Not nearly enough people outside of the United States have heard of Sojourner Truth, the pioneering 19th century anti-slavery and women’s rights activist. Some might say not nearly enough people inside the United States know enough about her either. Born a slave in Swartekill, New York in 1797, she led a life of hardship in the relentlessly tenacious pursuit of freedom for slaves and emancipation for women.
I write about her today because November 26 happens to be the 136th anniversary of her death.
She was an astonishing woman. She never learnt to read or write, yet was a powerful influence in the flow of ideas and social changes that contributed so much to the development of the civil rights and women’s rights movement in the USA. A great deal has been written about her achievements, but what I would like to focus on is not so much the incredible things she did in her lifetime, but on her voice. She was an incredibly powerful orator. She spent much of her life touring the nation speaking: using the power of the spoken word to change the way people thought. She moved people with her ability to challenge old ideas with new thinking, expressed with passion, authenticity and rigorous argument.
The ability to speak powerfully, to deliver well reasoned arguments in ways that move people, has a long and illustrious history. For over 2,000 years there have been powerful speakers who have moved people by the power of the spoken word. Sojourner Truth was one in a long line of great orators stretching back to Pericles’ Funeral Oration in the 4th century BC. Many others have carried the tradition forward – Abraham Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Emmeline Pankhurst, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou amongst others, all blessed with the gift to move people and to change ideas by the power of the spoken word.
Sojourner Truth is important for so many reasons. But to me, one of the most important is to remind us that the power of the authentic, passionate, personal voice can move mountains. I worry that it is a skill that is losing currency in an age when the soundbite matters more than the argument. I also worry that our children run the risk of not finding their own voice if we do not challenge them to develop their ability to frame and to express powerful, well-reasoned arguments. But I also see hope. There is hope when we hear young people like Greta Thurnberg speak so eloquently at the UN. There is hope when we hear young people like her stand up and speak truth to power with eloquence, with passion, and with unwavering conviction.
Our challenge as educators and as parents is to make sure we empower our own students and children with not only the passion to fuel what they believe in, but also the skills to make their voices heard in compelling ways.