Sojourner Truth was a multi-talented & multi-lingual women’s rights activist, abolitionist, and preacher who escaped slavery with an infant daughter. But, the side of Sojourner Truth rarely mentioned in popularized narratives about black history is her love life and how the lack of bodily autonomy she was subject to affected her ability to experience intimacy.
According to the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, while in bondage under John Dumont—a wicked and sadistic white New Yorker and the last person who would ever hold her in bondage—Truth sometimes worked in his home much to the displeasure of Dumont’s wife and white employees. As she spent more time on the Dumont’s property, she became acquainted with an enslaved man from a neighboring property named Robert, and also called Bob.
That wench, [Dumont once said pointing to [Sojourner] is better to me than a man–for she will do a good family’s washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go into the field, where she will do as much raking and binding as my best hands.
Once their relationship became more committed, Robert was forbidden from visiting Sojourner by Caitlin (the man who held him in bondage) because if the couple were to procreate, their child would be legally considered Dumont’s property instead of his. Caitlin wanted more slave hands and thus encouraged Robert only to procreate and relate with the bondswomen working on his property. Robert rebelled and continued stealthily visiting Sojourner (then called Isabella). On one Saturday, Robert visited her to tend to her while she was ill, and that was the last time she ever saw him.
“[Caitlin asked her] if she had seen Bob. On her answering in the negative, he said to her ‘If you see him, tell him to take care of himself, for the Caitlins are after him’. Almost at that instant, Bob made his appearance . . . They were terribly enraged at finding him there . . . [The eldest yelled] ‘Knock down the damned black rascal . . .’ They both fell upon him like tigers . . . bruising and mangling his head and face . . . causing the blood which streamed from his wounds to cover him like a slaughtered beast . . . Isabella had witnessed this scene from her window, and was greatly shocked at the murderous treatment of of poor Robert, whom she truly loved, and whose only crime, in the eyes of his persecutor, was his affection for her . . . This beating . . . subdued the spirit of its victim, for Robert ventured no more to visit Isabella, but like an obedient and faithful chattel, took himself a wife from the house of his master.” (excerpt from Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 35-36)
In the years soon following, Robert died and Sojourner married to a fellow enslaved man called Thomas in a ceremony which she officiated herself. Truth’s narrative exemplifies what happened when enslaved people desired intimate bonds but were not willing to accept total subservience, which slave-owners considered a prerequisite to accessing sexual/intimate “privileges”. The enslaved person’s sexuality and kinship was very closely monitored and regulated with the ever-present threat of brutal violence because it was the means through which white slave-owning families were sustaining their wealth.
Sojourner & Bob’s case was one of the many in which people in bondage had no choice regarding those with whom they procreated. When Sista Sojourner’s lover Bob attempted to sustain a consensual intimate relationship that disregarded the power dynamic the person holding him in bondage had established, he was inflicted with both physical and psychological trauma. Truth mentions that his only crime was “his affection for her”, highlighting how dangerous pursuing love and kinship was for people in bondage.
Black people in bondage often couldn’t form traditional kinship ties because the white land-owning class had limited their physical and emotional autonomy in violent ways. Kinship ties between enslaved people especially after the United States’ partial withdrawal from the trans-Atlantic slave trade after 1807 were usually formed through fear and subservience with an emphasis on their sexual productivity as opposed to traditional familial concepts such as love and intimacy—not to mention the incessant threat of murder and separation if they were at any time not willing to comply with their owners.
This particular story’s re-telling is important because it humanizes a historical figure known extensively for her bravery and courage. Everybody has heard of “Ar’n’t I a Woman” (which Sojourner Truth never even said) but very few have been taught about her relationship to romance and how she was subject to witness a man she loved experience brutality for simply caring about her.
Examining black women’s history only in relation to their bravery, courage, and capacity to tolerate pain and strife (and celebrating this) is part of the reason that so many black women either have a superhero complex or have people who project that complex onto them. We need to share historical accounts that underline black women’s vulnerability, tenderness, and accounts of romantic love just as much as we celebrate black women’s labor and hard work. Historical inquiry that focuses on black women’s state of being in addition to to their state of doing is important because it communicates the multi-dimensionality of black women in history as opposed to reducing them to brave heroes and implicitly communicating to the contemporary black woman that she must strive to be that fictional, one-dimensional hero as well.
All quotations used in this post are excerpts from the Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a bondswoman of olden time, emancipated by the New York Legislature in the early part of the present century; with a history of her labors and correspondence, drawn from her “Book of life.”
Photo courtesy of Malik Whitaker (the artist)
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