by Wanda Sabir
Well, I’ll tell ya, June is a special month, not because it’s my birth month – however, that is something – but it is the month that holds our collective “freedom.” Juneteenth is a time when we count all our blessings – those of us whose ancestors recent and past knew what it meant to not have rights to one’s person.
Can you imagine a time when taking one’s own freedom was criminal behavior? How can you steal what is yours? Even animals, some we call pets, have agency. Training does not eliminate certain innate proclivities – even the more trampled souls sometimes have a little bit left to stir or bang or holler in the chamber beyond reach. The living don’t just roll over and throw up our legs.
Well, maybe some of us do – those of us lost to ourselves – but not Sojourner Truth. She grabbed her baby Abigail and a knapsack and walked through the woods along the Hudson River to freedom. When her owner reneged on his promise to free her a year early for such fine service, he knew her worth and so did she. She left. Where there is no trust, there is nothing.
Watch this moving ceremony and dedication to Truth, of three miles of the 11, almost 12 miles she walked from Kingston in Ulster County through the forest summit at Shaupeneak Ridge to Esopus, New York, where she found refuge.
This is where I plan to walk on June 1 at sunrise. I hope I can walk the entire 11 almost 12 miles. I will let you know how it goes. If you know anyone along my route, introduce me: email@example.com as I “souljourney” through Kingston, New Paltz, Ulster County, New York State, Northampton, Massachusetts, Battle Creek and the historic Harmonia, Michigan.
At 29, Truth decided that it was time to leave. She wouldn’t get free waiting for someone to give it to her; she had to free herself. It wasn’t an easy decision. God told her to leave. The memo didn’t say where she was to go, just that it should be in the daytime and that she should walk, not run. She was to be seen leaving. Perhaps she was to be a role model. This happened October 1826. Later, she decided June 1 was her freedom birthday. She did not want anything from enslavement – first went the slave name.
I too got a memo – started as a poem, then grew into this desire to follow Truth’s Freedom Trail. A friend called it a hijrah or pilgrimage – I guess it is. As I step towards retirement age and think about legacy and what’s left of this walk, my life, Truth faces me. And so I read many books about her life, starting with her “Narrative” (1850), her life as told to Olive Gilbert, later released as her “Book of Life,” which includes news articles, an essay by Harriett Beecher Stow, letters, autographs of President Lincoln and other celebrities, even her own signature.
As mentioned in other columns, her “Narrative” and “Correspondence Drawn from Her ‘Book of Life’” is part of a lovely 30-volume series. “The Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers,” edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., published by Oxford University Press. It is a wonderful series and gives Truth’s life and work context when one sees who her peers are and who takes inspiration from her work. Truth was no shrinking violet. At 6 feet tall, she had presence.
It is this final biography I am reading presently, by Dr. Margaret Washington, “Sojourner Truth’s America,” that is, I think, the seminal scholarly work because in this book, Washington shows us Truth, the African woman, Truth the survivor of tremendous trauma – mother and father-loss, brutality, physical and spiritual and emotional. Imagine a child whose father figure is a man who beats and rapes her?
Sometimes we need something tangible to hang onto.
Nell Irvin Painter’s “Sojourner Truth” is wonderful as well. It is a great companion to the “Narrative.” In it, Painter takes the “Narrative” and goes deeper and allows us to read between the lines with implications she explores thoroughly. It is so thoughtful and enlightening.
The third book I’d recommend, not because I liked it a lot, but for its perspective, is Carlton Mabee with his daughter, Susan Mabee Newhouse’s “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend.” What the author, C. Mabee, who was faculty at SUNY New Paltz and was a native of New York State, set out to do was to document the facts of the story. It was this cold reading that leaves one bereft, as if Truth is once again being sold – the auction block, his-story.
Truth’s brilliance takes backseat to proof, when as Painter and Washington, even Truth shows, there are nuances text cannot capture nor can we, since none of us walked in her shoes when she had them. It is to her credit that Truth was so documented. It helps give her “Narrative” context.
I find Iya Truth an inspiration. I think all of us need inspiration – the air that fills our lungs in closed rooms. I am finding this in her example, in her story. Sometimes we need something tangible to hang onto. We are flesh, and flesh needs other flesh – even if the flesh has returned to the earth and is dust. I am looking forward to meeting Truth’s people – her allies and others who are living in the land where she walked.
