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:

  • Linda McInerney March 6, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Margaretta,
    Yes, we had a huge debate on the “amn’t” topic. It’s most likely that that word would have been the one that ST used. Our challenge there was that we weren’t sure an audience would be able to understand it – that’s it’s too little known to actually play in the moment on the stage. What do you think?
    Love that this is all being talked about! My dream come true!!

    Reply
  • margaretta colt March 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    not one but two! good articles about a semi-forgotten heroine.

    but i am interested in the semantic debate: could it not as easily have been “amn’t”? that is an old form.

    Reply
  • Karen March 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Sounds like you’ve done your research. The “controversy” will only create more interest. Godspeed. This is beautiful.

    Reply
  • Linda McInerney March 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Karen,
    I’m so happy for the opportunity to respond about the language in Sojourner’s speech. Thank you for bringing it up. We had so many conversations about this over the years and it all came down to doing right by Sojourner and not to follow political correctness. Because there is no transcript of the speech we need to rely on other’s accounts of the event and that’s where the challenge begins. One of the ways that Sojourner was diminished in her time was when observers detracted from her genius by reducing her to having the “simple ways” of an uneducated, illiterate and ignorant “Auntie” (as Abraham Lincoln called her) and to make her quaint and unthreatening. One manifestation of that was to quote her with the nomenclature of a Southern enslaved person, thus “ain’t” when in fact, it’s nearly impossible that she would have used that argot. She was Dutch and her way to English was by way of the Bible of which she memorized huge sections. So if anything, her English would have been accented in Dutch and much more formal. Reading her Narrative gives you the sense that she was beautifully eloquent as we have been allowed to know that Frederick Douglass was. And there’s the next challenge since her book was also transcribed. So our goal was to set the record as straight as we can with the information that we have now. We knew it would be controversial but wanted to do right by our girl. So thanks for reading and hearing our intention. It is our hope that a truer Truth can come forth in this discussion with even more power in her statements and life. Here’s a book that was helpful and clarifying for us: http://voices.yahoo.com/arnt-woman-book-review-summary-themes-7081156.html

    Reply
  • Karen March 5, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Wow! How insanely exciting that someone is doing this. What a fantastic part this will be for someone too. I’m sad that the author is diminishing the power of Sojourner Truth’s statement in the name of political correctness, but that is a quibble. Bravo for dreaming up the idea!

    Reply
  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson March 5, 2013 at 5:56 am

    Thanx for this new info (for me) about Sojourner Truth.

    Reply

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