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.

Copyright © 2018 by Honorée Fannone Jeffers. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 25, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“After reading Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, I learned that there are two different versions of Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech given at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1851. The speech was transcribed by journalist Marius Robinson and printed in the The Anti-Slavery Bugle on June 21, 1851. However, the most famous version of these remarks (known to us as the ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech) was actually written twelve years later by a white woman, Francis Gage, and published on April 23, 1863, in the New York Independent. In addition to arbitrarily using a (supposed) southern black vernacular accent and spelling—Truth was born and reared in New York—Gage drastically altered the content of Truth’s 1851 remarks and included several biographical falsehoods about the activist.”
—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers