Root or Ruth?

A powerful essay by Shoola Oyindamola

(Based on Sojourner Truth’s speech in 1851 — Ain’t I a Woman?)

A Black woman should be given the freedom to choose if she wants to fight mainly for racial equality or gender fairness or for both. Although racial discrimination has reduced tremendously in the 21st Century, questions arise on why a Black woman should fight against gender unfairness if racial discrimination still lurks around the corner. To many, the idea of feminism and fighting for a woman to do as she wishes is a thing for “White women” only. Also from history until today, many African countries have been praised for bringing up Black women with good morals . The effect of these trainings is evident in the way Black African women respect the opposite sex in their marital homes with modesty, humility, quietness and in dressing appropriately. Therefore, it sounds morally defeating when these Black women whether, African-American or African, with or without slave history, choose to be loud, to speak up, to be able to look the man in the eye, and dare to do the things that he can do. It is presented as if gender training is a waste of time when a Black woman breaks out of her shell which is gender roles and expectations. Even in the so-called civilized and improved societies today, many young Black girls are trained not to have or expect as much right and freedom as the opposite sex. They are often criticized for choosing to do things differently concerning their gender in their visions for the future.

In Ernestine Johnson’s performance on the Arsenio Hall Show, 2014 titled “The Average Black Girl”, she addresses the insults that the young Black girls face constantly. The statements like “you are too intelligent or educated for a Black girl,” “you can’t be too rich for a Black girl, you will threaten the man,” “you have too good hair for a black girl,” “every Black woman’s education ends in the kitchen” are often said directly or indirectly by people. When did perfection or living in the flamboyance of the feminine or black power equate to being white or being a man? It is one thing to be Black, it is another to be woman and it is something else to be a Black woman. A Black woman faces both racial discrimination and gender unfairness. Should she choose to defend her blackness and fight with the Black man against racial discrimination or should she defend her feminism and fight even against the Black man because of gender unfairness?

Sojourner Truth, in her speech titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” presents the discrimination against her being as Black and as woman. Although she is woman, she is treated unfairly and differently from other women because of her race. In her speech, she asks why other women are treated like princesses and she is treated differently. It is similar to the case of Barbie dolls as of today, white posed, with blonde hair, good dress to fit the society’s standards of beauty while the other dolls of coloured races may not be made to fit such standards or with their true qualities like the nappy hair. In the following excerpt of the speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth asks what makes her different from other women.

Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!” (And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunders, she asked) “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at me! Look at my arm! (And she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power.)

– Sojourner Truth

Around the time of this speech, in the history of America, 1800’s, slavery of the coloured population especially the Black was at its peak. Slave catching was the norm. The captured men and women were made to work at large scale farms to earn money for the dominant race. The women were likely to be raped while the men were likely to be hung or shot if they did not conform to the expectations of their masters. Judging from Sojourner Truth’s words and Solomon Northup’s story “12 Years a Slave”, the Black female slave was required to do as much work on the farms as the man. Because of the gender roles and trainings these Black women were made to learn at their young age, picking cotton and maize in the farm and planting was easier for them to do. Besides that, they had the burden of reproducing and being sex slaves. The racial discrimination had more impact in the life of a Black female slave than gender unfairness did. At that time, it was fully considered “white” to fight for gender unfairness. It was deemed unreasonable for a Black woman to fight for her right as a woman when her freedom as black was at stake. The equality in the strength for each gender to fulfill their demanding tasks and burdens effectively is portrayed in following excerpt of Sojourner Truth’s speech.

I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear de lash a well! And a’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?

– Sojourner Truth

The history of women is rarely displayed unlike the emotional history of slavery that is portrayed popularly in the media today. Many anti feminists and third wave feminists don’t fully understand why women’s rights were fought for in the first place. As a result, they ridicule the word “Feminist” with little or no regards to historical women like Emily Wilding Davidson who died creating an awareness for women’s existence on the 4th of June 1913. She was buried in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Morpeth, Northumberland. Her gravestone bares the WSPU — Women’s Social and Political Union’s slogan, “Deeds not words.” Compared to today’s society, many people crave words that promise to fight for the fair treatment of the female gender rather than work towards it.

Around the early 1500’s and 1600’s in England and Scotland, the idea of equality between the female and male gender became more prominent. The social tension caused by the male gender’s patriarchy over the female gender gave birth to the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In those days, Stereotypes and ascribed gender roles had a major place in shaping each individuals to fit into the environments. According to these gender stereotypes, men were known to be the stronger sex. They were thought to be more intelligent, courageous and determined. Women on the other hand, with the role of reproduction, caregiving and home management, were stereotyped to be more governed by their emotions. Their values were expected to be chastity, modesty, companionship and piety. Any female that did not exhibit these characteristics apparently had failed in being someone. Men were thought to be more aggressive while women more passive.

