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"Ain't I A Woman?"

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Many of us read, at some point or another, Sojourner Truth's speech, "Ain't I A Woman?" For those of you not from this country or who were never exposed to it, here's the speech as generations of kids learned it:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

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? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed 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 a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Powerful stuff, you'll agree. I can only imagine how much the crowd must have lost their shit on hearing it.

Only, well, that's not quite how it was. The version we all know was published twelve years after the fact, by an activist who was, shall we say, more concerned with achieving political goals than strict reportorial accuracy. The original version, which I'm taking from here, went something like this:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights [sic]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and man a quart—why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much—for we won’t take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.

I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept—and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Am I wrong, or is the rewritten version the more powerful of the two?
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On February 18th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC), richardthinks commented:
Of course. It has cadence, and rhythm, and repetition. It has that easy conversational style that only comes from diligent polishing. It is skaldry, without any hint of scolding. Cf Marcus Rediker's discussion of the famous slave ship deck plan, in his book The Slave Ship, prepared by and for abolitionists. Its clarity is a lie - it under-represents actual slave ship crowding and confusion - but it communicates so beautifully that it has remained useful, not just for abolitionist arguments but for anti-capitalist and anti-fascist ones as well.
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On February 18th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC), ratmmjess replied:
Ahhh. That's an excellent comparison. Thanks!
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On February 18th, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC), full_metal_ox replied:
The more colloquial version serves to underscore Truth's status as Other--but thereby also strengthens her position as the embodiment of, and spokesperson for, all the women who fell outside the cracks of the chivalrous patriarchal definition of Ladyhood.

As bemused_leftist points out, a lot has to do with to what extent Truth herself consented to the edit.
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On February 18th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC), shewhomust commented:
That's a great speech - or maybe two great speeches. You're probably right that the rewrite makes the oratory more powerful. But the 'original' has a wonderful dignity ('original' in quotes because this isn't the speaker's own draft, is it, it's someone's record of the speech, hence that garble of 'I am a woman's rights').

What makes me uneasy about the rewrite is that it plays up the idea of the speaker as uneducated, simple: "they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it?" I suspect that the use of the form 'ain't' had a shock value that we can't really feel. And yes, it makes for a powerful effect, and gives the speech a power for good - but at a price.
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On February 18th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC), ratmmjess replied:
Couldn't agree more. I'd almost call the rewrite racist, although it's a peculiarly well-meaning and benign kind of racism.
On February 18th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) replied:
The use of the word "honey" is also stereotypical. It's a word we still often think of black women using.
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On February 19th, 2011 11:58 am (UTC), shewhomust replied:
Well, patronising, certainly - and patronising Sojourner Truth both fir her race and her gender.
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On February 18th, 2011 10:49 pm (UTC), full_metal_ox replied:
And note that the final paragraph of the original, with its implication that women and blacks will actively take their rights rather than pleading for them, has been edited out.
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On February 19th, 2011 12:02 pm (UTC), shewhomust replied:
Indeed; more than that, actually, since the edit of that conclusion is all about the women and not about the slaves at all.
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On February 18th, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC), reverancepavane commented:

Interesting, and something, coming from elsewhere, that I hadn't actually encountered before.

To my mind the first (rewritten) version has plainly been made into an appeal for justice from men (the supposed audience I presume), whilst the second (original) version strikes me more as a complaint about men and the innate injustice involved in this situation.

Personally I found the second (original) version markedly more moving, but then I am not an audience that would be innately hostile to the ideas presented in it. Whereas if I was, the first (rewritten) version might make me more inclined to consider the matter out of charity, if nothing else.

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On February 18th, 2011 09:59 pm (UTC), bemused_leftist commented:
The 'original' version (if correct) was delivered with voice and gestures and audience reaction. Lacking those, the re-written version may have needed to add rhetorical flourishes for print distribution.

I'd wonder if Soujourner was consulted during the re-write?
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