Then I Began to Live
January 1, 1871 — Eighth Anniversary of Emancipation, National Association for the Spread of Temperance and Night Schools Among the Freed People of the South, Tremont Temple, Boston MA
Well, children, I’m glad to see so many together. If I am eighty-three years old, I only count my age from the time that I was emancipated. Then I began to live. God is a-fulfilling, and my lost time that I lost being a slave was made up. When I was a slave I hated the white people. My mother said to me when I was to be sold from her, “I want to tell you these things that you will always know that I have told you, for there will be a great many things told you after I started out of this life into the world to come.” And say this to you all, for here is a great many people, that when I step out of this existence, that you will know what you heard old Sojourner Truth tell you.
I was born a slave in the State of New York, Ulster County, among the low Dutch. When I was ten years old, I couldn’t speak a word of English, and had no education at all. There’s wonder what they have done for me. As I told you when I was sold, my master died, and we was going to have a auction. We was all brought up to be sold. My mother, my father was very old, my brother younger than myself, and my mother took my hand. They opened a canopy of heaven, and she sat down and I and my brother sat down by her, and she says, “Look up to do moon and stars that shine upon upon your father and upon you mother when you sold far away, and upon your brothers and sisters, that is sold away,” for there was a great number of us, and was all sold away before my remembrance. I asked her who had made the moon and the stars, and she says, “God,” and says I, “Where is God? “Oh!” says she, “child, he sits in the sky, and he hears you when you ask him when you are away from us to make your master and mistress good, and he will do it.
When we were sold, I did what my mother told me; I said, O God, my mother told me if I asked you to make my master and mistress good, you’d do it, and they didn’t get good. Why, says I, God, maybe you can’t do it. Kill them. I didn’t think he could make them good. That was the idea I had. After I made such wishes my conscience burned me. Then I would say, O God, don’t be mad. My master makes me wicked; and I often thought how people can do such abominable wicked things and their conscience not burn them. Now I only made wishes. I used to tell God this — I would say, “Now, God, if I was you, and you was me, and you wanted any help I’d help you;— why don’t you help me? Well, you see I was in want, and I felt that there was no help. I know what it is to be taken in the barn and tied up and the blood drawn out of your bare back, and I tell you it would make you think about God. Yes, and then I felt, O God, if I was you and you felt like I do, an’ asked me for help I would help you — now why won’t you help me?
Truly I don’t know but God has helped me. But I got no good master until the last time I was sold, and then I found one and his name was Jesus. Oh, I tell you, didn’t I find a good master when I use to feel so bad, when I use to say, O God, how can I live? I’m sorely oppressed both within and without. When God give me that master he healed all the wounds up. My soul rejoiced. I used to hate the white people so, and I tell ye when the love come in me I had so much love I didn’t know what to love. Then the white people come, an’ I thought that love was too good for them. Then I said, Yea, God, I’ll love everybody, and the white people too. Ever since that, that love has continued and kept me among the white people. Well, emancipation came; we all know; can’t stop to go through the whole. I go for agitating. But I believe there are works belong with agitating, too. Only think of it! Ain’t it wonderful that God gives lobo enough to the Ethiopians to love you?
Now, here is the question that I am here to-night to say. I’ve been to Washington, and I find out this, that the colored people that is in Washington living on the government [,] that the United States ought to give them land and move them on it. They are living on the government and there’s people taking care of them costing you so much, and it don’t benefit them at all. It degrades them worse and worse. Therefore I say that these people, take an’ put them in the West where you can enrich them. I know de good people in de South can’t take care of the negroes as they ought to, ‘cause the rebels won’t let them. How much better will it be for to take those colored people and give them land? We’ve ain’t land enough for a home, and it would be a benefit for you all and God would bless de whole of you for doing it. They say, let them take care of themselves. Why, you’ve taken that all away from them. Ain’t got nothing left. Get these colored people out of Washington off of the government, and get de old people out and build them homes in the West, where they can feed themselves, and they would soon be able to be a people among you. That is my commission. Now agitate those people and put them there; learn them to read one part of de time and learn them to work the other part of de time.
[At this moment a member in the audience arose and left, greatly to the disturbance of the lady, who could with difficulty make herself heard.]
I’ll hold on a while. Whoever is agoin’ let him go. When you tell about work here, then you have to scud. I tell you I can’t read a book, but I can read the people. I speak these things so that when you have a paper [her petition] come for you to sign, you can sign it.
At the conclusion of her remarks, Sojourner Truth addressed the assembly and urged its members to sign the following petition:
TO THE SENATE AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, in Congress Assembled:—
Whereas, From the faithful and earnest representations of Sojourner Truth (who has personally investigated the matter), we believe that the freed colored people in and about Washington, dependent upon government for support, would be greatly benefited and might become useful citizens by being placed in a position to support themselves: We, the undersigned, therefore earnestly request your honorable body to set apart for them a portion of the public land in the West, and erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm, and otherwise legislate as to secure the desired results.
Source: Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press) 1991, pp. 213-16.
Also: [version without dialect] in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory: 1787-1900, ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press), 1998, pp. 504-506.