I first heard of Sojourner Truth in a lecture by Eli Siegel, the great American poet, critic, and philosopher who founded Aesthetic Realism in 1941. In a historic lecture in which he placed the meaning, in American literature, of the African-American poet, Sterling Brown, Mr. Siegel also mentioned “a woman with a lovely name, Sojourner Truth….She ought to be known by everybody.”
After hearing this, I did some research (it was before the internet existed), and learned that Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was important in the history of America. An Abolitionist and women’s right’s activist, she spoke the truth about slavery at a time most of America lied about it.
I was amazed that any woman would so identify herself with truth that she would take it as her name. Personally, the subject made me uncomfortable. “Truth,” Mr. Siegel explained, “always has been the most desired thing and also the most feared thing. Wherever the self meets an object, and the self, while not running away and remaining what it is, can be affected by the object, there is truth. Truth begins with accepting a relation or being affected.”
Like every child, I wanted to be affected by things—I loved music and poetry—yet I also wanted, unknown to myself, to be superior to everything I saw. Eli Siegel taught: “There is a disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” This is contempt, and it is what makes us not want to see we are related to others. The feeling that we increase ourselves by lessening another is also, Eli Siegel said, the cause of all injustice, including racism today, as it was the cause of slavery.
Quite early, I didn’t like the fact that I was related to other people; I wanted to be different—and above. I felt so different from everyone in my family that I got insulted when people commented on a physical resemblance. I joined a sorority in high school, but soon dropped out, telling myself it was ridiculous to think I had anything in common with all those girls. I felt I was deeper, more mature. But increasingly, to maintain this superior picture of myself, I had to make things up, and change the truth, to give the impression I had a mysterious past, romantic liaisons, and a great deal of knowledge I didn’t really have.
I was angry with the world, but I also despised myself, and in an Aesthetic Realism lesson I will always be grateful for, I learned that I was suffering because I wanted to have contempt. With tremendous kindness, Eli Siegel showed me that the way I built myself up, feeling hurt by the world and then thinking how clever I was fooling and being superior to it, was untrue to the deepest purpose of life. “If there was, as they say in the fairy stories, a good fairy at your birth,” Mr. Siegel explained, “it would say: ‘May this child be encouraged to like whatever is likable in this world, so that her sense of the world itself is favorable.’ Then the next wish would be: ‘…May she never feel that she has the right to have ego victories because of the deficiencies of her parents.’”
I love Eli Siegel for teaching me the true purpose of life: to like the world on an honest or accurate basis. Because I had built myself up falsely, I was afraid the truth would lessen me. But as I studied Aesthetic Realism I began to learn what is true about the world and myself: Every person comes from the world and has its aesthetic structure: a oneness of opposites. Through knowing other people, we learn about ourselves. And one of the persons I loved coming to know was Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree, in Ulster County, New York in 1797. She woke America up to the lie of slavery.
Born into slavery, Isabella, as a little girl, witnessed the agony of her aging parents as their children were sold away. She was beaten so severely the scars remained all her life. Yet Olive Gilbert, in the “Narrative of Sojourner Truth” of 1850, writes:
If any one talked to her of the injustice of her being a slave, she answered them with contempt, and immediately told her master. She then firmly believed that slavery was right and honorable. Yet she now sees very clearly the false position they were all in, both masters and slaves…
Sojourner tells of how she was stopped from marrying the man she loved, and forced to marry someone her “master” chose:
She says, with groanings that cannot be written, ‘The Lord only knows how many times I let my children go hungry, rather than take secretly the bread I liked not to ask for.’
In the early 19th century, most people in America, north and south, either approved of or accepted slavery, as most people today seem to approve or accept an economic system—the profit system—which exploits the labor of those who work for the profit of those who already own a great deal. As Mr. Siegel explained:
The possibility of thinking that something is true which isn’t, or something isn’t true which is, is unlimited for everybody. If, no matter what our senses tell us, we hear nothing but one thing, we can come to feel that that is so…The possibility, even, of believing something which is against us, is unlimited. …One of the things that should occur in America is for people to take a week off and spend the time asking, “How have I come to see the things I think are true to be true?” I think this would save the world.
