Foto Friday: Sojourner Truth

In honor of Black History and Women’s History months, 2 Dope Sistahs will be posting photos of our visits to historical sites on Foto Fridays. This week’s pictures are from Battle Creek, Michigan, where anti-slavery and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth lived for more than twenty years.

Sojourner Truth carte de visite

Sojourner Truth carte de visite, sold to support herself.

Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-November 26, 1883) was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York at the end of the 18th century. Known as Isabella (or Isabella Baumfree/Bomefree), she freed herself (walked away) from slavery in 1826. An advocate for abolition and women’s rights, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. Truth’s narrative, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, is available on the web and can be downloaded free of charge. Click here.

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Sojourner Truth Monument in Battle Creek, Michigan

12-foot statue of Sojourner Truth at Monument Park

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Sojourner Truth’s signature, from April 1880, Sojourner Truth Monument

Sojourner Truth was unable to read and write, but the above is a representation of her signature.

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Headstone, Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan

Sojourner Truth is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery. This stone marker was installed in 1946 by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association. It replaced the original gravestone.

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Historical marker, Oak Hill Cemetery

Several members of Truth’s family are also buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Underground Railroad Memorial

Underground Railroad Memorial

Although it honors Harriet Tubman and other Underground Railroad “conductors” rather than Sojourner Truth, I decided to include the above picture. This 14-foot statue is also located in Battle Creek.

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Still talking about Slavery in 2013: Why 12 Years a Slave Now?

If you watched the Academy Awards last night, you may be luxuriating in the afterglow of 12 Years a Slave’s Best Writing, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Motion Picture wins. Therefore, I thought it was a good time to revisit Da Hype 1‘s post on slave narratives. To her credit, she realized the importance of 12 Years a Slave some time ago.

Why We Write/Talk about Slavery

Harriet Jacobs, author of The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs, author of The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

I have been teaching African American literature for more than a decade now. During this time, I have taught a number of narratives that address the subject matter of slavery. In fact, during Fall semesters, I teach a course called The Slave Experience. When teaching these courses, my students and I often discuss, “Why it is important to continue to write/talk about slavery?” This question has arisen in the mainstream media and in social media lately, with the movie release of Solomon Northrup’s narrative, 12 Years a Slave.

I teach about the subject matter of America’s institution of slavery for a number of reasons, but the one that seems to be the most pronounced for me and for my students is the fact that we (others who study slavery and other human atrocities) want to be connected to, give voice to, and honor the humanity of those who have been robbed of the status of “human.” My classes are filled with students who elect to take a course on slavery that is not required because they genuinely believe that by better understanding the experience of American slavery, they will be better citizens and better humans. For me, this is what education in the humanities is all about.

Writing/Righting the Accounts of Slavery

Below, you will find a list of some accounts of slavery. I decided to list both fictional and non-fictional accounts because there is so much to learn from them both.

Traditional/Conventional Slave Narratives

Frederick Douglass, author of A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, author of A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass

This list consists of narratives written by or dictated by slaves themselves, once they escaped bondage. Those who were incapable of writing themselves, often received help from others to chronicle their experiences. These narratives were primarily written as a way of validating (or give witness to) the horrors of slavery, in hopes that the escaped slave’s story could support the abolitionists in emancipating all of those still enslaved.

The conventions of the writing reveals that those who escaped were gracious enough to not only tell their personal stories, but they also wanted to give voice to all who were still silenced and victimized by slavery. They had to tell the stories of how they escaped carefully, without revealing too many details of those who aided them to “freedom”. Assisting a slave in escaping slavery was a federal crime and it could result in prison time or worse for all of those caught participating.

This is only a short list of slave narratives:

  1. Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)
  2. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince (1831)
  3. Frederick Douglass, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
  4. Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1849)
  5. Henry Box Brown, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide (1849)
  6. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849)
  7. Solomon Northrup,12 Years a Slave (1853)
  8. Harriet Wilson, Our Nig (1859)
  9. William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860)
  10. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Neo-slave Narratives

Gayl Jones's Corregidora

Gayl Jones’s Corregidora

Not to be confused with conventional or traditional slave narratives, the genre of literature often called the “neo-slave” narrative, consists of works of fiction that address the institution of slavery. Generally speaking, there are two types of neo-slave narratives: a.) works that have the institution of slavery as its setting, and b.) works that revisit slavery within a contemporary context.

