(This article was written by Sara Ransom in 2002)
For nearly twenty years, I’ve been presenting dramatic performances of Sojourner Truth’s life, garnering a Solo Performance Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Storytelling World Honor Award in the process. But I am not black. I am a middle class white, neither Catholic nor Jewish. I have not known prejudice simply for walking down a street. However, I am a woman, and it is as a woman that I have come to understand the power of this remarkable person.
But I have been challenged, as to my right to tell her story. At a Westaf Booking Conference, a highly talented young black woman heard I told “Sojourner Truth” and came storming over to my display table to demand why I thought I had the right! I merely turned on the video clip of one of my performances and let her see for herself. She watched in silence, growing quieter as she did so. At the end, she looked at me as woman to woman, nodded slowly and walked quietly away. It is Sojourner’s actions that shine through.
As a woman, I share a depth of understanding with other women that I’ve found to be world-wide. It is a joining of the heart, a recognition of a common bond. I have felt it in a crowd of worshippers at a Krishna temple in India, and I have felt it with a fisherman’s wife on an isolated beach in Mexico. I have shared sentiments only through our eyes with a woman who ran a “restaurant” on the sidewalk of a small town in Vietnam.
And so it is as a woman that I was drawn to tell the life of Sojourner Truth.
Originally, I told only snippets of her life as part of a longer program entitled “The Wild Woman.” I had included Sojourner because she represented to me a living embodiment of the Wild Woman--a human example of what the myths in the program were pointing towards. The Sojourner “snippets” were so popular that I kept expanding her part in the program until finally I began presenting her story on its own.
It is a privilege to tell her story, for I use her own words (written down by reporters and friends of hers in her own time) as often as possible. And to speak her words, to enact the passions she felt, fills my own being with her power. It seems almost to overtake me. Not quite, of course. I am a performer, and I must keep a part of my consciousness open to where my story is going, to the reactions of the audience, even to any problems that might be developing in the performance hall.
After the triumphant finale of the program, when all the audience has been singing with me, “in four-part harmony,” I often come down to talk with the members of the audience. I find I sometimes need to dispel the illusion that I actually AM Sojourner Truth.... People have come up to me with tears in their eyes and hold my hand as they simply gaze long and deep into my eyes--looking there for a glimpse of Sojourner, wanting to touch her. But I am not her, and always direct their awe back to the woman in the performance.
And I understand, because I too feel deeply about her. But although I can embody the power and the depth and strength of her character onstage, I am hardly that strong and clearsighted offstage. I tell her story as much to inspire myself as to inspire others...
Which reminds me of something Sojourner once said. Because she always spoke completely spontaneously, letting the words flow unplanned from her mouth, she once commented, “Why, I come to hear myself as much as anyone else comes to hear me.” That’s why I keep telling her story.
A WORD ON HER FAMOUS SPEECH, “Ain’t I a Woman.” Once I discovered the seminal book “SOJOURNER TRUTH, Slave, Prophet, Legend” by Carleton Mabee, I made some revisions in my presentation. Most pointedly, I no longer use the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech which has been attributed to her for lo, these many years. According to Dr. Mabee, that famous version was actually a “faint sketch” recreated by a poet some 12 years later. It was the poet who added the rhythmic repetition, “Ain’t I a woman?” In actuality, as published by reporters the day after the speech, Sojourner spoke much more colloquially--powerfully, yes--but never once did she utter that famous phrase, “Aint’ I a woman!”