Women have for a long time been fighting for equality in a patriarchal society. Their every move has been countered by the masculine need to maintain a status quo and led to a revolution given the name "Feminist Movement'. The freedom and understanding women have today is due to the courageous efforts women showed in the past. Discriminated on the base of their gender women has to fight for their very existence in terms of individuality. Yet, in a racist America 'white' women were in a much better position than were the African-American women who had to fight the feminist war on two levels -- the first against the males the second against the racists who saw the color if their skin as a demeaning factor. That women got equality was a great feat considering the barriers they had to face, but that black women emerged in society as activists who overcame the societal restrictions was nothing short of a miracle. For these African-American women had to overcome their slavery, their culture, the negative stereotypes associated with them and the prejudice which came from both white men and women. They were sometimes illiterate and sometimes educated, and yet, either way emerged victorious overcoming their every handicap in society. It these women amongst whom Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells are but two name that gave feminist black activism a new life.
Consider that long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Ida B. Wells Barnett also refused to give up her seat in the "White" section of a train. Barnett's refusal did not, however, start a major boycott, instead she was forcibly removed from the train. Sojourner Truth, the first Black woman orator to lecture against slavery and yet, she did not begin a revolution. Historically, it has been the Black woman who has been at the forefront of many political, social and civic movements. Yet there is no sustained attention to the lives of women, not even familiar figures like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth whose experience of exile, travel, and displacement could create a black Atlantic with different contours from that of the male figures.
Born Isabella (Bomefree/Van Wagner), Truth was a former slave, domestic servant, and converted Christian who one day packed up her few belongings and walked away from her employers, declaring that she had been called to preach the word of God. It was also at this time that she took a new name, Sojourner Truth; a name that would become legendary in African-American and women's history.
Sojourner Truth was an illiterate former slave whose life was a contradiction. First there is the odd combination of Truth's familiar face and her obscure actions. Further, Truth's visual and verbal images are chaotic in that she is identified with a ladylike photographic image that clashes with the taunt of the question -- ar'n't I a woman? --We associate with her. Moreover, the phrase itself represents more what someone else said she said than her own utterance. Like most her counterparts Truth was a victim of her gender and her color. The double bias that she had to survive ensured that she was stronger than most. As a woman she had to fight for her individual freedom in a patriarchal society while as a black woman she had to fight not only racism but the negative images associated with black women. Her autobiography was written to contest the negative stereotypes applied to black women by whites, presumably men; she wrote from her experiences as female embedded in a hostile (male) culture. She became a symbol of black womanhood for white feminists in her own time, and thus since that time has been revered as a representative of early black feminist consciousness.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery but grew up in an era where the law - recognized blacks as persons, not property; citizens, not commodities. She was lucky enough to get an education and yet, she faced the racism that most of her community was used to. She moved to Memphis for economic reasons and became a teacher in the still segregated country and city schools becoming a part of the black middle class. From the very beginning she was opposed to any forms of discrimination. In 1883, she sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad after she was removed from a first-class coach, reserved for white ladies. The local courts gave a ruling in her favor, but in 1887 the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed their decisions.
That's when she began writing. She wrote reports of local news, cultural reviews, and moralistic sermons on the virtues of piety, industry, and thrift - common enough for a woman write of that era. Yet, soon she began to enter the arena of men as she gave opinions of political and social issues. Even white dailies printed per sarcastic letters of protest over some local injustice. By 1889, she was called the "Princess of the Press" soon became a part-owner and editor of her own paper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. But it was when the "lynch Law" and "mobocracy" became common that she matured in her political activism and began to write and speak actively against the racial segments of society.
What was it about these two women that captured the peoples attention and paved the way for social change. How could two women so different in their lifestyles create a movement that would lead to the same effect-that of equality.
The fact is both of these women used words and modes of communication to create change. The importance of their words emerged from a simple fact. The African-American history during the eras of slavery was so fraught with dissent that there were very few written records of the past. Thus, slaves who had fought for their freedom and managed to regain it write down history through their autobiographies. Narratives of their life as they called it. The narratives of the African-American slaves have fascinated the people of America and the world over for decades. It's a fascination that emerges through morbid curiosity and guilt, as the experiences of these slaves were anything but, humane.
While Truth could not write she could speak and she did -- loud and clear and when she found someone willing to write-she spoke and others wrote. Her spirit challenged those who were comfortable in their passiveness and called for a New World. Jacqueline Bernard has articulated best: "Only very slowly, through the stubborn personal effort that characterized all her struggles, did Sojourner teach herself to separate truth from the falsehoods around her. In that struggle, she found her courage and her freedom, and with these the strength to help free others."(Bernard, Journey, x.)
Similarly, Ida wrote of what was happening in society. She used her words to force people to realize the damage racism was causing. She wanted equality for men and women regardless of their race. Both these women became the voices for freedom and helped others gain their concepts of the self as the narratives put forth a philosophy of heroic personal striving in the face of massive violence and repression -- giving the slaves the will to survive as they hoped for a better future.
What would have happened had these two women met? Would they have worked together? Would there have been a meeting of minds? I believe that while these two women were similar they may have disagreed on the manner in which dissent should be approached. Truth had been a slave. She was illiterate and never had the opportunity to learn. Her illiteracy was derided and her former status as a slave undermined her confidence yet, she rose against both and created a mindset that used her past as a…