If you’ve lived here a while, you probably know about Sojourner Truth’s speech on the steps of the Steuben County courthouse. If not, there’s an excellent article about it by Patrick J. Furlong of IU South Bend on the Indiana Historical Bureau’s website. That will give you the whole story.
But here’s the brief rundown — Indiana’s constitution, ratified in 1851, made it illegal for African Americans to enter the state. Former slave turned abolition activist, Sojourner Truth, showed up twice. The first time was to speak to a hostile crowd in Silver Lake in 1858, the second was here in Angola in 1861. The drunken mob that showed up made things difficult. The Scott Township Home Guard, on the other hand, provided protection. She spent some time in jail but was eventually freed.
Recently, Truth’s visits to Indiana have come up twice in my conversations. The first time was when a group of students last semester researched the Underground Railroad in Orland. That is also a very cool story, which I recommend you Google. When they came across accounts of Truth’s speech, they were strangely proud of those guys from Scott in the Home Guard and of the rest of the people who had been, as we can say now, on the right side of history.
The second time was in a recent meeting of folks involved in the Hometown Collaboration Initiative. We were discussing Steuben County’s history — the people and events which have coalesced together over two centuries to create the community we live in today. We talked about Sojourner Truth. We talked about Orland. We did not talk much about the names Pokagon or Potowatomi, but we could (and perhaps should) have.
The point was made that for all the discussions about increasing diversity (for the record, I’m 110 percent in favor), there is much diversity already in our history. There are parts of it worth mourning and parts worth celebrating. But all of it is worth learning from.
The speech Sojourner Truth is most famous for today is “Aren’t I a Woman?” It’s about gender and race and who gets to be called “a woman,” or, for that matter, “a man” or, for that matter, “a person.” She says, “I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And aren’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man … and bear the lash as well! And aren’t I a woman?”
From the perspective of a 19th century scholar, which I pretend to be every once in a while, she’s talking about the era’s gender norms. “True Women” were, by definition, weak, delicate and dependent. Women of color who had never had that luxury were thus unfairly seen as something less than women.
Let’s fast-forward to today. We’re doing a lot better. But all we have to do is look at television, film, magazines, or even the carefully-constructed, imaginary lives we live on social media, to see how easy it is to feel that if you’re not a certain type of person (a certain weight, a certain race, a certain level of smart and rich, and so on), you’re not a person at all. Probably no group is in more danger of believing these lies than children and youth.
Which is why, since we’re on the topic of diversity I want to recommend that you stop by Cahoots Coffee Café sometime soon. The address is 218 W. Maumee St., Angola. On the left wall, near the counter, there’s something called The Diversity Bookshelf. It’s, well, it’s a bookshelf, obviously, but it’s full of books aimed at kids who might feel different. It’s goal is to remind them that that’s OK. There’s no check-in or check-out. If a book disappears, they assume it’s found a good home with someone who needed it. There’s a donation box on top.
If you contact me, I can even get you a list of books they need. It’s a cool thing. And, someday might be a good reminder of those to come, of those who were on the right side of history.
It might not be as cool as the Scott Township Home Guard, though. Is that still a thing? If not, can someone in Scott get on that? I want to join.
Sarah Franzen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Trine University, Department of Humanities & Communication. Contact her at email@example.com.