Recognizing Racism, Seeking Truth

Sojourner Truth, 1870. © Randall Studio.

This past January at a meeting for business, I read aloud from our yearly meeting’s “Queries, Advices, and Voices.” It was my first month as clerk of Herndon (Va.) Meeting, and we have a monthly practice of reflecting on one of the queries in a worship-sharing format.

The topic was equality. One quote from Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s (BYM) 2013 Resource for Faith and Practice was from Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. The quote is from a famous speech she gave in 1851, often called “Ain’t I a Woman?,” and it uses a southern slave dialect. I struggled with whether to read the quote. I didn’t know how the language would resonate when read by a White woman. Ultimately, I did read the quote, and we had a rich worship sharing before taking up the business of the day.

But a few days later, as I was scrolling through social media, a mention of Sojourner Truth caught my eye. Because I rarely dip into social media, the serendipity of this event struck me. I clicked the link, and what I found made me sad, angry, and embarrassed.

The link led me to the Sojourner Truth Project website, where I discovered that the famous version of Truth’s speech, which I had quoted, is historically inaccurate and racist.

Truth was born into slavery in New York around 1797. Her native tongue was Dutch, and she was bilingual in English, which she learned as a child. Her voice would have been that of her origins as the property of northern slaveholders. She did not speak a southern slave dialect. A newspaper article from the Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph in 1879 states:

Sojourner also prides herself on a fairly correct English, which is in all senses a foreign tongue to her, she having spent her early years among people speaking “Low Dutch.” People who report her often exaggerate her expressions, putting into her mouth the most marked southern dialect, which Sojourner feels is rather taking an unfair advantage of her.

Engraving of Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808–1884), by McRae, N.Y., Library of Congress. ©

I had to know more about Sojourner Truth. She was sold from her family at the age of nine, then sold twice more over the next four years. Some sources say she was owned by six different masters in her first 30 years. She bore five children: The first died; the second was the child of rape by her owner; the last three were from a forced marriage to an older enslaved man. Of those three, the first was illegally sold at the age of five. Truth escaped in 1826 with the youngest child and was taken in by another New York family until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved in 1827. At that time, she sued her former owner to have her son returned to her. Incredibly, she won the case and became the first Black woman to win a case against a White man.

What we now would term “intersectionality” was exactly the place Truth existed. For the rest of her life, she fought tirelessly for Black people and for women, traveling extensively and giving speeches.

Truth’s speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 is her most republished work, though it is surrounded with controversy. It is the one discussed by the Sojourner Truth Project. It was initially published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Marius Robinson, a friend of hers, a few weeks after the convention. Although Truth did collaborate with Robinson on his version, it was likely not a word-for-word transcription.

The more famous “Ain’t I a Woman?,” written by Frances Gage, was published 12 years later and included little of Truth’s original language. Gage, a White abolitionist and women’s suffragist, was president of the 1851 convention. When she published her account in 1863, she framed the convention as hostile to Sojourner Truth and cast herself in a more prominent role, bravely asking the audience to hear Truth’s address. This contrasted with earlier published accounts of a peaceful gathering. Admitting to rewriting the text, Gage said her version of Truth’s words were “stronger and more palatable to the American Public,” according to the Sojourner Truth Project website at The two versions are compared side by side on the website, which states: “By changing Truth’s words and her dialect to that of a stereotypical southern slave, Frances Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice . . . and further[ed] the eradication of our nation’s northern slave history.”

I was fascinated. I was dismayed. How could Quakers have perpetuated this inaccuracy? Don’t we have an historical discipline of speaking truth? What could I do to make this right?

I have a responsibility to stand up when I see racism. We all do. Even when it involves a group of nice, kind, loving Quakers who couldn’t possibly be racist. Perhaps especially then.

The first step was to reach out to the Baltimore Yearly Meeting committee that works on revisions of our Faith and Practice and alert them to the controversy around this quote. But should I do more? Could I manage to face my embarrassment within my meeting community?

BYM also has a Growing Diverse Leadership Committee, which, according to the BYM website, seeks to “increase and sustain multicultural and intergenerational community in all facets of the spiritual life of meetings.”

As part of this effort, Herndon Meeting has a Change Team that addresses diversity and the potential barriers to People of Color in attending our meeting. The team has sponsored several book club discussions on relevant books. At the time of this event, members of our meeting were reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. At a book club discussion, we spoke of our need to be brave and to have stamina in confronting racism. Now, here it was blatantly in our midst.

I knew I could not be fragile or defensive nor look the other way. It was not a time to make excuses or to soothe those who might have chosen to include this version of the speech in the “Queries, Advices, and Voices.” I needed to own my mistake and share with my meeting that I had perpetuated racism and that I would actively respond.

The awareness of this institutionalized racism gave me an opportunity to watch my body respond, as taught by Resmaa Menakem in My Grandmother’s Hands. His book teaches White and Black and police bodies how to settle themselves as they confront racism or racist moments. This ability to notice the immediate raising of hackles, then to watch and settle, is presented as a way for us all to move through age-old trauma responses and into healing.

So, I noticed my mind darting around and coming up with explanations: “Maybe the yearly meeting resources were put together before the Internet!” But no, it was published in 2013. “Maybe this quote has been in prior versions of the Baltimore Faith and Practice, and was just recopied without any thought!” Again, a dead end. I watched myself flutter and squirm inside as I faced the hot shame of being party to racism. I grew tired. I thought briefly of just ignoring the whole thing and hoping it would go away. I felt despair. Maybe someone else would deal with this instead of me. But I have a responsibility to stand up when I see racism. We all do.

