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Sixth grader delivers Sojourner Truth’s ‘Am I A Woman?’ speech

South Boston News
Bluestone Middle School sixth grader Destiny Pettus presents Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech for the Mecklenburg County School Board. / July 02, 2014
In 1851, a former slave named Sojourner Truth delivered what is today considered one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I A Woman?” A hundred and sixty-three years later, Destiny Pettus, a sixth-grader at Bluestone Middle School, re-enacted the speech for members of the Mecklenburg County School Board at the trustees’ June meeting.

Like Truth, Pettus delivered the speech without notes. According to BMS history teacher Stephen Whitten, Pettus decided she wanted to perform the “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the sixth grade Celebration of Learning program after listening to actress Cicely Tyson perform the same speech for Congress.

Pettus delivered “Ain’t I A Woman,” in full costume, using the dialect that was recorded by Frances Dana Baker Gage, who presided over the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. While historians question the accuracy of Gage’s version — it was written as if the speaker was from the south, while Sojourner Truth was from New York and spoke only Dutch for the first nine years of her life — it is the one of the most recorded speeches in history, and Pettus delivered it with great style.

Pettus recited the speech for trustees:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

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? Look at me! Look at my arm! 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 the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? 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?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

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.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was born into slavery in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. She escaped to freedom in 1826, along with an infant daughter.

She later became the first black woman to win a legal challenge against a white man. Truth successfully sued her former owner for the return of her son after learning that he illegally sold the boy into slavery in Alabama.

In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became a Methodist itinerant preacher. Although she never learned to read or write, it was during this time she developed her powerful and charismatic speaking style, and she became acquainted with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, and women’s rights activists like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

When Truth delivered her “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the woman’s rights conference in Akron, she was the only female speaker. Her speech attacked the idea of women being the “weaker sex” and urged man to put aside their fear of women having equal rights to them.

Today still, it is considered a classic women’s rights speech.

In her later years, Truth was active in the Underground Railroad, helping blacks escape to freedom. During the Civil War, she recruited young black men to the Union Army. After the war, she lobbied against segregation laws, played an instrumental role in desegregating streetcars in Washington, D.C., and helped recently freed slaves find jobs.

Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1883 at the age of 86.

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