe clean air
to drink pure water to plant new crops
to soak up the rain to wash off the stink
to hold this body and soul together in peace
that's it
Push back the catastrophes

-- Jayne Cortez

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Welcome to the Black Kos Community Front Porch

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Originally posted to Black Kos community on Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 01:00 PM PST.

Also republished by White Privilege Working Group and Barriers and Bridges.

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