On May 29, 1851, Sojourner Truth, “one of the most powerful advocates for human rights of the nineteenth century,” gave a historic speech now known as “Ain’t I a Woman” (NPS). Her remarks likely did not include the most famous words attributed to her at all. Together with the recent revelation that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s harshest critiques of Malcolm X were also fabricated, the anniversary of Truth’s speech reminds us that Black history must not only be preserved, it must be corrected.
Born enslaved in New York State, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth to speak the truth about God and slavery. In 1851, she gave a powerful speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, remembered as “Ain’t I a Woman” (History).
• Compare the versions of Sojourner Truth’s speech and share the true story of “Ain’t I a Woman” and Martin Luther King’s thoughts about Malcolm X.
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The convention’s president, a white woman named Frances Gage, would publish a transcription of Truth’s speech 12 years later (Britannica). According to Gage’s commonly circulated depiction, Truth began:
“Well, chillen, whar dar’s so much racket dar must be som’ting out o’kilter…”
Though Gage gave her a “southern slave dialect,” Sojourner Truth only lived in New York and New England, with Dutch being her first language (Sojourner Truth Memorial, History). According to Gage, Sojourner mentioned 13 children, though, in reality, she had five.
Truth approved a very different transcript, published three weeks after the convention by its secretary, Marius Robinson. According to Robinson, Truth said:
“May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter. 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?
[T]he women are coming up blessed by God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard” (NPS).
Cited as the first intersectional analysis that recognized “multiple identities and institutional structures that disempower people” (Springer), Truth’s address was so impactful that Robinson said it was “impossible to… convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience” (NPS). His approved transcript does not include the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman.”
“The slogan is the invention of a white woman journalist writing 12 years after the fact,” says Princeton University’s Nell Irvin Painter. “It was a fight between two white women writers. And the woman who invented the slogan, [Gage], was trying to prove that she had a better Sojourner Truth story than Harriet Beecher Stowe,” who had published her own profile of Truth (5 ABC, The Atlantic). Gage’s account, published during the Civil War, coded Truth’s enslavement as Southern, not a product of New York.
Though herself a feminist and abolitionist who criticized anti-Black racism (National Museum of Civil War Medicine), it was Gage and not Truth—who was illiterate—who was able to influence Truth’s portrayal.
The stories of disenfranchised people are not only less likely to be publicized but are also erased. Almost 41 years to the day after the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, a white mob “demolished” the office of The Memphis Free Speech, the newspaper where pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells documented the lies used to justify lynchings. No copies of The Memphis Free Speech or any of the 25 Black newspapers from that period exist today (Tennessee Encyclopedia, NYTimes).
And erasure and distortion of Black activists’ work and words aren’t just a nineteenth-century problem. For decades, we’ve “known” that Martin Luther King thought Malcolm X was doing “himself and our people a great disservice” through his “fiery, demagogic oratory,” based on a 1965 Playboy interview. This May, biographer Jonathan Eig found that the transcript reveals that this wording was misquoted or invented by interviewer Alex Haley, co-writer of Malcolm X’s autobiography and author of Roots (The Guardian). Haley’s interviews catapulted his career by playing into a narrative emphasizing the rift between King and Malcolm X. Neither would have time to set the record straight. Three years after the Playboy interview, both would be dead.
The activism and oratory of King, Malcolm X, and Sojourner Truth transformed the United States, as did Ida B. Wells’s investigatory journalism. If their words can be distorted and erased, what about those without a national platform? We need to uncover misinformation that influences our understanding of the past. Supporting community-based and activist journalism is crucial to prevent misrepresentations from spreading and being passed down in the future, especially with peoples’ histories under attack through book bans and censorship. As Ida B. Wells wrote, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them” (Biography).
• Sojourner Truth likely did not say “Ain’t I a Woman” in her speech remembered under that name.
• Activists and journalists from marginalized communities often have smaller platforms. Their words are more likely to be distorted, ignored, or erased.
• We need to support efforts to investigate and preserve accurate history as well as promote community journalism today.