‘A Brave and Startling Truth/Women Scribe the World,’ Nov. 3-Dec. 4 at WomensWork.Art in Poughkeepsie, New York
by Wanda Sabir, Arts & Culture Editor
This is a narrative following Ms. Wanda Sabir’s Souljourning for Truth Project 2022: 40 days and 39 nights searching for Truth’s people. Who were her people, and did they know the inheritance or legacy she left them?
Upstate New York – specifically, the Dutch African descendants and the Dutch-speaking enslaved populations, didn’t leave much documentation of what it was like in this part of the country.
That the enslaved people there had a different experience than that of Black people in the South is documented in Truth’s “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” the only such record to date. Later, this record would be challenged by those wanting to authenticate the details. Truth allowed herself and her story to be propagandized to support various causes: abolition, suffrage and temperance.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was a womanist long before Alice Walker coined the term. She never let her audiences forget what Black women, especially the Black mother, suffered. She was traumatized as a child, like her peers, who were separated from their parents like puppies in a litter. We see her behavior affected by this early separation when she must leave her girls and son when she leaves the plantation.
Just 29 years old, we see how hard it was for her to separate herself from her abusive owner(s) once free. It was the voice inside her soul that helped her make the right choice, but she writes of her struggle to separate herself from Dumont specifically.
Self-reflection is something Truth practiced. One might say she meditated. Her relationship with Jesus, her God, was both personal and specific, in that she told Jesus what she needed and received what she asked for. In her narrative time and time again, her prayers were answered. Hers was a practical and useful faith. It yielded tangible results right away. Truth had power too; she could speak things into being.
Perhaps this was how Truth was able to trust her path and lean into the direction called. It was the same with me this summer. I had the desire to travel to New York and when I realized I could not afford to drive, a way opened. I was invited to stay in Poughkeepsie for a month, May 23-June 23. My host, Iya Jo (short for Josephine) was the incarnation of my maternal grandmother, Josephine Isaac, a master chef. Iya Jo is also a master chef. I didn’t have to shop or worry about meals. For the first time in my adult life, I was taken care of. It was amazing.
When Sojourner Truth traveled, she stayed with supporters, women who believed in African freedom and the end of slavery. Some of these women even believed that Black women (Black people) were their equals. These friends served prison sentences and spent their time and money and persons in the cause of Black Liberation.
They even established a utopian community in Northampton, Mass. Truth lived there for 16 years (until it disbanded). The synergy and timeliness of Souljourning for Truth was arranged by the Master Planner. Juneteenth week in Ulster County opened with the display of the legal documents Truth filed and signed with an “X.”
Newly discovered, these court documents also show her free person name: “Isabella Van Wagener.” Ms. Van Wagener sues the man who purchased her young son for his return. These documents had been lost. This suit was unprecedented – a Black woman in court demanding her son’s return and winning the case. Peter was illegally sold out of the state. I was able to see the document, talk to the person who discovered it in the State Archives and later meet two of Truth’s two granddaughters, sixth generation.
Later in Battle Creek, Mich., where Truth lived the final 20 or so years with her daughters and son-in-law and grandchildren and where they are buried, I met a woman at the hotel where I stayed who grew up with Truth’s great-grandchildren. Barbara Allen has written two children’s books. She and her sister missed the courtroom program – however, I met the two great granddaughters a few days later on the Ulster County Truth Bus Tour.
Newly discovered, court documents also show Truth’s free person name: “Isabella Van Wagener,” and where Ms. Van Wagener sues the man who purchased her young son for his return.
June 15, the courtroom was open for this special occasion. Imagine, we were in the courtroom where Sojourner Truth as a young mother won this case. Visiting officials from throughout the state came to honor Truth and African American Freedom Day or Juneteenth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Black women and women jurists and legislators in one place. The courthouse was packed.
On the weekend tour, June 18, those lucky folks present were able to see where Truth was born, where she and her parents lived before she was sold away, plus the various locations where she was enslaved and where she stayed those early days, months, years of freedom. Paul O’Neill, Ulster County Commissioner of Jurors, an amateur historian and native son, narrated the tour. Just a few days earlier, he’d led us on a walking tour in Kingston from the courthouse to visit the home of the judge where Truth stayed while the proceeding was taking place.
