At a Glance
Abolitionists used different styles and arguments to speak out against slavery. How do the styles of two African American abolitionist speakers, Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, differ? What do we know about these women? Who recorded their words? Historian Carla Peterson examines primary sources for answer.
Abolitionist Speeches by African American Women
- Harper's Language
- Truth's Language
- Addressing an Audience
- Comparing Versions
- Harper's Language
- Truth's Language
- Addressing an Audience
- Comparing Versions
Going back to the beginning of when I first read Watkins, I guess I should call her since it's 1857, was actually finding the language somewhat difficult and feeling that this was a lot to slug through and that the Sojourner Truth are these kind of short sentences and to the point and really kind of skimming over this document initially and saying, my God, this is just a lot of words and, you know, how am I going to make sense of it. Couldn’t she have spoken more simply and just kind of given us the bottom line? So the need to kind of sit down and say, okay, be patient, take an hour out and just look at this speech and try and figure out what’s going on.
And so the first thing reading through and I guess the first thing I noted was all of the different geographies that came into play. And so then saying, okay, well, you know what can I do with this? And realizing that she’s then trying to put together an international context in which then to examine U.S. slavery. And then the other thing is to say, well, why all of this heavy-duty language? These sentences, some of them go on for five, six lines and you get short of breath and so I think it takes real practice at least for somebody today to be able to really speak these sentences aloud. So another thing was, like, why does she have such long sentences? I mean why not break it down and be more like Sojourner Truth?
And in fact when you read about rhetoric of the period there was a movement apparently in the 1850s and '60s towards a more colloquial style so towards the style more of what Sojourner Truth was using but maybe not so folksy. And so Abraham Lincoln is pointed out as one of the key turning points, one of the pivotal figures in moving American rhetoric to what scholars have called the more democratic style.
So one of the things when you get over being annoyed with Harper for using these really, really long sentences, is to say okay, so what was she doing? And I remember kind of going through that process and what she’s doing is really reclaiming classical rhetoric. So I think what I did was go to my books on classical rhetoric and say, boy, she really studied with Cicero. And what she did here was to figure out the way Cicero and other Latin rhetoricians spoke and to incorporate that in her speaking style which is one of the reasons why these sentences are so long.
And then the question is why? And I think that one of the things that she was doing is much more educated, was to claim the ability for blacks at this time to use classical rhetoric and this was then the whole idea that blacks in fact have a soul and they also have a mind and they’re capable of inserting themselves into western traditions. The western tradition here is that of classical rhetoric. So that her claim to authority I guess I would say is doubled. It’s her knowledge of history and her being able to say, I can make these statements because I know history. I know world history and I can compare what’s going on in the United States to what’s going on in the rest of the world. And her other basis of authority is, my language is that of the classical tradition and I am part of this time-hallowed tradition of classical rhetoric which goes back to the Latins since the Roman period.
One of the things that’s so compelling is kind of the intimacy of the tone and here she is feeling that she can speak directly to God and God isn’t a big abstract entity out there that you have to look at with any kind of reverence, but he’s there with her and they’re having a conversation, so I think that that’s something that’s really powerful.
So when I was talking before about the issue of authority, the authority that she has that she asserts here is the authority of personal experience. My personal experience is that I can go out in the field and I can talk to God. God listens to me and God answers me. And I think that that’s what the basis of her authority is here, this kind of personal relationship that she can have with God and converse with him.
We don’t have very much in terms of the way in which Sojourner Truth’s audience reacted to her. It’s hard to tell. I think that audience reaction here might have been somewhat mixed. Because Sojourner Truth couldn’t read or write, we never know exactly what she said and what she intended. So everything about her is constructed and reconstructed. So did she actually give the speech like this or not? We don’t know. And we have to rely on the authority of Olive Gilbert in order to say, well, you know, look, this is what she said or maybe it's approximation or maybe she really didn’t.
Almost all of the accounts of the time say that basically she didn't speak standard English and that she spoke in the language very much like what’s here and all of the speeches of hers that get reconstructed by her white women friends have this kind of language. And so people refer to her language as peculiar, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and quaint. But the image that you're supposed to take of Sojourner Truth is that of an illiterate person who couldn’t speak standard English. I’ve come up across a couple accounts which say that in fact she did and that she was quite capable of speaking in standard English. So one of the issues one could talk about is did her white women friends, or whites in general, want Sojourner Truth to have this kind of folksy image? And what purpose would that serve?
