Repetition In “Ain’t I A Woman” Essay Example
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Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman” centers on the inequalities that blacks and women suffered at that point in American history. While it is not difficult, given such recent events as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the deaths of other black men at the hands of white police officers, to understand that race is still a largely divisive factor in American culture, it is difficult to imagine the struggle that black women faced in the years before Emancipation. Even in the North, racism was common, but in the South, enslaved blacks were treated – not just in public attitudes but in the Constitution – as fractional percentages of their white counterparts, for the purposes of representation, as laid out in the notorious “three-fifths” compromise. Black women were pieces of property that their owners used sexually whenever they wanted, and they had to watch as their families were separated and sold to different landowners, as developing familial bonds was not an emotional power that most owners wanted their slaves to have. Through the use of repetition in her speech, Sojourner Truth expresses the pain and torture of her life in a powerful way, embedding her words in the minds of her audience.
Before repeating the phrase, Truth establishes the irony between the Southern ideals of chivalry and the way she actually had to lead her life. She shares a number of personal anecdotes about injustice in her own life to create a point of commonality with the women in the audience. Then, she points to a man in the audience, making the claim that he believes “women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and have the best place everywhere” (Truth). After she makes this description of the ways in which white men apparently believe women should be treated, she comes right after it with a rebuttal. She asserts that nobody does these things for her, and by repeating each action she emphasizes this idea: “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me the best place!” (Truth) By creating a gap between the ideal, chivalrous treatment of women with the reality of her own life, she points out a hypocritical irony that differentiates between the code of gentlemanly behavior in the South toward black women as opposed to their white counterparts.
As she moves through the speech, Truth begins to add the rhetorical question “and ain’t I a woman?” (Truth) to the end of many of her points. The purpose for this repetition is to establish that she feels like she deserves to be treated as well as any other woman, but the inequalities at work in the South and in the larger culture of America keep this from happening. Each time she repeats this question, Truth accesses the inner resentments boiling in the soul of each woman in the audience. While the gap between white women and black women was immense during this time period, white women still had no access to the halls of power. White women could not even vote at this point in time, so they were just as far from having any say about the governance of their community or country as the slaves that their husbands owned. If women felt any sort of discontent about their own lives or a need to be doing more; if they felt depressed from time to time; if they had any difficulty acclimating themselves to the lifestyle in which their husbands installed them, the iffy psychology of the day branded them as patients suffering from “hysteria,” an eponymous condition that covered everything from postpartum depression to a simple dissatisfaction with having only one choice in life as a woman if one didn’t want to do primarily domestic work: that of a wife and mother (Tasca et al.). While this is a rewarding path for many, it also meant that women were dependent on their husbands for financial support, creating an unequal relationship. For someone in Sojourner Truth’s position, the gap is even wider, because not only did she have the same restrictions on professional activity, but she also had the specter of racism to deal with, which meant she didn’t even get the chivalrous protections afforded to white women.
So when Truth punctuates each point with the question, “and ain’t I a woman?” she also creates a sense of equality with men. She describes her own labor put in, carrying out such takss as plowing and planting, or gathering crops into barns, at a rate at which “no man could head [her]” (Truth). Even reading the speech as it was transcribed provides a sense of this building rhythm in the piece; one can sense her voice growing with frustration, anger and energy building with each repetition of that rhetorical question. As the speech winds to an end, she talks about some of her sufferings, including having “thirteen children, and [seeing] most all sold off to slavery” (Truth). By ending with a reference to an experience that all women would hate to endure but that was only forced upon slave women during that time period, she draws attention to the injustice of slavery, as the mothers who would have been present during this speech would have had a way to relate to her pain. It’s one thing to be a white wife of a plantation owner and hear about transactions involving the sale and purchase of slaves, and it’s quite another to have one of those slaves on a podium, talking about the pain that those esales could cause. Listening to that person’s suffering makes the situation more about emotions and connections than about ledger books and transactions. Connecting the injustices that all women face with the injustices that blacks faced is designed to create sympathy among this audience of mostly white women for the cause of slavery.
Truth uses other devices as well, such as allusions to the Bible in order to support her point that the institution of slavery and discrimination against women are offenses against God. She also uses the word “children” to refer to her audience. This places them on an equal footing, no matter what race or gender, in front of her, but the term is not condescending. Instead, it is a connection to the idea that all people are the children of God, made in his “likeness and image” (Truth). The rhetorical effect is one of equality. However, it is the punctuated repetition of the question, “and ain’t I a woman?” that gives this speech its visceral power, making it echo still, almost two centuries after it was first delivered.
Tasca, Cecilia, Rapetti, Mariangela, Carta, Mauro Giovanni, and
Fadda, Bianca. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice of Epidemiology and Mental Health 8: 110-119. doi: 10.2174/17450179091208010110
Truth, Sojourner. “Sojourner Truth’s Speech to the Akron
Convention, 1851.” http://www.suffragist.com/docs.htm
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