Swing Low, White Women

Brigitte Fielder in Avidly:

Screenshot-2018-01-22-12_39_25At the 2017 Women’s March in Madison, Wisconsin, I carried a sign that read “I AM A WOMAN’S RIGHTS. –Sojourner Truth, 1851” I was citing an account of a speech Truth gave at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, as it was recorded in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an essay I often teach in courses on nineteenth-century African American women’s writing. Given mainstream white feminism’s habitual marginalization of nonwhite women’s voices, I deliberately chose to carry the words of a woman of color and to gesture towards black women’s long history of contributing to U.S. feminist discourse. I’d written the letters out in block form, mimicking the iconic “I AM A MAN” signs of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike. The comparison reminded me not only of the history of civil rights protest in the U.S. between Truth’s moment and my own, but also of Truth’s challenge to gender stereotypes. In this speech and others, she referred to her own physical size and strength. Truth was six feet tall and spoke and sang with a deep voice; on at least one occasion of her public speech on women’s rights, she was heckled by the crowd and accused of being a man.

As I stood with my sign last year, a middle-aged white woman stopped marching, turned around, and approached me. She called out, smiling, “You know, what Sojourner Truth ACTUALLY said was ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’” She was referring to an alternate version of the speech I had quoted, published by Frances Gage in the New York paper The Independent and the National Anti-Slavery Standard over a decade later, in 1863. I’ve taught this version, as well. While there were many things I might have said to this stranger, I instead smiled and directed her to the correct citation. This white woman clearly thought that she knew more about Sojourner Truth than a black woman holding a sign quoting her did, and this fact was not lost on me. Whatever I might have to say, she was more interested in explaining than listening.

After this year’s march a picture has been shared repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter showing a statue of Harriet Tubman wearing a bright pink pussy hat. The statue is Alison Saar’s Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem, “Swing Low,” located at the intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, West 122nd Street, and St. Nicholas Avenue, called the “Harriet Tubman Triangle.” As various people shared the image, the response from Black Twitter was a predictably hilarious clapback. While the most resounding message here was simply “No” (repeated in meme form) some people offered nuanced explanations of their complaints. Put simply, this merger of Tubman’s image with the (highlycritiqued) marker of a problematically exclusive movement reeks of appropriation rather than actual engagement. Not unlike the moment when I was whitesplained about Sojourner Truth.

More here.