Swing Low, White Women

By Brigitte Fiedler

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Twitter/Corey Townsend

[As Black History Month is followed by Women’s History Month, we are sharing here a brief excerpt from an important article about black women’s perspectives on the Women’s March and its context. It is published in “Avidly,” a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Please read the full article here.  - Editor]

At 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. . . .

The shortcomings of the Women’s March vary by locale and in some places women of color were prominent. But elsewhere those shortcomings range from de-centering, omitting, and silencing women of color’s voices to the prioritization of biological sex and subsequent exclusion of transgender women to individual accounts of micro-aggression like the one I encountered last year. And they are utterly, utterly unsurprising to women of color in 2018. . .

Brigitte Fielder, assistant professor of comparative literature and folklore studies at the U. of Wisconsin, is writing a book about how interracial kinship relations inform and revise white womanhood in nineteenth-century American literatures.

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