In the painting, Truth holds her right hand up and out, with an open palm. It appears Truth is either gesturing to the bible on the table or waiting for something to be placed in her hand. But the manner in which her hand is depicted was impossible for Truth given Truth's disabled right hand. The painting does not focus on Truth's right hand so its "corrected" presence leads to a key question: was Truth's hand intentionally "corrected" or was she depicted as she had come to be known in her public persona — without disability?
Either way, the manner in which Truth is represented here sustained the cultural discourse that stigmatized disability and did so in a more striking manner than Truth's photos. Perhaps the change of mediums facilitated different representations of Truth, but I suggest that the medium of paint simply amplified the "corrections" already begun in the photographs.
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In order to challenge the cultural discourses that sustained race and gender hierarchies, representations of Truth portrayed her as strong and able-bodied. While challenging the marginalization of African-Americans and women, such a representation served to further stigmatize those with disabilities. If images of Truth used rhetoric of ability to construct Truth as a strong woman, did her speeches also draw on this rhetoric or did Truth's speeches convey something her images did not?
In order to explore this question, the following section turns from Truth's representation in images to analyze two of Truth's public presentations: her "Ar'n't I a woman" address and her address at an gathering of abolitionists. In each instance, Truth uses words and her body to make a case for the equality of black women by "passing" as able-bodied. This speech has become legendary and lies at the heart of many feminist understandings of Sojourner Truth. There are two extant versions of this speech: one was written shortly after the address in the June 21, Salem Bugle , the other was written by Francis Gage, one of the presiders at the Convention.
The second version is included in Truth's Book of Life. While several readers of Sojourner Truth, including Piepmeier and Painter, suggest that the Bugle version is more accurate to what actually occurred, the inclusion of Gage's version in Truth's Book of Life demonstrates the importance of that later version for the construction of Truth's public persona and perhaps even for Truth herself. Gage's version dramatizes the event: "Slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had hardly lifted her head.
Look at me. Look at my arm,' and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing its tremendous muscular power. In both versions, Truth referred to her bodily capabilities in order to establish women's equality with men. In this address, Truth's references to her own body challenged cultural discourses on womanhood even as they sustained cultural discourses on black womanhood. Truth's strength demonstrated that women were strong, not weak nor passive.
As Painter states: "At every step, she is the bodily equal of a farming man. Recognizing the social construction of her sexual identity, Truth attempted an alternative performance that directed attention to the constructed nature of normative performances. The female strength performed by Truth demonstrated the potential strength of all women's bodies. In this speech, Truth constructed her black body as female in order to challenge cultural understandings of "woman" among those for and against women's rights. Truth challenged her audience, "I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar'n't I a woman?
Truth definitively answered no in her attempt to shift the discourse on women's rights. By calling attention to her strength, however, Truth risked perpetuating the cultural understanding of black women as males. Black women were understood as entirely different from white women.
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Truth's point in this speech is that black women are just as much "woman" as white women. According to Truth, the strength of black women demonstrates that strength and femininity can co-exist in one body.
In Akron, Truth constructed not only her own body, but also the bodies of powerful biblical women to challenge the cultural discourse on women. Piepmeier suggests that Truth's intention in this speech was to construct herself within the cultural discourse of tall-tale figures. In tall-tales, as Piepmeier points out, bodies that might normally be interpreted as freakish or grotesque become heroic. Truth is not, however, constructing herself as "heroic because grotesque" as a tall-tale figure. Truth did not, however, draw attention to her "grotesqueness" in order to construct herself as heroic.
Perhaps Truth's attention to other aspects of her body, such as her blackness, strength, and femininity, were attempts to construct herself as a tall-tale figure but, if that is the case, Truth constructed herself as "heroic because grotesque" while deflecting attention from her "grotesqueness".
Truth, thus, used her body to challenge cultural discourses on black womanhood, while sustaining cultural discourses on disability. As Truth is represented in both versions of the Akron speech, Truth's attention to her strength demonstrates her pride in her black female body while simultaneously negating her disability.
Truth also deployed feminist and racial-pride rhetoric while negating her disability in an speech on abolition in a town in Indiana. At the end of her speech, a group of men prevented the meeting from adjourning by claiming that Truth was really a man in woman's disguise. According to the men, Truth was an abolitionist who sought sympathy and recruits to her cause based on her story as a former slavewoman while she was, in fact, a man. The request, as recorded in Truth's Book of Life , was led by a doctor who requested that Truth allow her breasts to be examined by some of the ladies present in order to determine Truth's sex.
When chaos erupted among Truth's supporters and those who supported the idea of having Truth examined, Truth entered the conversation. According to her Book of Life :. Sojourner told them that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those babies had grown to man's estate; that, although they had suckled her colored breasts, they were, in her estimation, far more manly than they her persecutors appeared to be; and she quietly asked them, as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wished to suck!
In vindication of her truthfulness, she told them that she would show her breast to the whole congregation; that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame. In this response Truth actively constructed her public persona as a former slave. While suckling white children may have been a key part of a southern slavewoman's job, it is unlikely the northern Truth actually "suckled many a white babe.
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Truth's body, in Truth's construction of it, represented a collection of all black slavewomen and, as such, spoke on behalf of all black slavewomen. As a compilation of black slavewomen, Truth's body took on the stereotypes of black slavewomen as mammies, sexually loose, and males, reinventing some of these stereotypes while sustaining others.
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As Painter notes, "Truth had turned the challenge upside down. Her skillful remaking employed the all-too-common exhibition of an undressed black body, with its resonance of the slave auction that undressed women for sale. What had been intended as degradation became a triumph of embodied rhetoric.
In other words, Truth proclaimed her truthfulness but not on the terms of her accusers. Truth, rather, employed the mammy stereotype to call attention to the public nature of black women's breasts. In the nineteenth century, black women's breasts were available for display from the auction block to child rearing and sex. Truth's words, therefore, called attention to the public availability of black women as mammys while Truth's body called attention to the public availability of black women on the auction block.
Truth's protest involved exaggerating the social norm. Truth made her body a protest by offering it for examination. In the process, however, Truth used her body to shame not only her accusers but also anyone participating in the system that constructed black women's bodies as available. In this context, Truth again used her body to challenge cultural discourses on race and gender that stigmatized her body. Yet, at the same time, the construction of her body as female, black, and able maintained an ideology of ability, which assumed abled bodies to be superior to disabled bodies.
In the address, Truth directed attention away from her disability by consciously drawing attention to her strength. In her response to this query regarding her gender, Truth took a different approach by using her body to demonstrate her femininity.
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While this latter use of her body did not directly elide her disability — as in the address — it represents another example of how Truth used her body to challenge racist ideologies of gender by directing attention to her body but away from her disabled hand. Representations of Truth's body in images and speeches now preserved in writing served an important purpose in the nineteenth century context where ideologies of racism and sexism served to subjugate African-Americans and women. Yet, by establishing racial and gender equality on the foundation of equal ability, nineteenth century feminists and abolitionists assumed an ideology of ability — an ideology that valorized intellectual ability along with physical ability — that lay under racism and sexism.
These activists did not attempt to argue for equality by dismantling the ideology of ability, which grounded racism and sexism. Such an approach to equal rights is particularly interesting in light of the case of Sojourner Truth who fought with feminists and race activists for the rights of African-American female bodies that were marginalized for both their gender and their race. Her approach, however, maintained the equality of African-American women based on their ability. Rather than dismantling the ideology of ability which grounded racism and sexism, Truth, like the equal rights activists in whose footsteps she followed, maintained the equality of African-American women on the basis of their ability.