No Power in the Verse Can Stop Me


Daniel Walker Howe on the hero and the slave:

In 1815, Isabella, a slave girl of about seventeen living in Ulster County, New York married Thomas, an older man who belonged, as she did, to the Dumont family. Over the next eleven years Isabella bore Thomas five children, in between stints of strenuous labor in the fields. New York had recognized the legality of marriages between slaves in 1809, meaning that now the couple and their children could not be sold apart from each other. Isabella herself had been sold away from her own parents at the age of nine for a hundred dollars, when their master died and his estate went up for auction. Isabella's first owner had been a Dutch American, and the child's first language was Dutch. Her next owner, an English-speaker beat her for not comprehending his commands his commands; her back bore the scars for the rest of her life. By 1810, she had been sold twice more (each owner realizing a profit on the transaction), ending up with the Dumonts

he state of New York had adopted a program of gradual emancipation decreeing that slaves born born after the Fourth of July 1799 should become free at age twenty-eight (for males) or twenty-five (for females). This is would allow the owner who bore the cost of rearing the children reimbursement with several of their prime working years. Isabella, having been born before the cutoff date, would remain in slavery for the rest of her life. But in 1817, the New York legislature sped up the emancipation process and decreed that on July 4, 1827, all remaining slaves, whenever born, should become free. Masters would receive no financial compensation from the state but did have one more decade to exploit their chattels unpaid labor. Shortly before the final emancipation took effect, Isabella's five-year old son was sold away from her, south to Alabama. This constituted a violation of New York law; the newly free Isabella took the remarkable step of suing for and obtaining the boys return, an act that set a pattern for her lifetime of resolute opposition to injustice.

Having developed an active prayer life in childhood under the guidance of her mother, Isabella grew into a fervent "Holiness" Methodist. Once free, she left her husband (who may have been chosen for her by her owner) and became an itinerant preacher. She warned of the Second Coming of Christ and demanded the abolitionist of slavery throughout the nation. In 1843, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth, appropriate for a traveling herald of the Divine Word. Although illiterate, she spoke powerfully and dictated a financially successful autobiography. Five feet eleven inches, with dark skin and a muscular frame, Sojourner Truth commanded attention from an audience. Her resonant voice had a New York working-class accent that never lost traces of the Dutch.
When I was young, Marvel used to regularly publish a comic-book called Marvel Universe which, in great detail, would offer all the origins, powers and abilities of everyone in the verse. It was great because you might not regularly read, say, Nick Fury--but you could still know the history of Baron Von Strucker.I loved the arc of the heroes--typically there was some great hardship, and then some epiphany out that hardship, and then power coming out of that epiphany. My sense is that this is a pretty classical structure for heroes, no? At any rate, it was a structure that obviously appealed to young kid struggling to get by in West Baltimore. The sense was that if you endured, you might find something unexpected on the other side.

I thought of Marvel Universe while reading this piece by Howe--all the old feelings came back. It wasn't that he lionized Sojourner Truth--indeed the hint of millineal crazy actually deepens the portrait--but the way he depicts her taking a life of great tragedy, and then turning that tragedy into great power. I don't even know what a working class New York Dutch accent sounds like, but I can see this woman--standing almost six feet--with this powerful voice, refusing to honor a husband forced on her, refusing to relinquish her child, and then channeling all those years of pain into oratory. It must have been incredible to see.

Always, I'm reminded of how this history was taught to me--as a set of facts to be memorized. When was Sojourner Truth born? How many kids did she have? Where was she a slave? What I so wanted was magic. I wanted to feel like I was there.