If I could share a meal at a table with a small group of people from any time in history, Isabella Baumfree would be one of them. Perhaps, just perhaps, she could tell me how to help find justice for the Indigenous women ignored by the Australian Federal Police in Australia’s capital, Canberra.
Isabella was born the daughter of slaves, enslaved herself from the moment of conception. Sold at the ages of nine, eleven and thirteen, she was to bear five children herself, all into slavery, one of whom would not survive childhood. At the age of about twenty-nine, Isabella walked away form her slavery a year ahead of the New York State Emancipation Act carrying her youngest child away with her. She was forced to leave all of her three other surviving children behind and would go on to become the first black woman to successfully pursue for the return of her son to her care after the child was sold to another slave owner in Alabama.
Isabella became a devout Methodist and in 1843 aged around 46, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She spent the next forty years of her life pursuing the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance and the rights of the negro, particularly women. It amazes me that almost 170 years later, Australia is fighting the same battles that Sojourner Truth made her own, despite the Australian Capital Territory having created its own Emancipation Act in the form of the nation’s first Bill of Rights. Unlike the act legislated in New York and the Emancipation Proclamation, that piece of legislation has offered little or on protection to the Indigenous women living, visiting or working in the ACT.
I wonder how many women other than Angelique, Lucinda McMillan and Ms. King have been assaulted in the ACT and found the Australian Federal Police lacking in compassion? How many were turned away because of their colour, because their assailant had connections or influence, how many were threatened with being charged if they did not leave the police premises, despite a blackened eye, an indecent assault?
Sojourner Truth, a towering six feet tall, was once accused of being a man. Perhaps demonstrating the legacy of her enslavement, or simply her pride, Sojourner opened her top so her breasts could be demonstrated. This voluntary action is in complete contradiction to that of Ms. King, whose assailant, rather than accusing her of disguising her gender, violently and forcefully exposed Ms. King to the lunchtime crowd of the public service and business community in Canberra’s political centre at the Waldorf Café. But Sojourner and the Indigenous women of Australia have each sought only one thing – equality.
In 1851, Sojourner reflected on the hypocrisy of the slave owners and whites who resisted moving with the abolition of slavery and the entrapment of black women in a now famous speech. Although there is conjecture about the tone of the speech, not the least because Truth spoke with a Dutch accent, not Southern as that heard in the commonly proposed version of her words that day, the tenor of her thoughts are as relevant today as they were several generations ago.
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”
Sojourner Truth, American Black Suffragist, 1851
Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio
I have been called a slut and a bitch by one who comments on this blog and yet, am I not a woman too? Is Lucinda, or Angelique or Ms. King not a woman? What about Estelle, Jenifer or Paula? I am not a follower of a particular religion, but for every man there is a mother as well as a father. If one woman can so disrupt a world by raising a forthright and honest son, what fear must the sexist men in the AFP and ACT hold against the women who seek nothing more than equality between the sexes?
Destroy the Joint, indeed, ladies. If that’s the only way to ensure that every person, every race, every colour is treated with the respect that we all deserve, then perhaps it’s well past time for us each to stand up and demand, “Ain’t I a woman too?”