Oftentimes, the narratives were based on actual documented accounts of slavery, as in the case of Beloved, which is loosely based on the experiences of Margaret Garner. These contemporary writers took the opportunity to address, without the rules and conventions of the 19th century, the realities of slavery that perhaps the traditional slave narratives could not. For example, 19th century works of fiction could not explicitly address the sexual violence black women experienced in slavery because the writers did not want to jeopardize the Abolitionist Movement by offending supporters of the movement with their stories of being raped by white slave masters. After all, no one wanted to address the rape culture that existed in American Slavery.

Octavia Butler's Kindred

Octavia Butler’s Kindred

Below, you will find a list of some neo-slave narratives. This list is, by no way, exhaustive:

  1. William Wells Brown, Clotel (1853)
  2. Margaret Walker, Jubilee (1960)
  3. Gayl Jones, Corregidora (1975)
  4. Alex Haley, Roots (1976)
  5. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (1976)
  6. Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
  7. Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose (1986)
  8. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
  9. J. California Cooper, Family (1991)
  10. Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)

Please share with us your experiences reading these narratives.

Foto Friday: Sojourner Truth

In honor of Black History Month, 2 Dope Sistahs will be posting pictures of our visits to historical sites on Foto Fridays. This week’s posts are from Battle Creek, Michigan, where Sojourner Truth lived for more than twenty years.

Sojourner Truth carte de visite

Sojourner Truth carte de visite, sold to support herself.

Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-November 26, 1883) was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York at the end of the 18th century. Known as Isabella (or Isabella Baumfree/Bomefree), she freed herself (walked away) from slavery in 1826. An advocate for abolition and women’s rights, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843. Truth’s narrative, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, is available on the web and can be downloaded free of charge. Click here.

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Sojourner Truth Monument in Battle Creek, Michigan

12-foot statue of Sojourner Truth at Monument Park

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Sojourner Truth’s signature, from April 1880, Sojourner Truth Monument

Sojourner Truth was unable to read and write, but the above is a representation of her signature.

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Headstone, Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan

Sojourner Truth is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery. This stone marker was installed in 1946 by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association. It replaced the original gravestone.

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Historical marker, Oak Hill Cemetery

Several members of Truth’s family are also buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Underground Railroad Memorial

Underground Railroad Memorial

Although it honors Harriet Tubman and other Underground Railroad “conductors” rather than Sojourner Truth, I decided to include the above picture. This 14-foot statue is also located in Battle Creek.

A Poem for My Great-Great Grandmother

In yesterday’s post, “Looking for Love and Finding it in our Foremothers”, I talked about my discovery of the lives of my Great Grandmother, Susan Bean, and her parents, Martha and Thomas Bean. I spoke about the love that I imagined Martha and Thomas Bean had for each other. Below, is a poem I wrote for Martha Bean.

Martha Don’t you Moan

For my Great-Great Grandmother, Martha Bean

I heard you speak to me from the tobacco fields you worked

and gave birth in

time and time again.

Your voice came to me;

your words poetic

and spoken in the cadence of your mother’s West African tongue.

You whispered so sweetly

the name of your lover

your husband

my forefather

who walked in the night,

passed the unspeakable,

passed the unthinkable,

passed the unimaginable . . .

passed narratives told only in the dark

and passed stories forgotten by morning

(because the memories hurt too much when spoken aloud).

He showed up enough times to make your belly swollen

one, two, three, four

times.

And,

on the nights he couldn’t make it,

you closed your eyes and breathed in air

you imagined he shared only a few miles

away.

But,

He came back.

He always came back.

He always came back

until 1864,

when he didn’t have to leave

anymore.

