Whether Sojourner Truth actually spoke the famous phrase attributed to her is a question. But the message of her 1851 speech at a women’s rights convention was clear: “Ain’t I a woman?” The formerly enslaved abolitionist and civil and women’s rights activist would not be dismissed when she demanded the time and commanded the stage, something that is not in dispute.
During Women’s History Month, in the week of International Women’s Day, my thoughts turn to Sojourner Truth. She was enslaved, cruelly abused, separated from her true love by a slave master determined that any children she had would be “owned” by him. Yet she escaped and sued to win back a son illegally sold into slavery.
While her battles, lost and won, benefited everyone, that reality did not always break through. She was repeatedly forced to prove so much, including that she was, indeed, a woman, one who loved, was loved and deserved love, who would crash a system designed to hold her down to get her child back in her arms.
Where do Black women fit in this time of celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women? At turns ignored and praised, vilified and valorized — and, sometimes, called on to save the world — we still have to stand up to declare our own truth, and our fullness as human beings.
Angry? That’s the stereotype. And why shouldn’t Black women be allowed the palette of emotions?
Anger must have propelled my personal heroine, Ida B. Wells, when a friend was lynched and she penned editorials in her Memphis, Tenn., newspaper in the late 19th century. “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was: an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized,” she wrote.
Her words were met with anger-fueled violence, as a mob destroyed her newspaper office and her life was threatened. She was a suffragette, who refused to march in the back, segregated from her white “sisters,” her allies — but only up to a point — at a 1913 march in Washington.
With a more important mission in mind, I really don’t think she cared how her emotions were judged.
What could these two prominent historical figures have to do with a modern-day, biracial American actress who, with the help of a media queen, captured the world’s attention this week? (And don’t try to act like you didn’t peek.)
More than you might think.
In the time of a worldwide pandemic, it might be seen as indulgent to pause to consider the angst of Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Britain’s royal family and the continued ability of Oprah Winfrey to grab the buzziest interview. But the event and its aftermath revealed a few things about who is and is not worthy of protection and empathy, and how calling someone “strong” is not always a compliment.
Critics of Markle, who would blame her for the evils of the world, often start with denying her very claim to be a woman of color, though apparently the British tabloid that called her “(almost) straight outta Compton” and the since-fired BBC presenter who tweeted a picture that seemed to compare her son, Archie, to a chimpanzee had no problem coming to that conclusion. The behavior of the tabs, which set up an angel vs. devil contest between Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, and Markle was so sad and blatant, it led members of Parliament, though not the royal family, to have her back.
Putting aside all that, though, wouldn’t Markle’s courage in speaking out about the mental stress that affects those of all tax brackets elicit sympathy from the hardest, monarchy-enamored heart? Not really, to look at some of the harshest criticism on both sides of the pond. She’s pregnant, with a miscarriage in her recent past. Though, knowing how she was previously mocked and accused of having a character defect for cradling her baby bump, the negative reaction came as no surprise.
It took the life-threatening childbirth experiences of famous women such as Serena Williams to shed light on the disproportionate maternal health risks for Black women, no matter how high the profile or income. Full disclosure, once upon a time, I was one of those Black mothers-to-be, rushed to the hospital because of rising blood pressure, and it was scary indeed. My stress level was high enough; and I wasn’t being bullied by the media, all-powerful institutions or a father prone to dishing dirt.
To reference another stereotype about Black women, Markle’s tough, right? She can handle it.
It’s always this way, personal and political, for many Black women, the contrast between how you feel and how the world sees you.
In American politics, we’ve seen how this simplification works, how a Black woman is held up as the face of something terrifying because it’s become almost a reflex and is so easy to do.
It’s why Georgia game changer Stacey Abrams turns up in so many Republican fantasies, whether it’s Donald Trump using the image of a “laughing” Abrams to taunt state GOP officials who refused to hijack the state’s electoral votes or defeated former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler starting a voter mobilization effort to rival Abrams’ Fair Fight.
It’s why the White House and the office of the vice presidency can’t protect Kamala Harris or earn her the respect of some, who use the racist and sexist “Jezebel” label to denounce her from the pulpit of their churches.
Sojourner Truth may not have been educated, but she knew, in the way that Black women know. “I can’t read, but I can hear,” she reportedly said. And she could speak her truth in the fight for equal rights — human rights — for women, African Americans and those who would never acknowledge her accomplishments, sacrifice and complexity.
The least the world can do, even now, is listen.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.