Editor’s note: This article is the third in our 2021 Black History Month and Women’s History Month series. During February and March, the Mutuality Blog will publish articles about Black women and women of color throughout Christian history, to tell and retell the stories of our foremothers of the faith who are often overlooked or misrepresented by history books. We hope this series will inspire you to continue learning more about the egalitarian women who fought for their God-ordained equality and the ways we can continue the work they began.
You don’t have to be a history nerd to be gripped by the events of Sojourner Truth’s life: a risky escape from slavery, a legal David-and-Goliath battle, a profound spiritual conversion, a life spent speaking truth and advocating for justice.
Born Isabella Bomfree in 1797, in 1843 she chose the name “Sojourner Truth” to reflect the call she heard from the Holy Spirit to become a preacher. For the next several decades, she travelled and spoke in support of abolition, women’s suffrage, and (after the Civil War) land grants for freed slaves so that they could support themselves. The story of Truth’s life has captivated people for years: you can even find two other articles about her in the Mutuality archives!
History buff or not, though, if you’re reading an article about Sojourner Truth, it’s likely February: Black History Month. This month is meant to invite Americans to learn about the history and celebrate the lives and legacies of Black people—histories and legacies too often left out of or minimized in the history taught in schools or honored in art, literature, and film.
Many white Americans need this reminder to learn about and celebrate Black history. And white Christians especially should learn from the visions of justice spoken by Black Americans from Sojourner Truth through contemporary voices like Latasha Morrison and Austen Channing Brown. All Christians should celebrate the ways that God works in and through Black Christians to build up the church and bring glimpses of the kingdom of God.
But for Christians, and especially for those who, like me, are white Christians, Black History Month carries another invitation: the invitation to lament. I know that as I learn about Black history, I can be tempted to congratulate myself on my knowledge and moral superiority to my less-enlightened ancestors—and I would guess that many share this temptation. Similarly, celebration can obscure the many obstacles that stood and still stand in the way of Black Americans.
Lament, however, provides a space to mourn for the suffering and abuse inflicted on so many Black Americans from the earliest days of European colonialism. And in this space of mourning, we can begin to confront our own complicity in racism and injustice not out of guilt or obligation but out of a deep sense of sorrow over the suffering we see.
So what does it look like to learn, celebrate, and lament? Let’s look at the life of Sojourner Truth.
Born into slavery in 1797, Sojourner Truth endured loss, harsh treatment, and abuse for the first thirty years of her life. She was sold at the age of nine away from the Dutch-speaking family that first owned her to an English-speaking family—and beaten because she had difficulty understanding English. She fell in love with another enslaved man, Robert, whose enslaver forbade the relationship, severely beat Robert when he was caught with Truth, and prevented Robert from ever seeing Truth again. While enslaved by John and Sally Dumont from about 1810–1826, Truth experienced sexual abuse in addition to the other forms of abuse endured by slaves.
But despite all of this, Truth had immense strength of will. In 1826, she escaped from the Dumonts with her infant daughter. In 1828, after her young son, Peter, was illegally sold, she fought a successful legal battle to get her son back, becoming the first Black woman to win a court case against a white man. At about the same time, Truth had a profound religious experience and spent the next several years of her life as a free woman working for various families strongly committed to living holy and devout lives. In 1843, she changed her name and followed the call of the Holy Spirit to begin traveling and preaching.
Truth was a powerful speaker, and as she advocated for abolition and women’s suffrage, she worked with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and, later, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although she was illiterate, in 1850 she dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to Olive Gilbert; the book brought her national attention. Truth recruited soldiers during the Civil War and advocated for the inclusion of Black soldiers in the Union Army. After the Civil War she fought (ultimately unsuccessfully) for grants of land to be given to those who had been enslaved.
Truth’s courage is evident throughout her life, as is the strength she drew from her strong sense of God’s call on her life. Her work toward abolition, equality, and women’s rights had a lasting impact in all of these areas.
With even the thumbnail sketch of Sojourner Truth’s life above, it is easy to celebrate her and her achievements. We can celebrate her as a person with remarkable strength, resilience, and talent. We can celebrate her work as an abolitionist and as an advocate for women’s right to vote. We can celebrate the way that she accomplished so much despite the double limitations and prejudices she faced as a Black woman—limitations that she famously pointed out in her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech where she noted that, as a Black woman, she did not receive the same courteous treatment as white women did.
Also, as Christian egalitarians who believe that God has fully equipped women as well as men to serve in any role in the church, we can celebrate Truth’s willingness to follow God’s call to preach. Truth argued that Eve may have brought sin into the world, but Mary brought Jesus into the world, showing that women need not be limited in the church because they are not limited by God. We celebrate her confident affirmation that God calls and values women.
As much as there is to celebrate about Sojourner Truth’s life, it is vital to also recognize the oppression that meant that few other Black women who were her contemporaries are remembered by history as much as she is. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter writes, “No other woman who had been through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise, and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.”1 Sojourner Truth stands as a remarkable woman, but we should also wonder how many other remarkable women were so ground down by oppression that they could not act.
Learning and celebrating are both important in order to recognize and honor the many people who shaped our nation’s history. But failing to grapple with the oppression and prejudice that limited Black women in particular leaves out half the story. Obscuring the parts of the story that cause discomfort can also obscure the many ways that oppression and prejudice continue today. When we celebrate the strength of Sojourner Truth without facing the reason why she needed so much strength, we risk overlooking the heavy burdens that women of color still carry.
This is where lament becomes vital, especially for white Christians unused to the practice. Lament is not guilt, an emotion that all too often white people ask people of color to absolve; nor is lament fatalistic or hopeless. Instead, as Soong-Chan Rah writes in Prophetic Lament,
Lament recognizes our frailty as created beings and the need to acknowledge this shortcoming before God. Lament demands that we are willing to dwell in the space of our humanity without quickly resorting to our triumphalistic narrative to justify our worth.2
Lament is a deeply biblical practice. A whole book of the Old Testament is the lament of the prophet Jeremiah, and laments occur frequently—especially in the books of the prophets and in the Psalms. Lament allows the acknowledgement that all is not as it should be. And so, even as we celebrate Sojourner Truth’s extraordinary life, we also lament that a Black woman had to be extraordinary to be heard.
As a white egalitarian Christian, I lament the limited, racist thinking that drove a wedge between Black advocates for women’s suffrage, like Sojourner Truth, and white activists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that she would not support enfranchising Black voters unless women were also given the vote—a position that was held by many white activists and ultimately led them to distance themselves from advocacy for equal rights for Black Americans (and other Americans of color). And in that lament, I can begin to acknowledge the ways that I, too, often demand my own rights at the expense of others.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
Through this process of learning, celebrating, and lamenting, I invite my white sisters and brothers to join me and begin to allow God to transform our hearts, to reshape our ideas about justice, to uncover the sins that continue to cause oppression. Lament provides the space to celebrate a woman like Sojourner Truth without ignoring or downplaying the pain and suffering that shaped her life. And more than that, lament encourages honesty with God and among ourselves about the ways we, too, contribute to the suffering of others.
And so this February and beyond, I invite you to learn about and celebrate those women and men who are often overlooked and marginalized. I invite you into the space of lament for the sins of our country, our churches, and ourselves. And I invite you to allow yourself to be transformed through this process into a person who, more and more, carries the freedom, justice, and peace of God into your communities.
1. Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, (New York: Norton, 1996), 4.
2. Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament, (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 139.