I knew what most of us know—that Sojourner Truth was a slave who broke free and become a fiery abolitionist preacher. And I’d heard of the galvanizing speech she gave 162 years ago—that famous stemwinder, “And Ain’t I a Woman?”
But until I spoke with Linda McInerney, who has dreamed up—literally—a new opera about Sojourner Truth, I was clueless about this woman’s admirable courage, grit, and decades-long fight to free the slaves and for women’s rights.
What a speaker! Sojourner Truth could neither read nor write, but ah, what an orator!! Fall under the spell of her speech—the one she delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. The rhythm! The plainspoken passion! The sly humor! (“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.”)
And, of course, attention must be paid to the proud refrain, which evokes the hardships she had endured: “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? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children [that’s the number of her siblings; she bore 5 children] and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
These words are, of course at the heart of the opera Truth. But librettist Talaya Delaney has added a controversial change. Her Sojourner sings her speech without the “ain’t,” because some scholars contend that this woman would not have used it. She was a New Yorker, after all. She served a Dutch family until she was nine, and was forced to quickly learn English from a new master who beat her, she said, with “a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords,” for speaking Dutch. Since Truth was a New Yorker with a Dutch accent, Delaney has turned her verb from “ain’t” to “aren’t.” A loss in rhythm and earthiness, perhaps, but no loss in eloquence.
Here’s her bracing cry, from the opera Truth: