Sojourner Truth began life around 1797 as Isabella, a slave in New York State who lived in a cellar with her mother, brothers, and sisters. Her siblings were sold off before she even got to know them. Isabella’s mother remembered them though, and told Isabella that the same stars and moon they saw at night also looked down on her brothers and sisters.
When Isabella was around nine, she was sold for a hundred dollars along with a flock of sheep. Her work as a slave was hard, and her masters were cruel. But sometimes, Schmidt writes, using her later memoir as a guide, “she looked up at those stars and that moon, and she asked God ‘if He thought it was right.’”
Mr. Dumont, Isabella’s third master after she was sold, ordered her to marry a fellow slave, Thomas, and they had five children. Mr. Dumont claimed he would eventually free Isabella, but of course he never did. So one night, “she held her baby Sophia close and seized Freedom with her own hands.”
She came to the house of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener and asked for sanctuary. She was there when Mr. Dumont found her. The Van Wageners had no interest in enslaving anyone, so instead they bought Isabella and her baby from Mr. Dumont in order to free them.
Isabella then found out that Mr. Dumont sold her five-year-old son Peter to someone who shipped him to the South. Schmidt relates:
“Though Isabella could not read or write, she knew that in New York, where they lived, no slave could be sold outside the state’s borders.”
She protested and eventually went to a Grand Jury, which gave her a letter for the sheriff, granting her demand that Peter should be brought home. Although she eventually got him back, his Alabama masters had beaten him savagely; he never healed either physically or psychologically. Schmidt writes: “That was Slavery.”
Isabella knew, Schmidt recounts, that she had a journey to make – a sojourn to tell the truth about Slavery. He writes:
“More than fifteen years after she walked away from the Dumonts, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and she began to walk again.”
She spoke out against slavery to anyone who would listen, walking from New York to Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, and all the way to Washington, D.C. where she met Abraham Lincoln. And she kept going: to Michigan, to Virginia, and back the way she came:
“For years and years, Sojourner Truth walked and told her story and fought for Freedom. And when Slavery Time finally ended, she felt so tall within.”
Over fifteen years, she walked thousands of miles, speaking out not only against slavery but for a woman’s right to vote, more humane prisons, land for former slaves, and against capital punishment. She finally ended her journeys in Michigan, where she lived with her free daughters and grandchildren. There she was able to look up at the same stars and the same moon she saw as a slave, but now shone over her people who were free.
In the biographical note at the end of the book, Schmidt added that Sojourner Truth published her story in a book in 1850, which was republished in 1878 with additional material. He reprints one of her stories: once a man approached her after a meeting and asked if she thought her talks advocating against slavery did any good, adding “I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.” She responded, “Perhaps not, but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
Schmidt also includes an extensive annotated bibliography.
Illustrator Daniel Minter explains in a note that he approached the text as a work of poetry, and thus created a series of vertical paintings “that are loosely planted in the times of legal slavery but that parallel the feeling of struggle in today’s streets – the feeling that you may be buried, but you are surrounded by soil that nourishes you.”
Evaluation: As Daniel Minter also commented, Sojourner Truth’s story shows the value of deep inner strength, spirituality, self-worth, and determination. No one can help but be awestruck and inspired by her story.
Published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing, 2018