Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ on a ‘76 poster
At first, it was hard to distinguish the image featured in the dark marks that seemed to be scattered in the center of the poster. The artist Marlene E. Miller had sketched a face in thick intersecting lines and curves framed by a bed of black.
I had seen the poster on the auction house’s website and knew what Miller was communicating. But once I saw it in person, I had to stand back a bit to “see” her rendering of the face of Sojourner Truth.
Around the top, bottom and sides of the poster, Miller had printed parts of Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech from 1851. The poster was from the 1970s, and her use of language along the border reminded me of Faith Ringgold’s handwritten story quilts.
Miller’s poster was one of four being offered for sale, but it had been created as part of a series reproduced from woodcuts titled “Enterprising Woman.” She made the woodcuts in 1975 when she needed money to support herself during a sabbatical, according to one news account.
Anyone who knows this country’s history has heard of Sojourner Truth, but Miller may not be so familiar.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797 in rural New York state. She was sold several times and abused by slave owners. She walked to freedom with her young daughter in 1826 after her enslaver refused to honor his promise to free her. She told him later, “I did not run away, I walked away by daylight….”
After staying with others, Truth moved to New York City two years later and became a preacher. She was given the name Isabella when she was born, but changed it to Sojourner Truth in 1843 after the Spirit called on her to leave New York and travel as a speaker under this new name.
A woman buoyed by faith, she became an ardent speaker against slavery. She was involved with several abolitionist and women’s rights groups, spreading the word about the nation’s treatment of its black and female citizens.
Interestingly, she helped support herself and the anti-slavery movement by selling portraits of herself at the speeches, and through her biography titled “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth” that she dictated in 1850. She kept the copyright for the portraits so she could reap the benefit of the sales.
Truth agitated along with Frederick Douglass and others for blacks to fight in the Civil War, and supported them with supplies and more after they were admitted into the Union Army. She became colleagial with Susan B. Anthony and other women in the women’s rights movement, giving her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at an Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron on May 28, 1851.
It was an extemporaneous speech from a woman who could neither read nor write (Douglass had referred to her as “uncultured” when she ridiculed his refined air).
Here is part of what the artist Miller included on the poster:
“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?”
Truth became disenchanted with the leaders of the women’s movement when they refused to support voting rights for blacks before women won the right. She died in 1883 in Grand Rapids, MI, where she had settled.
Miller can be described as a political and social artist who was local. A feminist, she painted and sculpted – she also created puppets – embracing such subjects as homelessness, the Holocaust, women’s issues, war, AIDS and racism. “The content of my work focuses on those who suffer, the powerless and the disenfranchised (women, the elderly, the homeless, victims of anti-Semitism, racism, AIDS, war),” she wrote.
Born in Philadelphia in 1934, Miller graduated from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1956 and got a master’s degree from Tyler School of Fine Arts. She taught painting, printmaking and other classes for 32 years at Bucks County Community College, where she helped to create the art department. She founded a Women’s Caucus at the school and retired in 1998.
Her works are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA.
The Sojourner Truth poster bore along the right side an inscription stating that it was a reproduction, info on where you could buy a woodcut directly from Miller, and the title and year (1976) of the series. Miller sold the posters herself, along with some pro-women greeting cards that she packaged and mailed.