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Maybe no other African-American women have shown as much bravery and determination to overcome adversity as these two – Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley. Both having been enslaved as young children, these two extraordinary women went on to defy the odds to carve out a place in black culture as truth-tellers. It's amazing that they were able to succeed in this world when something seemed to be weighted against them. Their ethnicity and skin color did not stop them from advocating for women's and African American rights. They both spoke against slavery Although both similar in what they were fighting for, Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley had differences in the way they conveyed their message and the methods that they used to achieve their goals.
Sojourner Truth was primarily known as an African American women’s rights activist and abolitionist. She used both the podium and the pulpit to validate the black woman’s experience (Carlacio 10). She is described as a flamboyant advocate (Baym & Levine, eds. 775). Born into slavery in 1797, five of her children were sold into slavery before New York state abolished slavery in 1827. A breakthrough moment for Sojourner was when she successfully sued for the return of one of her children. This experience convinced her that God wanted her to speak against the sins against black men and women in America. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published in 1850, a powerful piece of literature that she dictated to Oliver Gilbert. She also gave a powerful speech during a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1850 (Baym & Levin, eds. 775).
Phillis Wheatley is a deeply profound poet, and her literary contributions distinguish her apart from most writers of the era because her voice comes from belonged to the disenfranchised and marginalized slave experience. She lived as a slave, which makes her a credible chronicler of the pains and struggles of people, particularly women, of that era. Through her writing, she has enriched people’s knowledge of “negro” heritage.
Born on the West coast of Africa, in a place between the nations of Senegal and the Gambia, Wheatley was captured and brought to America to be sold as a slave at the age of seven. When she arrived in America, she was put on an auction block and was purchased by a wealthy lady named Susannah Wheatley. The Wheatley family taught Phillis how to read and write, and developed her poetry skills. In one of her poems entitled “On Being Brought From Africa to America”, Wheatley describes her experience and reminds the readers what her race is and where she is from.
Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral caused quite a stir when it was published in 1773 because of several things: she was a child prodigy, completing the poems all throughout her teens, and she was a black slave born in Africa.
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Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley both sought big comfort on their religion to get them through their life experiences. Both of their writings have also been influenced by their religious beliefs. In her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley says: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That There’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too…” (Wheatley). Wheatley concedes that one thing good that happened when she was brought to America is that she was introduced to Christianity. However, in the same poem she also states that the African’s dark skin is not a sign of being evil, which is a lie that Christian white people are being led to believe, and she goes on to tell her readers that blacks can be spiritual and educated, too. She tells Christian readers that “Negros…may be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley), that they have every right as whites to be Christians.
While Sojourner Truth was more renowned for her powerful speeches and activism, Phillis Wheatley was well-known for her powerfully brilliant poems and intelligence. It is evident that Phillis Wheatley had the advantages of having kind “white masters” who saw her brilliance at a young age, and supported her writing career by introducing her to the right people. She was also fortunate enough to learn to read and write, a privilege even many white women didn’t have at that time. Phillis Wheatley’s writing inspiration comes from her early exposure to people were opposed to slavery and abolitionists- being fortunate enough to be purchased by a couple from New York, where slavery was banned early in the 17th century. On the other hand, Sojourner Truth’s inspiration comes from a hard life of being an actual slave, being sexually abused by her master, and seeing her children being sold off to slavery one by one.
Although Phillis Wheatley’s life had been generally viewed as comfortable compared to other black women of that time and that she wrote from “an outside looking in perspective”, it doesn’t remove the fact that her heart cries out for freedom and the abolition of slavery. In one of her letters to Reverend Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister, she says “It doesn’t take a philosopher to see that the exercise of slavery cannot be reconciled with a “principle” that God has implanted in every human breast, “Love for Freedom” (Baym & Levin, eds. 402). Many of Wheatley’s critics also point out that her appropriation of Christian discourses in her more public poems demonstrates her wish to assimilate into the Colonial American mainstream (Kendrick). However, Kendrick also mentions that the description “assimilationist” is not appropriate for Wheatley’s body of work because her self-referential refiguring of both European and African American subject positions in her poetry suggests an attempt to reconstruct narratives which place her at the margins of culture. In fact, Kendrick gives four examples of Wheatley’s poems that questions her race’s ‘belongingness’ in the American society. These four poems are “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England”, “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America & c”, and “To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor, on the Death of His Lady. March 24, 1773”
Sojourner Truth, on the other hand, wrote from the perspective of someone who went through the harrowing experience of slavery. True to her name, she speaks out the truth. On her speech during the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, she says, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work. 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 am strong as any man that is now” (Truth). This speech also highlights what Carlacio describes as Sojourner Truth’s rhetorical stance, not only as a woman but also as a black woman. Her writings and speeches do not reflect her wish to assimilate, but it does express love for all mankind, even to those who brought harm upon her. Her Christian point of view is more oriented towards love and forgiveness. To quote her, “I began to love (white) people, but I remembered the cruelty of master and missis, and thought I could never love them. But there came more light, and I said yes, God, I love everybody.” (Carlacio from Truth, ‘Abolition of Slavery’ 11). Truth collaborated with both African Americans’ and women’s rights. She worked with white feminists and abolitionists. While Wheatley was more indirect in her approach because she used imagery and metaphor in her poetry, Sojourner Truth tackled the issues directly in her speeches and writings.
During a time when black women were the most racially disenfranchised group in America, both Phillis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth stood out. Albeit in different ways they knew how, both spoke out against slavery and stood for women’s rights. Both used Christianity as their strengths and often quoted the Bible in their statements and writings. They used their God-given gifts to act as all-important voices in African-American and women’s rights struggles.
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Baym, Nina (General Editor) & Levine, Robert S. (Associate General Editor). The Norton
Anthology of American Literature Vol.1: Beginnings to 1865, 8th edition. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.
Carlacio, Jami L. “Aren’t I a Woman(Ist)?”: The Spiritual Epistemology of Sojourner Truth.”
Journal of Communication and Religion, vol. 39, no.1, Spring 2016, pp.5-25. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=119046169&site=lrc-plus. Accessed from database Literary Reference Center Plus on April 9, 2017.
Kendrick, Robert. “Re-Membering America: Phillis Wheatley’s Intertextual Epic.” African
American Review, vol. 30, no.1, Spring96, p.71, EBSCOhost,
Accessed from database Literary Reference Center Plus on April 9, 2017.
Truth, Sojourner. “Speech to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.” 1851.
Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” 1773.
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