The Brief History of Sojourner Truth


Obstacle 12

Ambiguity—Confront Uncomfortable Truths

If you can’t be direct, why be? — Lily Tomlin


Born in 1797, Isabella received several last names from her various masters, and by the time she had shed the chains of slavery, her commanding presence electrified people when she spoke to abolitionist audiences. Sojourner Truth gave the eloquent speech that made her famous “And, Ain’t I A Woman? Look at Me!” at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. As an itinerant preacher, her voice rose in celebration through her songs to reveal a strong sense of spirit. God was her only master as she stepped up to spread her message of humanity. Hiding the permanent scars left on her back by slave owners, she worked tirelessly for her belief in the power of women until finally; in 1864, Abraham Lincoln openly welcomed Sojourner as she pleaded for the full emancipation of slaves and the plight of women.

Sojourner Truth exemplifies the unambiguous voice above the crowd, the “courageous voice.” The vibrancy of her voice undeniably announced her heart and spirit, and she continued to take uncomfortable steps in spite of an inability to read or write. She applied her excellent memory to quote the Bible at length and used clear language to put complex footings into focus. “Her motto was ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance.’”[1] By the time she died in 1883, she had lived eighty-six years and achieved legendary status. Thousands of people at her funeral honored her voice, her invincible spirit and her public achievements, but she did not pass from this life unscathed, having faced obstacles that few of us can imagine.

When Sojourner’s reputation as an outspoken opponent of slavery and gender discrimination began to grow, rumors circulated that the six-foot-tall preacher was not really a woman. Denying the existence of the children she birthed into slavery, these rumors peaked at an Indiana women’s rights convention where a voice in the crowd accused her of being a man. Her unambiguous reply left no room for interpretation. She simply bared her breasts to a shocked crowd, quickly quieting the accusations. Few women in history can match Sojourner’s courage when it comes to facing the last of the twelve obstacles: ambiguity.

People at work witness what we stand for, and straight (unambiguous) talk gets attention because it is uncomfortable for most people. “Many women seek to move out of silence and into an expression of themselves. Yet they are taught to attend to the voices of others and rarely their own.”[2] Speaking with courage means learning to speak with your own voice, to express the truth that flows from your own “heart and spirit”—the opposite of fear of ridicule and being ostracized. (Candor is a cousin to courage.*) Only by learning to express ourselves from our own courageous identities can we begin to employ the courage action that moves us beyond ambiguity:

Confront uncomfortable truths.


[1] Ashby Ruth and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Editors, Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (New York: Viking, 1995) 86.

[2] Rios, Reverend Elizabeth D., “Do You Hear What I Hear? Woman, let’s hear your voice,” Antonio, Texas, USA (first printed in PRISM Magazine), July 20, 2005.

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