She came to the conclusion, that she had been taking part in a great drama, which was, in itself, but one great system of robbery and wrong. “Yes,” she said, “the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” True, she had not received labor from others, and stinted their pay, as she felt had been practiced against her; but she had taken their work from them, which was their only means to get money, and was the same to them in the end. For instance—a gentleman where she lived would give her a half dollar to hire a poor man to clear the new-fallen snow from the steps and sidewalks. She would arise early, and perform the labor herself, putting the money into her own pocket. . . But, in her retrospection, she thought of all the misery she might have been adding to, in her selfish grasping, and it troubled her conscience sorely; and this insensibility to the claims of human brotherhood, and the wants of the destitute and wretched poor, she now saw, as she never had done before, to be unfeeling, selfish and wicked. (640–641)
The most significant aspect of the Sojourner Truth’s narrative of her experience being enslaved in New York until 1828 is that is shows how fine the line was between slavery and freedom in most of early American history. This Library of America collection does not include Twelve Years a Slave, which makes a similar case, but the slave narratives often show how easily it was to fall into slavery from freedom and how tenuous it was even in the North. Henry Bibb’s escape and return to slavery is another example of this. In the end, the lesson is that no black person in pre-Civil War America were free unless that freedom was voluntarily given by whites. Sojourner Truth says as much in the title of her narrative when she adds “Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York.” Furthermore, Truth’s life story speaks of how vicious and degrading life could be in the United States even for free black women.
Truth tells her story in third person, using her birth name, Isabella. She uses small vignettes instead of chapters to break up her story. She was born in the late eighteenth century when slavery was still a major institution in several Northern states. Her enslaved parents spoke Dutch. New York at the time was a society with slavery, if not a full-blown slave society. This distinction mattered little to Isabella and her parents who endured all the violence and exploitation of slavery. Despite its importance, New York abolished slavery. Isabella was promised her freedom one year earlier, but due to an injury that rendered her less productive, her master (now a farmer in New Paltz) kept her in slavery until the end. This event reflects one of Truth’s major arguments about the one-sided nature of slavery and the weakness of contract, promises and even law in defending enslaved men and women.
But the reliance on the state for freedom is no more self-assured as seen in the sale of Isabella’s son to the deep South. This was forbidden in the law ending slavery to prevent people from simply selling soon-to-be-freed slaves, making the law potentially moot. Nevertheless, Isabella’s son was sold and it took a fair amount of struggle for her to bring him out of slavery. It is a sign of just how weak the law can be in the face of the interests of those with money and power in the society.
As for the fate of freed men and women in a society actively defending the rights of slavers and the consumers of humanity:
We have now see Isabella, her youngest daughter, and her only son, in possession of, at least, their nominal freedom. It has been said that the freedom of the most free of the colored people of this country is but nominal; but stinted and limited as it is, at best, it is an immense remove from chattel slavery. This fact is disputed, I know. (619)
Precious to be sure but nevertheless, its limitations reflect a moral failing for the society.