My journey takes me also to Northampton, where she lives almost 10 years in an intentional community where people ate fresh foods, drank water, bathed, abstained from drinking and smoking – although sexual relationships were not discouraged (smile).
Truth was a woman who loved her pipe and humor. Her relationship with her creator was comfortable, like one has with a trusted friend. She was forgiving and grew in her understanding of life as she lived it. She was ever evolving and growing into a better she. It is unfortunate that for 19th century Black women, particularly those women who served their communities as she did, and many others, they struggled with poverty.
If it were not for the companions and supporters Truth asked to help her and willingly did, she would have struggled more – but it is a shame that after laboring all her life for another, she had accumulated no wealth as her white sisters who could stay single and live their lives freely could. It is the same now.
No one works until she is 65 because she wants to. I am able to do this walk, this “Souljourning for Truth,” because people are supporting my vision. So far I have raised $1,739 on GoFundMe and about $350 in checks and money orders and cash. The in-kind support is also phenomenal, such as my hosts here in Poughkeepsie, New York, Iya Jo and her beloved husband, Daniel, who are feeding me and allowing me to stay in their home for a month. This is huge! I couldn’t have afforded to do this walk, if I hadn’t had such good fortune.
Funny how life works: You do a good deed and then someone does you a good turn 15 years later. It is a Katrina Story, “Words Upon the Waters,” fundraisers for survivors in New Orleans and Mississippi and Texas and Alabama. Iya Jo contributed to the book. We hosted fundraisers with the book for seven to eight years to follow. The funds still go to projects that support people with disabilities in the Gulf Region, especially Mississippi.
Karla Brundage, WO2WA director, who introduced me to Iya Jo, said that this publishing model inspired her work in the years to come. Who would have known? Now I have co-edited my first anthology with Sara Biel, founder of Colossus Press. This third edition is “Colossus: FREEDOM.” The book addresses the impact of the carceral system on all of us. The writers are survivors, those who have been harmed, families and children and friends.
I don’t know if any of you has rented a car recently, but it is crazy astronomical, with costs ranging from $90– $200 a day. Even Zipcar is $101 a day. I am on the bus and train and foot and bike (if Daniel can repair it). I am distancing and certainly masking and washing my hands a lot.
It’s all good. We have to make our path by walking it. I have already walked a distance. I hope there are many more miles left, but I am happy whatever the eventual outcome – which I will learn soon enough.
Daughters of the Delta
Michele Jacques’ CHELLE! and Friends honors Louisiana women whose music accompanied the Great Migration in “Daughters of the Delta” at the 19th Annual San Francisco International Arts Festival, Saturday, June 11, 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 12, 2 p.m., at Plymouth Jazz and Justice Church at 424 Monte Vista Avenue in Oakland.
“Daughters” is an anthology that honors African American women composers and musicians hailing from Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The project acknowledges seminal figures whose body of work became the backdrop to the Great Migration as Black people moved out of the South during the Jim Crow era.
The project sets out to honor those that came before and preserve important yet often overlooked perspectives and experiences of Black women through the New Orleans style.
Michelle Jacques said of the research that went into creating “Daughters”: “The program includes materials inspired by Becky Elzy and Alberda Bradford recorded in the early 1930s when they were already acknowledged as the living repositories of spiritual music from the 19th Century.”
Ms. Jacques also observed: “Another featured artist is Lil Hardin, sometimes known to history as the second Mrs. Louis Armstrong – and the woman who created the branding and image that made him a superstar – but Lil was also an accomplished composer, musician and bandleader in her own right.
“Her music and that of women such as New Orleans native Lizzie Miles was part of the musical fabric that buoyed the spirits of Black folk during the successive waves of the Great Migration. Their legacies should have a place in a 21st Century dialogue.”
Exploring the genres of spirituals, gospel, jazz and the blues, and featuring original compositions and lyrics by Ms. Jacques and Cava Menzies with new arrangements of traditional songs by Brian Dyer, “Daughters” invokes the memories of these legendary ladies and invites their spirits into the house to be celebrated.
Tickets: advance price, $20; at the door, $25, full time students and seniors, $10. For box office and information click here or call 415-399-9554.
To hear Michelle talk about “Daughters” and to hear Andrew Woods, founder and executive director of SFIAF, talk about this 19th festival and the big move from beloved Fort Mason Center to San Francisco State University this fall, visit Wanda’s Picks Radio Show or watch on Facebook.com/wandaspicks.
Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.