Copyright 2011 Christie Williams

Looking for Love & Finding it in our Foremothers

Susan Bean

Susan Bean

The woman pictured here is Susan Bean, and she was a year old when she was emancipated from slavery in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Her story of hard labor did not end here, because much like many of our foremothers, she labored as a domestic in white women’s homes for many years afterwards. Sometimes they treated her fairly, and other times not so much, but she could always count on praying the rosaries.

That’s Grandma Susie, and as fascinating as her life was, it is her parents that I find myself daydreaming about. Though I never met them, I somehow want to please them. I want them to know that, as their child, I’m living dreams built on their prayers and the prayers they instilled in Grandma Susie. Grandma Susie was a praying woman, too.

State of Maryland

State of Maryland

A glance at The Slave Statistics of St. Mary’s County, Maryland will reveal a rarity in the slave system: an enslaved family, my family, living together on the same plantation.

The matriarch of the Bean family, Martha Bean, was enslaved on the Abell plantation, along with her four children: Lewis, Caroline, Adain, and Susan. I have no idea if they were all born on this plantation or if they came from elsewhere. I also don’t know if Martha had additional children who were sold off to another plantation or who died. What I do know, however, is that they were a family.

Martha’s husband, Thomas Bean, is a bit of a mystery to me. He enlisted in the military in 1861 and was discharged a year later after wounding his leg and his head. I want to know where he lived in proximity to Martha, and how often they were able to physically be in the same place. I don’t know if at some point he, too, was enslaved by the Abells. I don’t even know for certain if he was the biological father of each child, but he was indeed their father, as each child bore his last name.

What I do know is that in 1870, the first census that would have recognized their existence, Martha Bean and Thomas Bean made a choice–perhaps, the first time in their lives such a choice was theirs to be made–they made a choice to be together under the same roof as a family. And, they chose to give birth to three more children who were their only children to be born free. They were together on one more census, and then Martha and Thomas Bean vanished from public records.

I like to imagine that what existed between Martha and Thomas Bean was love. I close my eyes and imagine what their love looked like, what it felt like. Whether Thomas Bean was a free man or an enslaved man, I daydream about him kissing Martha’s calloused hands from working in the tobacco fields of the Abell plantation. I think of them loving away each other’s pain and long-suffering. It is when I think of them in these ways, loving each other during unthinkable circumstances, only then do I think about all of the possibilities life can offer me.

**Post Update: Please check out my poem, “Martha, Don’t you Moan,” posted August 6.

Activism through Writing: The Power of the Pen

The Runaway

The Runaway

Over the years, I have studied various slave narratives like the Narrative and the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Whenever I teach them, I remind my students of the purpose in which these narratives were written: to have a written account of their horrible experiences that would lead to the eradication of slavery. The authors of the slave narratives sought to tell their stories and the stories of those around them, but they had to do so while maintaining the anonymity of those still enslaved and those who aided them to freedom.

Being able to balance telling the story and maintaining anonymity required the authors to stealthily navigate the racial terrain of America, which included violence that was supported by the legislature. The Fugitive Slave Law, for example, created an atmosphere in which slaves attempting to escape their conditions could be found by bounty hunters who were at their leisure to brutally beat or kill them. This is the risk that Douglass and Jacobs faced when publishing their works. If they were found, they could have been killed. Yet, they risked their lives to tell the stories of the many slaves who were still in bondage, incapable of reading and writing, or who had no way to articulate their pain and suffering for the world to know. This is why they wrote.

They were brave and fearless to risk their lives to write about the pain they themselves endured, but they were compassionate to articulate and give voice to the pain of others.

I, too, write as a way giving voice to others. And, while I bet this argument may have been made a hundred times before, countless others are still rendered silent each day by the pain of their experiences. And, so the writer becomes the conscience of the people; the pulse, if you will, of the experiences that people encounter every day. Imagine what might have happened to the narrative of Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case, had writers of all types not come to her defense? She would have certainly been rendered silent.

I find writing as a form of activism, that works simultaneously with the work that I do. Change has always occurred with the aid of writers.