“Sojourner Truth: A Conversation in Paradise”
Ladies, take it from me,
I smiled when the black sky came bearing down so heavily upon me.
As if for a nursing child, I reached out my arms,
cradling death’s ghost to my chest.
And when its cold darkness coiled itself around my body,
I stretched out my arms, a welcome crucifixion for the white man’s sins.
Then, like leaves of grass in a warm gust of gentle wind,
my soul was carried onward to paradise
and I whispered to myself that indeed a peaceful end was fitting for a lioness,
a ravage sojourner whose time was spent setting the earth ablaze,
burning the evils of bondange whose existence cursed the heart of God.
Now, here I am before you three women who pray for the poet.
Beholding the ones whose blessings take the flight of honeybees
and fill up the air with the chorus of holy murmurs,
I must wonder if there were such watchwomen for me.
I say, are there no saints whose groans too shake the heavens
like thunder for those with the skin of oak,
even more for the daughters of Eve,
twice condemned for the sin of womanhood and color they were handpainted by the Lord?
My core reflection takes the form of a poem that is written from the viewpoint of Sojourner Truth. In Contemporary Civilization, we read her speech, "Ain't I a Woman?", among other pieces by feminist thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges. As we discussed these texts, conversations on how Sojourner Truth's experience and perspective were infuenced by her position as a black woman in society and as a former enslaved person arose.
I further reflected on these questions and their implications for the feminist movement and the need for intersectionality in an effort to uplift the voices of all women and highlight their diverse experiences. As I was considering this, I remembered a portion of Dante's Inferno, a beautiful text which I read last year in Literature Humanities. One image that struck me was when Virgil allayed Dante's fears of the journey through the afterlife by assuring him that there are three blessed women in Heaven praying for him and watching over him.
I decided to combine all these thoughts into my poem. My work begins with Sojourner Truth addressing the three women in heaven. She describes death to them as her floating up to heaven as if guided by a gust of gentle wind. She says she welcomed it as a peaceful and welcome passing after a life of fighting for freedom. She also uses religious imagery, the crucifixion of Jesus, when talking about her death. I not only did this to keep in character with her religiosity which was evident in "Ain't I a Woman?", but also to portray her as fighting to the end, sacrificing her whole life in a war against oppression of both racism and sexism. However, the tone of the poem soon shifts. She goes from detailing a peaceful death and her satisfaction with a life of dedicated to the achievement of freedom, to expressing feelings of abandonment. She questions the three ladies who pray for Dante, the poet, about whether there was anyone in heaven praying for her and those like her who suffer under the dual discrimination of being both black and female.
The poem concludes with Sojourner Truth's question. I end it abruptly, perhaps even uncloncluded, so that the reader is invited to ponder these same questions. Just as in real life, all things are not answered immediately nor are there always answers to be given. So, just as Sojourner Truth wondered in the poem where the divine aid was as she battled such severe injustices in her life, and my Contemporary Civilization class wrestled with the inclusivity of the feminist thinkers and the intersection of race and gender experiences, I end the poem with a question to invite the reader to ponder these questions along with us, as is fitting for a Core class.
About the Author: Chiamaka Okonkwo
Chiamaka Okonkwo is a sophomore at Columbia College. She plans to major in psychology. She is a print editor for The Columbia Witness, a board member of Chribble, and a writer in her free time whose poetry can be found in literary magazines including Rattle and After the Pause.