How Sojourner Truth Snatched White America's Wigs With Her 'Ain't I A Woman?' Speech 168 Years Ago
Truth provided the blueprint for a good "read."
June 05, 2019 at 9:14 pm
Sojourner Truth's historic “Ain't I a Woman?” speech recently came into its 168th year, and today her words still ring true. Delivered on May 29, 1851, at an Ohio’s convention for women’s rights, the speech was one of the abolitionist’s most powerful calls to action. Now, this speech is considered a cornerstone of anti-slavery and civil rights advocacy.
More specifically, Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" called out the white, Christian, male lawmakers of those days on their hypocrisy when it came to the equal rights of all women and equal dignity for Black women. In a growing climate where some lawmakers work to oppress women’s reproductive rights, white feminism still struggles with intersectionality and Black women continue to die in childbirth at alarming rates, Truth’s message to questionable conservative lawmakers and white America proves to be a timeless one.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Similar to the outrage from the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, conservative Christian male lawmakers have once again begun the dog whistle cries of denouncing abortion. Meanwhile, reenactments of Truth's speech, like the performance from actress, singer-songwriter, philanthropist and painter Nkechi at a 2013 TEDx event, maintain relevance.YouTube | TEDx Talks
In May alone, an onslaught of bills aiming to restrict abortions and outlaw termination after six weeks swept the nation. Aside from many women not knowing they're pregnant until around six weeks after conception, the more insane bills make no exceptions for incest or rape (looking at you Alabama.) In Alabama — a state that recently passed new abortion legislation that would ban the procedure under most circumstances, nearly 90% of its state Senate are male and about 80% are white men. Furthermore, any doctor who performs the procedure could be thrown in jail for up to 99 years. Though none of these men actually have the ability to give birth, attempting to limit women's reproductive rights seems to be a fave pastime of theirs.
Despite the separation of church and state, current anti-abortion bills essentially throw us back into the Stone Age. These abortion law enthusiasts hailing from the Bible Belt find no irony in the fact that their states are ones that also continue to practice prison industrial complex executions. (Again, there's that minor detail of separation of church and state.)
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?”
In what could be considered the first significant popular observation on the lack of intersectionality in white feminism, Truth doesn’t mince words during her speech. She boldly acknowledges the vast differences in how society withholds the common social graces afforded white women from their Black counterparts as she reiterates “ain’t I a woman?”
Adding on to Truth’s past acknowledgment of social inequality experienced between Black and white women, modern-day writers on race and gender haven’t shied away from the topic either. Instead, today’s writers continue to address the ever-present theme of white feminism’s attempt to partner with Black struggle only when convenient.
In the 1981 book Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, author bell hooks speaks about the “white, female, voting activists” during Sojourner Truth’s day.
“Prior to white male support of suffrage for black men, white women activists had believed it would further their cause to ally themselves with black political activists [...] As the racism of white women’s rights advocates surfaced, the fragile bond between themselves and black activist was broken,” Hooks wrote.
Considering the fact that 53% of white women voters reportedly chose Donald Trump for president in 2016, we don’t have to look too much further in the past to see how the tactic of white feminism appealing to white patriarchy while forgetting black women is still in effect.
“Whenever I’m involved in conversations around feminism I notice this tactic of joining the historical issues of not being white in America with the struggles of white womanhood, as if…they are similar,” a writer who identifies as Seanna W.N. said via Medium, after she peeped the Netflix documentary Feminists: What Were They Thinking?
For certain, Black women are not holding their breath to be "lifted over ditches” anytime soon.
“I have borne thirteen children, and seen most 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?”
Black women are dying while giving birth, and it's not because of some heredity gene or a new virus only affecting highly melanated mothers-to-be as they lay in the maternity ward. Instead, it's because hospitals and corporate medicine seemingly do not value our lives — and this fact is not a secret. The CDC has reported that Black women die during childbirth at three times the rate of white women. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Blacks are systematically undertreated for pain by doctors and thought to have a higher pain tolerance than whites.
Even the world-class athlete and overall goddess Serena Williams couldn't escape racial bias against soon-to-be Black moms. Detailing her experience to Vogue, Serena recounted her pregnancy scare in which she "walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused." In the end, Serena’s CT scan revealed several blood clots settled in her lungs.
Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. The lack of disdain and trust from doctors factors into that, even when the Black woman is as powerful, famous, and wealthy as Serena Williams. https://t.co/XqUOW6MQIZ pic.twitter.com/Z9QgRKxKcm— Evette Dionne 🏁 (@freeblackgirl) January 10, 2018
Though it's been called a "public health and human rights emergency," tangible laws and solutions aimed to protect Black women have yet to be enacted. Often leaving black families and grandmothers with nothing but "a mother's grief," similar to what Sojourner describes.
While most Black women aren’t awaiting the day for Truth's "Aint I a Woman?" to cease being apt, we would surely find it refreshing should it ever come. Until then, we must thank her for setting the blueprint for righteous indignation and the historic snatching of white America’s wig, which is still necessary today.
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