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Monday, July 15, 2024

The prophetic voice of Sojourner Truth

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Personally, I celebrate, teach, learn and live Black History Month every day of the year.  As we move from February to March and celebrate Women’s History Month, I am going to focus on my sistahs because, why shouldn’t I? It is painfully obvious that there is a much-needed reminder that quite frankly, we are owed much more support than we receive in both the public and private spaces that we occupy. We are consistently standing “in the ready,” risking and sacrificing to provide support to everyone from an intersectional and inclusive standpoint, especially when it comes to advocating for issues of social justice and opportunity. From the Women Rights Movement and Abolitionist Movements to the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Lives Matter Movement and the Women’s March of today you can always count on Black women. And yet, when we dare to speak our truth, to advocate for ourselves for once, to assume leadership positions of relative power, to engage in some radical self-love, the very same people that we were just supporting make way to remind us of our “proper place,” one that they perceive should remain a position of subservience. Even further insulting, not only do they not support our own efforts towards growth and achievement, personal and communal, they engage in behavior and actions that cause us great mental, emotional, spiritual and sometimes even physical harm. Admittedly, sometimes we do this amongst and to ourselves and so it would be problematic to suggest that Black women are collectively united and furthermore the label of “strong,” is sometimes detrimental to our liberation. But there are some collective experiences we can point to that transcend our individual experiences in the United States as Black women, and that is my focus. 

In 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, prophet Sojourner Truth gave her often-quoted famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” She stated:

“Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! 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 thirteen 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?”

What this portion of the speech, and actually the speech in it’s entirety suggested is that while Black women at that time were simultaneously working in the midst of both the abolitionist and the women’s movement, our suffering was going largely unnoticed and unaddressed. And yet, this is still the case today, the disregard and marginalization that occurs in the political arena, religious institutions, academic and corporate environments and in our own homes are often not safe places or sanctuaries for us. 

Last year a report called “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” was produced by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in collaboration with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. That report states: 

Though slavery was legally abolished in the United States in 1865, the conditions that existed under slavery continue to persist today. Black women continue to be at a severe disadvantage in many aspects of our democracy and our economy. Whether one examines Black women’s access to health care, Black women’s earnings, or Black women’s access to much needed social supports like childcare and eldercare, Black women are getting the short end of the stick — despite having contributed so much to the building of this nation. 

And yet at the most recent Women’s March in Indianapolis, two young, brilliant Black women of the Indy10 Black Lives Matter group, Leah and Kyra gave a beautiful speech that celebrated the work and voice of Black women, spelling out the most critical and just issues that deeply affect us, naming remarkable historic Black women figures such as Ida B. Wells, and literary figures such as Alice Walker, my favorite author, and speaking their truth. Some white people, women in particular didn’t like what they said or how they said it so they took personal offense and tried to publicly shame them, calling it divisive. That’s so ironic because divisiveness was one of the challenges they clearly addressed. If you want Black women to stand in solidarity with you then you must recognize that this is a “two-way street.” You just don’t get the benefit of all this #BlackGirlMagic. As Leah and Kyra said in their speech, “Listen to us, Uplift Us, Trust Us and Pay Us.” We do that for you. Otherwise, don’t come our way. And, definitely don’t expect us to be silent anymore. Those days never existed, so we’re not about to start that now. 

In memory of Mama Ella Mae Jett and Grandmother Elnora Taylor. They are my Black History and Women’s History. 


Dr. Terri Jett is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Special Assistant to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusivity at Butler University. 

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