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Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack’s 1993 BGHB NF speech for “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?”

mckissack_sojourner truthFRED: It is with great pride and an equal measure of humility that we accept the 1993 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfic­tion, for Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?

PAT: There are more people to thank than time will permit, but we’d like to acknowledge a few people.

FRED: First, we’d like to thank our editor, Ann Reit, for suggesting the title, Barbara Marcus, the publisher, and the entire editorial staff of Scholastic for producing it, John Mason and his staff for marketing it, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee for giving our work  this recognition.

PAT: Finally, we’d like to thank all the librarians and teachers whose continued demands for quality multicultural books have encouraged publishers to produce more and better materials for, by, and about outstanding African Americans. When Ann Reit asked us to write Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?, we were a bit apprehensive. What new could be said about Sojourner Truth?

FRED: One week into the research, the answer was clear to us. So­journer was a standard-bearer for freedom, justice, and equality, and her “truth” is as inspirational today as it was almost 150 years ago. We decided to present her story within the larger context of history. We are pleased with the results and delighted to introduce this larger-than-life character to a new generation of readers.

PAT: When we drafted the book, I was reminded of how we our­ ourselves were first introduced to Sojourner Truth. Like most chil­dren of my generation, I was not introduced to African-American heroes through textbooks. History in the 1950s didn’t contain much information about African-American contributions to the growth and development of this nation, but we got our history in other ways. Fortunately, I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), where our Sunday School teachers combined spirituals and Bible truths to teach us about our own history. Often we started with an old spiritual, followed by the lesson of the day. We decided to use that format and begin each section of our book with a spiritual — like this one, which we children called  “Sojourner’s Song”:

I know I’ve been changed.
I know I’ve been changed.
I know I’ve been changed.
The angels in heaven have changed  my name.

FRED: Motivated by what she believed was a call from God, Isabella, a 47-year-old former slave, changed her name to Sojourner because she was going to be a traveler, going from place to place giving speeches against slavery. It was customary for slaves to take the last names of their masters, but Sojourner had no master except God. Since God’s name is Truth, she took it as her last name. With this stage of her metamorphosis completed, Sojourner began a new life, first as a fresh no-nonsense voice in the abolitionist movement, and, later, as an early advocate of women’s rights. Actually, the change in Sojourner had been taking place a long time before her name change. She was no longer the motherless child who was beaten because she couldn’t speak English. She wasn’t even the gullible housekeeper whose faith was betrayed by a religious charlatan. Sojourner had no way of knowing then that her new name would be placed alongside all the other heroes of American history

PAT: Sojourner’s song goes on to say:

I told the Lord if He’d take my heart —
the angels in heaven have changed my name.
I wouldn’t desert when the battle got hot —
The angels in heaven have changed my name.

FRED: And she didn’t run when the battle got hot, even when her life was threatened. Among slavery sympathizers, she gave no quarter and asked for none.

PAT: “Be careful! God will not stand with wrong; never mind how right you think you be.”

FRED: She had no tolerance of slavery or of those who defended it.

PAT: “Slavery must be destroyed, root and branch!”

FRED: Her best defense against slavery was the truth as she had lived it.

PAT: “Well, children, I was born a slave in Ulster County, New York. I don’t know if it was summer or winter, fall or spring. I don’t even know what day of the week it was. They don’t care when a slave is born or when he dies — just how much work they can do.”

FRED: Sojourner’s contributions to the women’s movement are often overshadowed by her work as an abolitionist. But in her mind the two causes were inseparable: “Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color.”

PAT: But sometimes Sojourner got impatient with her sisters in the movement. “I’m not clear what you be after. If women want any rights more than they’ve got, why don’t they just take them and not be talking about it!”

FRED: In this way, Sojourner captivated audiences with her own special brand of courage, honesty, and stinging wit. For example, she once asked a heckler, “Who are you?” Trying to elude the question, the man answered, “I am my mother’s only son.”

PAT: “Good,” Sojourner said quickly. “I’m glad there are no more of you!”

FRED: And pulling herself to her full six feet, Sojourner stood toe­-to-toe with a man who said, “Woman, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”

PAT: “Well, Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratchin’,” she answered.

FRED: Sojourner also relentlessly challenged the religious and political pundits of the day, refusing to accept the wilted excuses they used to deny women and blacks freedom and justice.

PAT: “You say Jesus was a man so that means God favors men over women. Where did your Christ come from? Where did he come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”

FRED: And she answered the nineteenth-century “authorities” who testified that women were not as smart as men with:

PAT: “Suppose a man’s mind holds a quart, and a woman’s don’t hold but a pint; if her pint is full, it’s every bit as good as a [half-empty] quart.”

FRED: It was at the Akron, Ohio, Woman’s Rights Convention, however, that Sojourner’s truth was indelibly written on the heart and  soul of Americans.

PAT: “That man over there,” she said, pointing to a minister who had said women were, among other things, the weaker sex. “He says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, over mud puddles, and gets me to the best places, and ain’t I a woman? I have ploughed. And I have planted. And I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?”

FRED: Sojourner was no ordinary woman, as this incident shows. In an effort to discredit her and embarrass the abolitionists, a pro-slavery doctor claimed that Sojourner really wasn’t a woman and demanded that she privately show her breasts to a group of  women. He probably thought she’d decline.

PAT: But the doctor should have known better. This was the same woman who had successfully won the custody of her son and became one of the first black women to win a case against a white male. She also sued a New York writer for slander and won, too.

FRED: She was not likely to back down. In righteous indignation, she unbuttoned her blouse and exposed her breast to the whole room.

PAT: “It is not my shame but  yours that I do this.” Sojourner, who was herself a hymn writer, often sang one of her hymns before speaking. This was one of  her favorites:

PAT/FRED:

Walk together, children, don’t you get weary,
Walk together, children, don’t you get weary.
Walk together, children, don’t you get weary.
There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.

PAT: We learned long ago in our basement Sunday School class­room that this song was sung to bolster the spirits of runaway slaves. They had been told that if they stayed together they would gain strength from their collective courage. The  words  are still relevant.

FRED: If Sojourner were here today, I have no doubt she would be in the thick of things, speaking out for freedom, justice, and equality — standing on street corners, if necessary, or speaking at the White House by invitation.

PAT: But since she is not here, then we must be forever vigilant, protecting the same principles she held so dear — freedom, justice, and equality.

FRED: The clue is in her name. In the bold act of renaming herself, Sojourner gave us a message of simple eloquence: Walk in Truth.

PAT: Can’t you hear her voice calling to us from the pages of history?

PAT/FRED:

Walk together, children, don’t you get weary.
For if you don’t learn to walk together, children,
You’re not going to get very far at all.


Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack are the winners of the 1993 Boston Globe-Hom Book Award for nonfiction for Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? (Scholastic). From the January/February 1994 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Patricia and Fredrick McKissack About Patricia and Fredrick McKissack

Patricia and Fredrick McKissack have written more than one hundred books about the African American experience.

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