Some of the things that I think that we can consider when we look at these speeches is first of all the question of audience. Who were they speaking to? And in the case of Sojourner Truth and Frances Harper the audiences are quite similar. They’re white and black women or white and blacks, not just women, but a mixed white and black audience. The black people obviously would be antislavery abolitionist people. We can imagine that the white audience might be composed of both abolitionists and people who are on the fence, and so one of the ideas is to convince them of the evils of slavery. So one of the things to consider always when dealing with speeches is who is the person talking to? This is really essential.
Another thing that I think is really interesting and here we can only kind of imagine, is here are these women braving these conventions, speaking out in public to a mixed audience, what was called a promiscuous assembly, of male and female members of the audience and that was what was really considered to be taboo, was speaking to this promiscuous assembly. And so one of the questions which I think is really interesting is what did they do with their bodies? Did these women try and speak in a way that my body isn’t here, just listen to my words and don’t pay attention to my body? So the whole idea is that engaging in this kind of public speaking a women would de-sex herself. Either take away her sexuality or actually masculinize herself. So many times these women got shouted at from the audience and they’re saying, “You’re a man!” And so one of the proofs became having to prove your femininity. So another, I think, interesting question is what do you do with the body?
And in contrast to Truth, and this is what I think is so interesting and where I think these issues of the body and self-presentation are so important, is that in all of these accounts it’s very clear that Harper tried to disembody herself. So the accounts, and they’re many and they’re quite lengthy, Frances Harper got up to speak on the occasion of etc., etc. She stood there, one of the comments is quiet, very few gestures, that she keeps her body very still. There’s a lot of attention to the quality of her voice. And so her voice is rendered as melodious and musical. And her language is pure and chaste. So very different from Truth, who as I said before spoke with her body and was very happy to thrust her body and make that part of her speech. And what we have with Harper, I think, is a kind of disembodiment, almost don’t see me. I am here speaking in front of you, but don’t see me. Don’t look at my body and simply pay attention to my voice. So I think it’s fascinating to contrast the two kind of different speaking methods of the two women.
Another question is the authority to speak. Where do you get your authority to speak? If you’re a women and you’re supposed to be domestic and in the household and you're out there speaking about a very public issue, antislavery, where do you get that authority? And then in what you say, what is the basis for the authority of what you actually say? And the last thing is more kind of close attention to the language and the style of the speech itself. What are the rhetorical techniques that you are going to use in order to persuade your audience? So I think these are some of the really important questions that one can ask when looking at these documents.
The first thing that I would do is talk to students about the 19th-century voice and that the 19th-century voice is really quite different from the 20th-century voice and that it takes a while to get used to it. And then to move on from there and to say, okay, well what can I do with this unfamiliarity? And just to, you know, read the passages over to maybe look for the personal voice. You know, we all want to know "I the speaker," what makes this Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's speech as opposed to anybody else’s.
But then to realize that part of the 19th-century voice is the omission of the eye, of the personal, and that Truth is in fact much more exceptional in that way than Harper. That it is very, very hard to find any kind of personal voice or the reliance on personal experience in these 19th-century women. And that they were very determined to keep themselves, their private self in the background. That’s not what we’re about or there's this kind of reticence and this sense of privacy, which we’ve totally lost in the 20th century. But really kind of my private business is my private business. And that I am here doing the public work of racial uplift or of abolition, of anti-slavery.
One thing that you can do, and this involves more primary research, you can go and look for other versions of the speech. So for example, Sojourner Truth's very famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is not the only version we have, there are at least three or four others. So if you go and look at that you find that was the—“Ain’t I a Woman” speech first came out, I think, in 1863 and the version was by Frances Gage, so a white woman abolitionist. And of course Sojourner Truth gave the speech at a women’s rights convention, sometime in the early '50s. So one of the things to think about is that Frances Gage was there but didn’t write up the account until 10 to 12 years later.
If you go to the newspapers of the time, the anti-slavery newspapers, there is in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, which comes out of Ohio and it’s a white abolitionist paper, about two weeks after Sojourner Truth gives that speech there is a rendition, a version, which would then be our first version of the speech. So one of the things one can do is compare those two versions and there are in fact interesting discrepancies between the two. If I remember correctly, Sojourner Truth says all of these things and then she says, “Ain’t I a woman.” That “Ain’t I a woman” phrase never appears in the 1851 Anti-Slavery Bugle version. Instead she says all these things and ends up by saying, “and I can do as much as any man.” So that’s not the same. “Ain’t I a woman” and “I can do as much as any man” is not exactly the same.
So one can go and do kind of this kind of mined archives, find other speeches and do this kind of comparative work. And then I guess what you can do is speculate on why the person writing up the particular version did it in that way. Well, first of all you have to say that we don’t know whether Sojourner Truth ever said “Ain’t I a woman” or not. We just don’t know. Assuming that she didn’t, why then would Frances Gage want to say that?