Painting Sojourner Truth

I’ve long held that feminism, in order to be true and engaged and practical, must be intersectional. Such is also the case, I believe, for LGBTQ rights.

The work of justice for queer people must also include justice for other marginalized groups.

Because many LGBTQ people are also women, people of color, people with disabilities, Muslims, immigrants, and others marginalized for identities other than their sexuality. Paying attention to these intersections—of sexuality, gender, race, class, ability, religion—and acknowledging that many people have multiple intersecting identities for which they are oppressed is vital to the work of justice.

These thoughts remained at the forefront of my mind as I recently marched in one of the sister marches of the Women’s March in my home of Hilo, Hawaii. I heard many straight, white, cisgender women claim that women are not oppressed while mocking the march as irrelevant. I heard some gay men purport that such a march was unnecessary.

And I wondered. Are not women of color also women? Muslim women? Immigrant women? Women with disabilities? Queer women? Further, are not women also LGBTQ? Are not there LGBTQ people of color? LGBTQ people who are Muslim? LGBTQ people who are immigrants? LGBTQ people with disabilities?

Of course there are.

And even if there are not, are not our quests for liberation and rights and legal validity interrelated, mutually dependent, might I even say intersectional?

Fortunately, there were revolutionary queer women at the march who said it better than I could.

Trans activist Janet Mock reminded women and the LGBTQ community of the importance of intersectionality in her speech, saying:

Our approach to freedom need not be identical but it must be intersectional and inclusive. It must extend beyond ourselves. I know with surpassing certainty that my liberation is directly linked to the liberation of the undocumented trans Latina yearning for refuge. The disabled student seeking unequivocal access. The sex worker fighting to make her living safely.

Collective liberation and solidarity is difficult work, it is work that will find us struggling together and struggling with one another. Just because we are oppressed does not mean that we do not ourselves fall victim to enacting the same unconscious policing, shaming, and erasing. We must return to one another with greater accountability and commitment to the work today.

Long before Mock uttered these profound words, and much prior to the development of the term “intersectional" (a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw), there was another revolutionary who lived and dared intersectionally.

In the words of Audre Lorde, this revolutionary reminded us that “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Her name was Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), and she was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

Truth was born into slavery, but escaped with her daughter, Sophia. Called to preach a gospel of liberation—in Christ, from slavery, and for women—this prophet offered the famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?," at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

She is most remembered for this speech, though many believe that the words were re-written by a reporter since Truth, raised in New York, likely didn’t use Southern colloquial speech patterns. Nevertheless, it is a speech I assign as a professor in almost every class I teach. It is a speech that reminds us of the importance of intersectionality.

It is a speech that our country—and all our LGBTQ neighbors who fail to work for the liberation of anyone who does not look and live and believe like them—would do well to read.

In fact, I would contend that it should be required reading for all Americans.

As myriad wealthy white women rallied to gain the ability to vote, Truth reminded them that she, too, was a woman, saying: 

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?

I first painted Sojourner Truth eight years ago, but with the need for intersectionality growing stronger and deeper, I felt called to paint her anew.

Sojourner Truth stands tall, proud, and strong, her heart crying out to us:

With arms strong
Enough to carry
The weight of the world…
“Ain’t I a woman”
She cried on behalf
Of all those broken and bound.

As I marched and held my sign that read, “This Queer Clergywoman believes Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” I thought of Truth. Since the Big Island is the most ethnically diverse county in the entire country, I had the privilege of looking into the eyes of people from a multiplicity of genders, sexualities, religions, races, ethnicities, and traditions.

As this rainbow of humanity marched through Hilo, I thought of Truth’s bold question, “Ain’t I a woman?”

I thought of the many LGBTQ people who somehow think all is well and good now because we can finally get married, paying no mind to the intersectional issues that continue to plague countless queer folk who aren’t white, cis, able bodied, Christian, or male. 

Truth, Lorde, and Mock are correct, beloveds. It is our duty to work for the liberation of all people, not just the ones whose marginalities are the same as our own. 

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