Even when it involves a group of nice, kind, loving Quakers who couldn’t possibly be racist. Perhaps especially then.

Top: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”—1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign. Right: 1830s image of a slave woman saying “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” (seal of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society).

At the same time, I was participating in an online training called “Before We Were White” by the organization White Awake. This course is intended for White people who identify as being of European descent, and we were learning the history of racism, the development of the category of “White,” and tracing our own ancestry back to a time before we were the privileged Whites in power. Many areas of my life were converging in the arena of White privilege and racism, and I was fascinated to be my own case study of how to react and respond to such an overt example of participating in the erasure of the authentic voice of someone of color. More than 150 years later, Sojourner Truth’s voice was still being silenced.

Here I was struggling with whether it was appropriate for a White voice to read Truth’s southern slave dialect; when in fact, I should have been questioning that racist stereotype. My history education downplayed the fact that northerners owned slaves, that enslaved people represented a much broader demographic than what might be seen in movies like Gone with the Wind, or even that enslaved people were individuals instead of an undifferentiated group of “other.”

My history education did not teach me that I should be questioning what I learned. The power of White institutionalized racism played a huge part in what my history books portrayed, and I didn’t think to question it. Not until I was reading books by Kendi, DiAngelo, Menakem, and others; taking the White Awake course; and participating in the book club discussions did I begin to recognize the extent of my own complicity. It did not occur to me that a White person might have changed Truth’s words.

The southern, Black, illiterate slave dialect of Truth’s speech did not raise any flags for me as being inaccurate, because I, like most of us, am a product of institutionalized racism. It did not even occur to me that Truth’s voice would be anything but southern, Black, and illiterate. And that was the most painful insight into my own White privilege.

Perhaps the more core value among Quakers is that we are seeking the truth. In this way, we ask others to question, revise, and be open to new information. We are open to being changed, to continuing revelation, and to recognizing that others may have truths that we haven’t considered.

I let my pain guide me toward making things right. I took time out of our next meeting for business to apologize and explain what I had uncovered. And then I read aloud the entirety of Truth’s original speech as reported by Marius Robinson. The words rang clear and true.

It feels important for me to also apologize to the descendants of Sojourner Truth: I am deeply sorry for my hurtful assumptions. I hope I have begun to make things right.

What was my greatest lesson? That recognizing overt racism is easy, but being able to see all the subtle forms of racism is the ongoing work of a lifetime. Having gone through this experience, I am by no means done, or enlightened, or “woke.” Although this story is about my experience of uncovering racism, and my feelings as I went through this process, it is not my intention to sideline or minimize what Sojourner Truth endured as a victim of racism.

I think it is an enduring cultural myth about Quakers that we are more truthful than the general population. Yes, we value integrity, and what is more basic to integrity than being true to our word? But are we really more likely to speak the truth?

Perhaps the more core value among Quakers is that we are seeking the truth. In this way, we ask others to question, revise, and be open to new information. We are open to being changed, to continuing revelation, and to recognizing that others may have truths that we haven’t considered.

To quote Sojourner Truth, “Truth is powerful and it prevails.”

Inga Erickson

Inga Erickson grew up in Virginia Beach (Va.) Meeting. She is now a member of Herndon (Va.) Meeting, and currently its clerk. Inga is a craniosacral therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner, happily married to her husband of 19 years. They have three teenage children and a big, yellow dog.

5 thoughts on “Recognizing Racism, Seeking Truth

  1. I think this article is on point to raise the view of the calling to seek truth, with evolving historical contexts and faith; as a person of color, Quaker and a descendant of Benjamin Banneker, looking at the intent of revelation is worthy of Friends, as it informs others of new views of truth and correction of information misinformed by power and injustice.

  2. I am interested in two items – firstly that someone from 150 years ago was innacurately quoted accent wise surely doesn’t require the soul searching squirming embarrassment described?
    The same has surely happened in reverse such as in the movie about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings in Jefferson in Paris with Nick Nolte in which he portrayed Jefferson as having a heavy southern accent when in fact he MUST have had a British accent. The Southern accent was contrived over time.
    Secondly, I am interested that this Meeting calls on “Queries, Advices, and Voices” because I still have my British Society of Friends little booklet from over 60 years ago and it’s simply called “Advices and Queríes”. No voices and the other way round. Has it always been different over here? I’m guessing a lot can change in 60 years!

  3. If Frances Gage displaced the Dutch drawl / dialect of Sister Truth, the Nordic nuances of a Inga Ericson in Herndon Meeting today does no credit whatsoever to black history. She continues to exploit a narrative and confound the truth about Truth while enabling an mundane, arcane inaccuracy at best. To confuse the record and attack the 19th century reporter is what this amounts to. The gravity of it lies not in the Sojourner Truth Project but rather in the disinformation and tale of the contemporary narrative which is the literary mis-step of the unhelpful Virginian. Blacks speak like blacks in conventions now and conventions then. The apologies in this article deserve a passing note though. The apologies are in some ways laudable and in some ways laughable. Go to her (Sojourners) graveside in Battle Creek, Mich. and tell her in old New York style, Low Dutch she was a slave that did not speak the language of slaves. aStory-telling and story-twisting ala Inga. From a black descendant of white indoctrination in racist Richmond.

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