There was no way the man who sold Peter out of state was going to win, so he settled with the court and returned the child as ordered to the care of his mother. The beautiful bright child had been harmed by the beatings – and his mother’s abandonment – and didn’t recover until he went to sea from which he never returned.
The harm suffered by this family, just one family among so many, was tragic, yet despite the horrors of slavery and poverty – Truth was not awarded damages for her son’s theft nor ever compensated for her childhood in bondage – apologies do not pay the rent, she accomplished so much. She met with two presidents and advised them on reparations for her people – neither listened.
She suggested freed Black people travel west where there was less discrimination. The Great Migration proved her advice prescient. My family traveled to San Francisco from New Orleans in the second wave of the 1960s. I visited Washington, D.C., where Truth is remembered in the Capital with a bust.
She did so much, and so did her daughters and grandchildren we read about in her “Book of Life.” Hers was a true life of service. Truth liked living in community, intentional communities, which took her to Michigan after the Northampton experiment collapsed.
Another name for Battle Creek is the Cereal Capital because at one point there were 100 brands – Kellogg a big one. One of the Kellogg brothers was a physician. He took care of Truth when she had an ulcer on her leg. Battle Creek is also the place where the Adventist church was founded. I found the history of this church and its involvement with the abolitionist movement interesting. Battle Creek and the larger area has so many underground railroad spaces in stores and dental offices.
We touched the walls and walked on the floors and imagined her life there.
It was a major hub for escaping Africans. I visited the spot where her former home was located, the historical museum where her fifth great grandson has an exhibit tracing her life’s story and the lobbying for a state holiday and a monument in her honor. Both were achieved. Last year was the first anniversary of Sojourner Truth Day in the State of Michigan.
The monument is huge – larger than the one in Northampton and Poughkeepsie and Port Ewen. There were many Truth moments, whether that was seeing her doppelgänger at the Skywalk over the Hudson, seated at the foot of the monument in her honor on Pinkster weekend, June 3-6, or having Truth as Trickster, June 1, take us to the spot on Shaupeneak Ridge in Esopus, New York, where she walked into freedom with her baby daughter in October 1826 or seeing the library named in her honor at State University of New York – New Paltz.
We met two people June 1 after my early morning walk along her Freedom Trail. One woman told us about the mural at SUNY New Paltz and the other was a man from the Netherlands. He was on a bike. Truth was bilingual – her first language Dutch. I thought her timing impeccable. Imagine sending along a man who spoke her native language.
Later he went to a church where the pastor, Rev. Deborah Zuill, is credited with introducing Truth’s story back into the regional lore. He told her about our encounter. The pastor’s son and I share a birthday and he is one of the programmers for “My Kingston Kids” and knows Barbara Allen, author, activist and Sojourner Truth’s sixth great-granddaughter. He picked Barbara and her sister up from the airport.
I stayed in a temple – candles lit daily; ancestors honored – chimes rang. During this time the strawberries were falling off the vines and other fruits and vegetables were blooming in community farms in Iya Jo’s backyard and at the Kingston YMCA Farm where youth organized Truth Day, Nov. 26, 2021, in Ulster County.
I visited the Sojourner Truth State Park, visited the church where she probably sat in the balcony and another where her children attended with their owner once she’d left. I visited many cemeteries, among them the African Burial Ground in Kingston at Harambee. I was on the bus and traveled in sunny and rainy weather. I rode Iya Jo’s bike and walked too. Sometimes I drove or took a car, and I was lost a lot.
Upstate New York is rural and vast and white. It hasn’t changed much from when Truth lived here, except, Black folks are free.
I met a lot of people and I gave everyone I met who seemed like an ally or supporter a button, Souljourning for Truth 2022. Some folks got 2-3 buttons, additional ones: Wombfulness Gatherings and Maafa SF Bay Area. By the time I left New York, people were calling me out and wearing my button(s) – we were starting a Truth Movement for the liberation of Black people, especially Black womben.
Truth’s reality was white in Upstate New York, but when she was in Manhattan, she was with Black people, and when she retired to Battle Creek, she touched the lives of many Black people. In Michigan, it was refreshing to see so many Black people who knew her legacy.
I went on a tour at the David Ruggles Center in Northampton, Mass., and saw the house where Truth wrote her book with her friends. I could imagine her seated on the porch rocking and talking and maybe smoking her pipe. I stood outside the church where Truth and other revolutionaries had meetings where all people, men and women, Black and white, had an equal vote on decisions. These were brave women and men and Truth loved them and was well-loved.