A lie people throughout history have wanted to believe is that some people are inferior to others. People, not thinking much of themselves, Mr. Siegel explained, try to build themselves up by seeing others as inferior, rather than trying to see what is true. Contempt, Eli Siegel saw, is the cause of slavery; it is the cause of all forms of prejudice.
When Isabella saw the truth about slavery, she had to act. “There can be no such thing as having truth,” Eli Siegel said, “without the wish to act on it.” Isabella ran away with her youngest child. And one day, she had a religious experience. She described it this way to Harriet Beecher Stowe:
The whole world grew bright…An’ I begun to feel sech a love in my soul as I never felt before—love to all creatures. An’ then, all of a sudden, it stopped, an I said, ‘Dar’s de white folks, that have abused you an’ beat you an’ abused your people—think o’ them!’ But then there came another rush of love through my soul, an’ I cried out loud, —‘Lord, Lord, I can love even de white folks!’
The reason Sojourner Truth should be known—the reason her life was and is so inspiring—is that she did not want to use the ugliness and evil she saw, and the injustice she experienced, to hate the world. She wanted to feel she could honestly love, as she put it, “even de white folks!” And the way she showed her love was by criticizing people, and encouraging them to see the Truth: that women, and people of color, have feelings as real and as deep as those of anyone else, including white men, and deserve to be respected. In the spring of 1843, at the age of 46, she changed her name to Sojourner, she said, “because I was to travel up and down the land, showin’ the people their sins, and bein’ a sign unto them.” Before, she had taken her master’s name, but now she would not follow any master but Truth, “and Truth,” she said, “shall be my abiding name.”
Sojourner Truth was a striking woman, more than six feet tall, with a deep, rich voice and accents that seemed strange to many people, since her first language had been Dutch. She spoke with power and sincerity that met something deep in her audience and made them feel a sympathy, a likeness between themselves and this woman who looked and sounded so different. Addressing an all-white Children’s Mass meeting at a Methodist Church, she asked: “Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? And who made mine black? Was it not the same God” She was such a compelling speaker that even angry mobs would end up listening to her words and being moved. Victoria Ortiz, in her biography, writes:
Sojourner had an extraordinary talent for bringing the talk back to slavery. How, she wondered, could those with the power and opportunity to speak and be heard, talk of anything other than that burning issue….She saw herself…as a conscience for those who would wander away from what mattered. When a northern Ohio man said rudely to her one day… “Old woman, do you think your talk about slavery does any good? Why, I don’t care anymore for you than I do for the bite of a flea.”
Sojourner answered with tremendous conciseness and not a little salt: “Perhaps not, but the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” And that is what she did. She made people uncomfortable unless they were tackling the problem of slavery.
In 1864, Sojourner Truth met with President Lincoln, and later was appointed to work with newly freed African-Americans in Washington. She never stopped fighting for what she saw as true. There is a description of her at nearly 80, standing on a Washington D.C. corner with streetcars refusing to stop for her, and shouting, “I want to ride!” until a crowd gathered and forced a streetcar to stop.
Sojourner Truth spoke in a way that changed people, made them question the superiority and contempt they had assumed was their God-given right—especially for women and African-Americans. “Contempt hurts mind,” Eli Siegel wrote, and he is the person who understood and explained unequivocally: “Contempt Causes Insanity.” The only way we can honestly esteem ourselves, he explained, is by trying to know what is true about reality. In the magnificent 1951 lecture I’ve been quoting on the philosophic meaning of truth, he stated:
Aesthetic Realism says we cannot love ourselves unless we love truth, because the basis on which we care for ourselves is how much we care for truth. I can say this as a mathematical statement: it is invariable. The other kinds of like are phony; they won’t work; they don’t convince the deepest unconscious.
I’m grateful to have learned about Sojourner Truth and I feel inspired by her life to have people know Aesthetic Realism, the one education that can end racism, prejudice, and the injustice that exists today because contempt is attractive to people. I think Sojourner Truth would love and agree with the truth of this statement by Eli Siegel, at the basis of Ken Kimmelman’s Emmy-Award-winning film, “The Heart Knows Better:”
It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same.