As a result of these gender differences, there was a division of which gender is strong or weak and the stronger gender ruled over the weaker gender. The males, seen as the stronger one were positioned as leaders over everything in the society. Women became victims of these undeveloped societies, and they were given little or no voice concerning their opinions, properties, making societal decisions and owning themselves. Men were permitted to own and hold women as properties. If a husband did not want his wife anymore, it was permitted that he tied her on the neck or on her waist with a rope to an open market for auctioning. He sold her to the highest bidder like they did to animals. In those days, women’s rights such as freedom to expression and opinion were limited. If a woman was unruly to her husband, that is, said her opinion contrary to his, he had the right to place an iron helmet called a scold’s bridle or a brank’s bridle on her head. The scold’s bridle has a spoon like structure attached to fit into the mouth, sometimes with a pointed edge to pin her tongue down when the helmet was locked on her head. She would be made to wear this for about a day, most likely the market day, as her punishment. There was not so much justice for women and the female gender entirely. Concerning the political system, women were not allowed to vote. In the educational system, women were not permitted to be educated beyond a certain level. To the society in those days, women could not possibly achieve success in the educational system. Females were entitled mostly to nothing else but their ascribed roles. The jobs they got earned them little pay.

– British Broadcasting Corporation Documentary

The women were rejected in the workforce while the men were accepted with the excuse that they were physically stronger and could do the strength demanding tasks. During those times, the types of jobs that persisted were mining and architecture, these jobs required physical strength. The women argued that even if they are not physically equal, they are mentally able to function well in intelligence required tasks and jobs like, politics, education and accounting. However, the women were not given enough license to practice their intelligence as their access to education was limited. The males were to go to school to learn and improve their intelligence while the females stayed at home with their mothers to learn skills like sewing, cooking and washing of clothes to take care of the males especially. When this injustice and discrimination became unbearable, in the 1800’s, women, the suffragettes decided to create reform movements to allow their involvement in politics so as to make important laws and decisions that were also beneficial to them.

Many people question what remains to be fought for in the issue of racial injustice and gender unfairness. It should be made clear that the fight against gender unfairness is not for the “White people or civilized countries” alone. Also, the fight for gender inequality is not only about the gender gap in wages or gender discrimination in the distribution of jobs or gender inequality in the political system. Even in the United States of America, there is still more work to be done concerning these gender issues. Carly Fiorina, during the recent Republican presidential debate said-

I wouldn’t change the $10 bill or the $20 bill, I think honestly it’s a gesture. Don’t think it helps to change our history. What I would think is, we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation. And this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.

– Carly Fiorina

To achieve gender fairness for the females, there should be a change of attitude, cultural expectation, stereotypes and even language. Gender unfairness unlike racial discrimination is normalized beyond expectation and that needs to be changed. In the African society, it is somehow considered as nonsense for a woman to have certain rights in her marital home, let alone fight for the gender equality in such a male-controlling environment. The freedom of having feminine opinion or being a certain way a woman chooses to be is not so common. It has always been the norm for a female to strive and change to be likeable. The females are presented in the way that is desirable for the society to bear rather than in the female’s true nature. In other words, the females are advised and nurtured to shrink to the level of the men’s comfort. It is presented like, if they choose to be the best humans available in different aspects and careers of life, men are suddenly displaced of their masculinity, place and dignity in being. As if these actions are not enough to tarnish a female’s pride in herself, language contributes its portion to the poison. In news, essays and articles, somehow, it sounds more appropriate to say “man and woman” rather than “woman and man,” “male and female” rather than “female and male.” In the Nigerian Yoruba language, to say “Obirin bi okurin” which means “a woman like a man” is to praise a female for something notable, strong and worthy she has done. However, to say “Okurin bi obirin” which means “a man like a woman” is to insult a male, for being weak or for choosing to do something like a woman does it. Also, if a man dwells into polygamy and marries more than two wives in the same home, people will rejoice with him and attend the wedding ceremonies but if a woman who is raped comes out about her experience publicly, she is likely to be slut shamed and questioned.

Societies doubt the strength, knowledge and power that women bear. Sojourner Truth defends women on the religious bases. She mentions the story of how Christ was conceived to show that God deemed a woman strong enough to bear the future of Christianity that still exists. Her tone is also commendable. It is of boldness and certainty in her words. In her speech, she says-

Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?” (Rolling thunder couldn’t have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated,) “Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.” Oh, what a rebuke that was to that little man…

– Sojourner Truth

She even goes further to discuss how the women who have been constantly boxed can be the key to fixing the pending racial injustice. She reflects on the power that Eve, the first woman God made had. Eve’s used her power to seduce Adam to join her in the sinful act of disobedience. Her actions caused a separation between God and human. Sojourner Truth points out that if one woman’s power can turn the world in the wrong direction, a group of other women have greater power to make it right. She says that-

If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!

– Sojourner Truth

Based on Sojourner Truth’s speech and her conclusion, for whatever reason a Black woman chooses to fight, whether for her race or for her gender, her aim should be for a better society. Also, fighting against gender unfairness should be a path rather than a barrier to end racial discrimination and injustice. Following the proverb that “two wrongs cannot make a right,” the history of female gender and the black race has gone through enough, no problem will be solved if young black girls and black women are constantly put in the dilemma of which cause to fight for. Although it is evident that the Black men are the main victims of racial injustice today, I believe that if women are well equipped to help themselves concerning gender unfairness, then they can fight for another cause. No naked man can clothe another.


Works Cited

British Broadcasting Corporation Documentary. “Suffragettes Forever, the Story of Women and Power.” YouTube, 7 August. 2015.

Carleton Mabee. “Sojourner Truth, Slave, Prophet, Legend.” New York: New York University Press 1995.: 67–82. Print.

Ernestine Johnson. “The Average Black Girl.” YouTube: Arseno Hall Show. 14 April. 2014.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “We Should All Be Feminists.” New York: Anchor Books 2014.: 23–24. Print.



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