It was sad that these historic properties throughout my Souljourning are owned by private persons and none of these owners are Black people. I hope this changes. Barbara Allen wants to purchase her great-grandmother’s first sanctuary when she walked to freedom October 1826, the Isaac and Maria Van Wagener house in New Paltz, New York. We visited this home on June 18 while on the Sojourner Truth Black History Tour with the County of Ulster.
The owners were home and they showed us the place where Truth stayed with her infant Sophia and later Peter too. We touched the walls and walked on the floors and imagined her life there.
But I get ahead of myself. Back in New Paltz after a long day on the road traveling from Poughkeepsie to Northampton, I went on a tour of historic homes, some built by a Black builder, a famous Civil War veteran and master builder: Jacob Wynkoop. That same day I was a part of the Truth Tour, there was a Juneteenth in New Paltz at the cemetery where African Americans are also buried.
Mr. Wynkoop’s marker is there along with other Civil War veterans. Flowers were placed on all the plots, I think there were at least 100. Their names were read at the Libations and Prayers for African Ancestors of the Middle Passage, Juneteenth Ceremony, June 18. There were events all day and the following day, the actual Juneteenth Day, June 19, at Historic Huguenot.
In New Paltz at Historic Huguenot, we visited homes of people who owned my ancestors. As we walked into the attic, there were looms and an area set aside for the enslaved persons to sleep – in the rafters between barrels and other goods. It was probably hot and uncomfortable there while below white folks slept in beds and their children played with toys and dolls.
Yet, Isabella Van Wagener, then Sojourner Truth, managed to think beyond her circumstances which had not crippled her; how else could this Black mother sue the state for her son’s return?
Our tour guide shared with us a shackle, small and probably for a woman’s neck. There was also a necklace. The owner’s name, E. Hardenbergh was engraved on the shackle. He was related to Sojourner Truth’s owners, who share the Hardenbergh name. This family owned her parents and all her siblings who’d been given or sold away before she was born or while she was very young, too young to remember them.
Sojourner Truth’s legacy is bigger than the material culture absent; however, that would be nice. It would have been nice to visit her final home in Battle Creek. Her final home, her first home and the places where she was enslaved are still standing and occupied by others. The home where she walked into freedom is still there.
As mentioned earlier, we went into the barn and into the house where Truth slept. She speaks in her narrative about the comfortable bed she was unable to sleep in, so she slept next to it on the floor the first night. Later or maybe the next day she slept in it and rested so well, she wondered how she would be able to convince herself to get up and go to work when resting felt so good.
Rest – Truth knew little of rest and sleep and relaxing at that time. Black women still do not rest, not enough.
The floor was the same masonry as it was 100 years prior. In town, Kingston, at the judge’s home, the fireplace stove where Truth prepared meals was the original brick and stone too. Throughout the weekend and throughout my stay, ghosts walked with us, their homes still occupied and well-cared for. For Truth, we were literally walking in this free Black womban’s footsteps.
God is certainly the master travel agent. This trip will never happen again – it was magical. Truth sent for me and I said yes. The lessons are still unfolding … but the direction is clear.
This book is both a reflection and a tribute to this amazing woman’s life. When one thinks of the trauma of enslavement, her life is a case study. Truth lived a long life; she lived a life of self-determination, a life of faith. She was not perfect, and she made mistakes.
Her philosophical father was a slave owner. Her first lover-rapist was that same slave owner, Dumont. He was cruel, both he and his wife, according to Nell Painter in “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.” Yet, Isabella Van Wagener, then Sojourner Truth, managed to think beyond her circumstances which had not crippled her. How else could this Black mother sue the state for her son’s return?
The very courts that supported her capture decided in her favor.
I think about all our ancestors, descendants of enslaved Africans and what we carry. Despite all of this pain, we have contributed immeasurably to this nation and its people. Imagine how much we could have done and could still do if we were able to face the trauma and learn more healthy life strategies. True reparations start with this.
Not another generation needs to experience this unresolved chronic illness or trauma we are passing along to our children who live in the wombs that bore the wombs all the way back to the first womb who stepped on the ship in West Africa and womben who stepped off the ships onto this soil.
How do we honor Truth?
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 blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.