Volume XLI, No. 6 | February 21, 2019
Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I Woman” Speech and the Creation of Ethos
The lesson I discuss below addresses character creation, stereotypes, and credibility. In it I examine four versions of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, commonly titled “Ain’t I a Woman.” I invite students to identify the speaker’s ethos, or persona, in each version and how it’s created. I have used the lesson in composition and oral presentation courses for the past two decades, and I often use it when I have to substitute for a fellow instructor. The lesson is largely self-contained, and I can deliver it in either the fifty-minute or one hour and fifteen-minute formats.
At the beginning of the session, I briefly explain that Truth, a mother and an ex-slave, spoke at an abolitionist’s convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth hadn’t prepared the speech in advance, but requested permission to speak during a debate, which will become evident as the students read the speech. The president of the convention, Francis Gage, published the speech in May of 1863, some twelve years later.
If I deliver the lesson in an English class, I review the meanings of the three appeals in rhetoric, also called the three modes of persuasion: pathos, logos, and ethos. Pathos is an emotional appeal to the audience’s sympathy; logos is an appeal to logic, generally understood as using reason; and ethos is a means of persuasion that attempts to convince the audience of a point by emphasizing the speaker’s credibility and expertise. In this lesson I emphasize the appeal to ethos. If I’m teaching this to a class outside of English, I avoid discussing the three appeals and focus instead on identifying the speaker’s persona and the language that creates that persona.
I label the versions of the speech as A, B, C, and D. Version A is the so-called “plantation dialect” version. It is difficult to read for two reasons: Gage attempted to create a strong stereotypical accent in it, complete with misspellings and abbreviations, and she uses the N-word in it. Both of these faults require careful explanation and warnings before I hand out copies of the speech. The B version is one contemporary audiences are more familiar with. It substitutes the word “Negroes” for the N-word and more legible wording for some of the misspellings. Version C is one I wrote, using very formal and stilted language, yet the speech still contains the same content. Version D is the speech as it was reported in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper from the 1800s, and we can assume that it is nearly accurate as it was recorded only days after the speech.
I distribute the speech versions one at a time (I have attached the speech versions as an Appendix to this essay). I like to select student volunteers to read, but I often read version A myself given its difficulty. When I’ve completed reading, I invite volunteers to discuss Truth’s character, that is, the ethos/persona that the speech reveals. I ask students to give me adjectives and phrases describing the speaker. I write these on the board. Among the more common descriptions, students will note that the speaker is “strong,” “uneducated,” “intelligent,” “willful” (or a similar synonym), “brave,” and “experienced.” They always note that she’s a mother and knows farm labor. We identify particular words or expressions that indicate the speaker’s strength, lack of education, and so on.
Then I distribute version B, and here I’ll always solicit a volunteer to read. I ask students if they can add or delete any of the descriptive phrases we’ve put on the board. Students rarely suggest changes. However, when we discuss the speaker’s ethos, students always agree that the speaker in version B sounds less authentic. I ask them to explain why. My students across time and space have agreed that version B puts words into the speaker’s mouth in order to make her speech less offensive. We discuss the N-word, and how it seems more likely that Truth would have used that word instead of Negroes. The reason students give is that Truth, as an uneducated slave from a southern plantation, would most likely have used that word without a second thought. Students compare and contrast the language between both versions to support their claim. If I’m teaching a 50-minute class, I will skip version B and go directly to version C.
When I share version C with students, there’s no doubt among any of them that this version is totally false. I like to have a student reader for this version as well. I entitled this version, “Am I Not a Woman?” Students frequently laugh during the discussion of version C. The speech does sound silly, and it gives students an opportunity to break some of the tension that arose in our conversation about the differences in language between the two prior versions. We repeat the process of collecting descriptive language to create a character portrait. Among the terms I’ve written on the board, these are common: “boring,” “stuffy,” “male,” “cautious” (or “careful”), and “fake.” Again, to support their assertions, they have to identify specific language that leads them to their conclusions. Then I’ll share version D, along with the contemporary journalist’s introduction.
After reading all of the speech versions, we have a vote on which version is most authentic—that is, which version they believe best represents the ethos of the speaker. Version A always wins. Depending on time constraints, I’ll either share Truth’s biography with them after this, or I’ll ask them to create another descriptive portrait and then I’ll share the biography (see Michals). Regardless of the direction I take, after sharing the biography I ask students again to select which speech version seems most accurate in depicting Truth’s character. Many students still select version A.
Finally, I like to open the conversation up to allow students to pursue topics as they arise. Class discussion has been far-ranging. Students have attacked Gage for inventing a character as egregiously false as is the version C character, and students have defended Gage for creating a speaker’s ethos that promoted a higher cause. Students have compared and contrasted the pathos and logos in each version. They have discussed “politically correct” language, disparaging language, and racial epithets. Before time runs out, though, I will intervene and ask students to examine why they chose version A as the most believable representation of an African American woman. “Because,” some have said, “that’s the way we’ve been taught to imagine African American women of the time.” This topic of conversation delves into racial and gendered stereotypes, our expectations, and our socially constructed beliefs. There is rarely time to complete this discussion, but the goal has been achieved, which is that we examine what comprises ethos and what false beliefs we might be accepting without question.
Since this is often a lesson I deliver as a substitute, I rarely assign homework. When I incorporate this lesson into a class of my own, however, I’ll ask students to include a journal entry examining their beliefs. I sometimes ask them to create a version E of the speech in which they create or adopt an ethos of their own.
| Appendix A |
David MacWilliams, Division Head, Arts and Sciences
For further information, contact the author at New Mexico State University, Alamogordo, 2400 Scenic Dr., Alamogordo, NM 88310. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions and views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of NISOD.
Halsall, Paul. Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Fordham U, Aug. 1997, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp. Accessed 3 Jan. 2019.
Michals, Debra. Sojourner Truth. National Women’s History Museum, 2015, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth. Accessed 3 Jan. 2019.
Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee. Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee, sojournerturthmemorial.org. Accessed 3 Jan. 2019.