Friday, May 1, 2009

Commentary: Sojourner Truth Memorial

By Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Professor, Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton

This morning Congress unveils a statue of Sojourner Truth. She is the first African American woman to have a memorial bust in the United States Capitol building.

Truth was born into slavery in New York State. In her childhood she was ripped away from her family and sold into bondage with different enslavers. She was beaten, brutalized, and forced to labor in unimaginable conditions. She fell in love, but her husband of choice was stripped from her and she was forced to “breed” with another man. She had many children, but as an enslaved woman she had no parental rights and endured having them forcibly removed. When the state of New York began gradual emancipation Truth sought her own freedom and the liberation of her children.

But her own freedom was not enough. Through her quick intelligence, her unbending moral courage, and her tireless labor Sojourner Truth became one of the nation’s mo st powerful abolitionist voices and women’s rights advocates.

She is best remembered in school history books for her speech at the 1854 Ohio Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. There she used her experiences as an enslaved black woman to challenge the notion that women were too fragile for pub lic life.
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and ain't I a woman? ... I have plowed, 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 woman?"
It is important to remember that Truth is not the first black woman for proposed to be enshrined on federal land. In 1923, Mississippi senator, John Williams proposed a bill seeking a site for a national Mammy monument. The Richmond, Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was prepared to pay for the statue, which would stand on federal land “as a gift to the people of the United States . . . a monument in memory of the faithful colored mammies of the South.” The statue would have been in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, which had just been dedicated a few months. The “mammy bill” passed the Senate in February 1923 just weeks after the Senate defeated the Dy er anti-lynching bill. In other words, even while refusing to protect African American citizens from the domestic terrorism of the lynch mob, the Senate referred the mammy monument bill to the House of Representatives.

Whenever I am in Washington, DC I try to imagine the psychic assault I would suffer if I had to walk past a granite mammy statue while on the National Mall. Thankfully, fierce and prolonged resistance to the mammy monument undertaken by the black press, black women’s organizations, and ordinary citizens kept this horrifying possibility from being reality.

Black women’s organizations defeated the mammy memorial nearly 100 years ago and today they are largely responsible to raising up the bust of Sojourner Truth. The National Congress of Black Women, Inc. (NCBW) worked tirelessly to cultivate donors and supporters for this cause. Because of their efforts, instead of a monument to the m ythical figure of a happy, faithful, feisty, loyal black woman slave, America will today memorialize a dedicated, serious, freedom-fighting black woman. In commemorating Truth the nation invests in remembering the deeply human and complicated stories of the lives of black women.

It is an amazing moment. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman Speaker of the House will stand alongside Michelle Obama, our first African American First Lady. Together they will commemorate the efforts of a sister who was both a women’s suffrage and anti-slavery advocate. It is an astonishing and hopeful mo ment. I believe that Sojourner will be smiling on this morning’s gathering, pleased with the fruits of her labor.

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