The Life of Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman? Part 2

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Sojourner Truth

An accounting of Sojourner’s struggles immediately following hr emancipation.

Isabelle returned to Van Wagener’s abode on the condition that he pay her a sum of twenty five dollars for a year’s service by her and her son. She justified her virtual surrender by acknowledging that Van Wagener had addressed her on decidedly different terms. He approached her with not a little humility when he asked her to return and she took this into consideration.

Upon arriving back at the Van Wagener’s she discovered that her son had been sold into slavery in Alabama, through a series of illicit business dealings. It was New York law at the time that no slave could be transported beyond the state’s boundaries. She was determined to retrieve him and went to confront her former mistress, Dumont. The woman was less than sympathetic to her plight.

“ Ugh! a fine fuss to make about a little nigger! Why, haven’t you as many of ’em left as you can see to, and take care of? A pity ’tis, the niggers are not all in Guinea!! Making such a halloo-balloo about the neighborhood; and all for a paltry nigger!!!’ Isabella heard her through, and after a moment’s hesitation, answered, in tones of deep determination’I’ll have my child again.’ ‘Have your child again!’ repeated her mistress her tones big with contempt, and scorning the absurd idea of her getting him. ‘How can you get him? And what have you to support him with, if you could? Have you any money?’ ‘No,’ answered Bell, ‘I have no money, but God has enough, or what’s better! And I’ll have my child again.’ These words were pronounced in the most slow, solemn, and determined measure and manner. And in speaking of it, she says, ‘Oh my God! I know’d I’d have him agin. I was sure God would help me to get him. Why, I felt so tall within I felt as if the power of a nation was with me!’” (From: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) dictated by Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883); edited by Olive Gilbert.)

Isabella spent much time in prayer, fortifying herself for the struggle ahead, yet confident that her faith and inner fire would bolster her sagging spirits. By chance, Isabella learned of the Quakers, and was advised to plead with them for assistance in her mission. They gave her sustenance and lodging and directed her to submit a plea to the Grand Jury. She did so and a writ was completed for the apprehension of Gedney, the man who had abducted her son beyond the state’s borders. However, the writ was mistakenly directed toward the culprit’s brother. “But while the constable, through mistake, served the writ on a brother of the real culprit, Solomon Gedney slipped into a boat, and was nearly across the North River, on whose banks they were standing, before the dull Dutch constable was aware of his mistake. Solomon Gedney, meanwhile, consulted a lawyer, who advised him to go to Alabama and bring back the boy, otherwise it might cost him fourteen years’ imprisonment, and a thousand dollars in cash.” (From: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) dictated by Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883); edited by Olive Gilbert.)

While Gedney sought to follow his lawyer’s advice, Isabelle was advised by her counsel that Gedney would owe her recompense for the sale of her son. She vehemently informed him that she had “not a drop of greed in her soul”, and insisted that she wanted her son returned to her for the sheer sake of taking care of him. As can be imagined, the lawyer was dubious of her motivations, but accepted her word. Gedney returned with her son in tow and the entire court was aghast at the gashes on the boy’s forehead and cheek. When the magistrate interrogated him the little boy piped up that they were the blows of a fiery, shod steed. All doubted this explanation but there was no method of proof beyond the boy’s implication of his master. The man was ordered to return the boy to his mother. There was a fine of $200 that could be pursued, but not by Isabelle.

When they were alone, Pete admitted the horror of what had transpired. All of them had been beaten mercilessly. Phyllis had been flogged after recently giving birth. Isabelle was chastened at the hardships suffered by he children. Her epiphany came when she learned that Pete’s abductor had murdered his wife, Eliza.

Isabelle began to spend a goodly portion of her time knelt in prayer and supplication, simultaneously railing at God and going to Him for succor. “She contemplated the unapproachable barriers that existed between herself and the great of this world, as the world calls greatness, and made surprising comparisons between them, and the union existing between herself and Jesus, the transcendently lovely as well as great and powerful; for so he appeared to her, though he seemed but human; and she watched for his bodily appearance, feeling that she should know him, if she saw him; and when he came, she would go and dwell with him, as with a dear friend. It was not given to her to see that he loved any other; and she thought if others came to know and love him, as she did, she should be thrust aside and forgotten, being herself but a poor ignorant slave, with little to recommend her to his notice. And when she heard him spoken off, she said mentally’What! others know Jesus! I thought no one knew Jesus but me!’ and she felt a sort of jealousy, lest she should be robbed of her newly found treasure.” (From: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) dictated by Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883); edited by Olive Gilbert.)

Thus began Isabella’s conversion experience. Her faith would sustain her in the days to come. They had been emancipated nearly a year when she and Pete settled in New York. In retrospect Isabella confirmed that had she been a soothsayer or had any inkling of the trials to come she would not have contemplated the move. Pete settled into a group of worthless and immoral companions, indulging in furtive behavior. Isabella despaired of his salvation and constantly chided him for his excesses. He fell into the hands of the police several times, and Isabella finally determined that he should go into service as a seaman. A distinguished colored barber by the name Peter Williams agreed to lend his assistance. It was customary of him to aid young men who found themselves adrift to engage them in the employ of whaling vessels. He acted as benefactor to her son, being stirred by a natural curiosity as the boy bore his own surname of Williams. Now Isabella’s greatest apprehension was that Peter would take flight before the ship set sail, and thus fail in his obligation to his rescuer. She heard nothing for several months. In October 1840, she received the following letter:

MY DEAR AND BELOVED MOTHER:

‘I take this opportunity to write to you and inform you that I am well, and in hopes for to find you the same. I am got on board the same unlucky ship Done, of Nantucket. I am sorry for to say, that I have been punished once severely, by shoving my head in the fire for other folks. We have had bad luck, but in hopes to have better. We have about 230 on board, but in hopes, if do n’t kave good luck, that my parents will receive me with thanks. I would like to know how my sisters are. Does my cousins live in New York yet? Have you got my letter? If not, inquire to Mr. Pierce Whiting’s. I wish you would write me an answer as soon as possible. I am your only son, that is so far from your home, in the wide briny ocean. I have seen more of the world than ever I expected, and if I ever should return home safe, I will tell you all my troubles and hardships. Mother, I hope you do not forget me, your dear and only son. I should like to know how Sophia, and Betsey, and Hannah, come on. I hope you all will forgive me for all that I have done. ‘Your son, PETER VAN WAGENER

It was in this way that Isabella lost the pleasure of having her children nearby—a cruel ramification of the abomination of slavery. It was her feeling of hopelessness, however, that compelled her to become both a missionary and an abolitionist. I will discuss the final stages of her life in the next and final installment of the series.