Ain't I A Woman?

26 April 2017

Part of our current exhibition by artist Keith Piper features the piece The Little Robots Diary – a looping video of the NASA Mars rover, Sojourner, named after an important figure in nineteenth century abolition and activist for women's rights, Sojourner Truth.

Born Isabella Baumfree in Rifton, New York, Truth changed her name after her calling from God. Speaking to Harriet Beecher Stowe in Atlantic Monthly, April 1863, Truth explained:

"My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa'n't goin' to keep nothin' of Egypt on me, an' so I went to the Lord an' asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an' down the land, showing the people their sins, an' bein' a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, 'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people."

Speaking at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered one of the most well-known speeches in American history, the pioneering Ain't I A Woman? The only speaker at the convention to have been held in slavery, Truth grew up with Dutch as a first language, never learning to read or write, making her ground-breaking speech that much more emotive.

Amid protests from the convention's attendees that she would talk about abolition, Truth made her short but influential speech, a rebuke from the mainly anti-feminist male speeches made that day.

Ain't I A Woman? was recorded by several different people, the most famous, and historically accepted, by Frances Gage, the president of the convention who was there, but did not transcribe the speech until twelve years after. Gage also recorded the speech in a Southern accent, and as Sojourner was born in New York and spoke with a Dutch accent, it's likely these nuances were not verbatim.

"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?"

Other transcripts of the speech were written by journalists and reporters live from the convention, but these versions also differ greatly, meaning we may never know exactly what Truth said, though the meaning and power in her words remains strong and echoes loudly even today.

Sojourner Truth's legacy remains a proud one in the US and across the universe. In 1997, the NASA Mars Pathfinder rover was named Sojourner in her honour, and Frances Gage's version of her Ain't I A Woman? speech has been read by important figures in modern US history, including poet and author Maya Angelou, poet Alice Walker, and trans activist and actress Laverne Cox.

Our current exhibiting artist, Keith Piper uses the NASA Mars Pathfinder Sojourner in his work, The Little Robot's Diary, which is on display in our Mezzanine Gallery. Sojourner Truth is also referenced in the show's centrepiece, the three screen Unearthing the Banker's Bones.

To learn more about this important and empowering historical figure, award winning writer, poet and educator Panya Banjoko will be hosting an exploration into Truth's life in Discovering Sojourner Truth, at New Art Exchange on Thursday 4 May, 6:30pm.

Written by Hope Cassie-Sheward

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Logos for; Arts Council England, Nottingham City Council

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Logos for; Nottingham City Council, East Midlands Development Agency, Neighbourhood Development Company, European Regional Development Fund, Greater Nottingham Partnership, Arts Council England