The Prophetess Sojourner Truth Discusses the Two Different Versions of Her Most Well-Known Speech, One Nearly Unknown and One Very Beloved Yet Mostly Untrue

I believe that white lady
meant well, but she took liberties
with my story.
There was a pint,
and I am a woman,
but I never did bear
thirteen young.
There was an audience,
and I did stand.
At first, hesitant, but then,
speaking God’s clear
consonants in a voice
that all might hear, not
with apostrophes feeding
on the ends of my words.
And I am six feet tall,
and some might say, broader
than any man.
And I was a slave.
And my child was taken
from me, though I fought
to get him back.
And I did work hard.
And I did suffer long.
And I did find the Lord
and He did keep
me in His bony-chested embrace.
And if I showed you my hands,
instead of hiding them in my sleeves
or in a ball of yarn,
you could see my scars,
the surgery of bondage.
And I have traveled to and fro
to speak my Gospel-talk—
surely, I’ve got the ear of Jesus.
But I forgive that lying woman,
because craving is a natural sin.
She needed somebody
like me to speak for her,
and behave the way
she imagined I did,
so she could imagine
herself as a northern mistress.
And there I was,  
dark and old,
soon to fold my life
into Death’s greedy hand.
And in this land,
and in this time,
somebody who could never
shout her down.

More by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Muse, a Lady Cautioning

for Billie Holiday

There's fairness in changing blood for septet's
guardian rhythm, the horn blossoming
into cadenza. No good pimp's scowl, his
baby's voice ruined sweet for the duration.

Yes, these predictable fifths. O, the blues
is all about slinging those low tales out
the back door (sing: child pried open on that
stained floor). O, Billie hollers way down dirt

roads (sing: woman on the verge of needled
logic). She's aware--yeah, I'm going to
kiss some man's sugared fist tonight. O, this
tableau's muse, a Lady cautioning me: 

Just tough this thing out, girl. Sweat through the jones.
Don't ask for nothing.  Spit your last damned note.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, Great-Niece of Lord Mansfield, and Her Cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1779 (by unknown artist)

A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies...Lord M...calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her...

        From The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,
        August 1779

Dido moves quickly—
as from the Latin anime.

Breath or soul.
Beside her, the generations-free kin,

a biscuit figurine in pink.
Dido standing in irony—

the lowest are taller here—
Elizabeth should provide

an unkind contrast: pretty, blond,
pale in uncovered places—

but no.
The painter worships the quickened other.

Dido, his coquette of deep-dish
dimples, his careless, bright love.

Forget history.
She's a teenager.

We know what that means.
Cocky, stupid about reality.

No thought of babies—
feathers in her arms.

She might wave them, clearing
dead mothers from the air—

and surely, she's special—
her uncle dressed her with care,

hid her from triangles and seas
outside this walled garden.

Let her be.
Please.

No Dying Mythical Queen
weaving a vivid, troubled skin—

but Dido, full of girlhood,
and Elizabeth reaching

a hand. Behave, cousin,
she begs.

Don't run away from me.

Dido was the great-niece of William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield; as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, he is responsible for the Somersett ruling (1772), which essentially outlawed slavery in England, though not in the colonies.

Chorus of the Mothers-Griot

for Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784)




                                [amnesiac wood]

[nostrils of girls]	        [who was bought]	        [uncle’s hand]
[guts on the air]	        [who was sold]		[defeated man]
[history’s charnel]	        [i say] 	                [trader’s silver]

                                [sailing knot to knot]

[naked in the corner]	[door of no return]	[sing the mutiny]
[in the slave house]	[sniff bougainvillea]	[who stands ashamed]
[i say]		 	[ready dawn’s kill]	        [naked in the corner]

                                [jealous sharks]

[i shall]			[who did]		        [i say]
[they did]		        [i’m here]		        [my name]
[who shall]		        [i say]		        [yes here]

                                [on the battlefield] 

[call woman]		[call america]		[call revolution]
[call the brother]	        [call myth]                  [i say] 
[call the auction]	        [call africa]		        [call revolution]

                                [in God’s name]

[is this called]		[is my mother]		[is my kin]
[i say]			[is this called]		[is some land]
[is my mother]		[and what] 		        [is this called]





	after Lucille Clifton

Related Poems

The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay


A white man wouldn't less

He stripped me naked was

Whipping me know

I was a woman     got

A name just turn

It inside out

And I'm a man

How else I'm gonna know myself

When I am called




A white man wouldn't twice I had

Smallpox twice after     I enlisted

twice and had / To be

hospitalized both times

Ain't never once

no doctor nor no nurse

Discovered me

No for no white woman

I wouldn't have

nothing for her to see

She would want me to know she seen

And I was watching close

How else I'm gone to know myself

When I am called




And what she see is anyway

how is she gonna know for sure

Black man ain't got

a hole down there

How is she know he ain't

A white man born wrong inside out

and twice as big and mean

And got a hole go twice as deep to hell

How is that woman sure

of anything at all

How else I'm etc