A Soul on Fire

In 1851, ex-slave Sojourner Truth addressed a convention of white suffragettes and white ministers debating which issue was more important, abolition or women's suffrage. In the midst of the squabbling, Sojourner Truth asked a simple question: "Arn't I a Woman?" That question, though 150 years old, turned my world upside down. The passage of time has not eroded the relevance and power of her question. Her voice still rings-breaking down walls, changing worlds.

Sojourner's life and witness flows through time as a stream of consciousness. It connects with our own stories. She still speaks for those who have known the double oppression of race and gender. She has been my spirit guide for as long as my story and my center flowed into her existence. She went before me to carve the path that I now walk. Her voice beats within my heart. Her unwavering commitment to freedom has enabled me to move beyond boundaries that would limit who I am. She has shaped my identity and plowed my standing ground.

In 1843, Sojourner decided to abandon her slave name of Isabella Baumfree for her God-given name of Sojourner Truth. There is an African proverb that says, "It's not what they call you that really matters, it is what you answer to." Sojourner was clear that she needed a name that she could answer to. She had to leave behind all the vestiges of bondage. Therefore, when she left her Egypt of slavery, she asked God to give her a new name. Her name expressed her new mission-that of traveling up and down the land telling the truth.

I claim my own name and my place in society daily in confrontations with what I am prepared to live with and what I am not. My claim is implicit in my ability to say yes or no. It asks whose rules have power over me and whose do not. When Sojourner Truth claimed her name, she gave me permission to name myself as a woman created in God's image, a woman called by God to be a minister of the gospel. With her as my spirit guide, I refused to allow those who did not see my beauty to deter me from becoming the woman God was calling me to be. I ignored the names that limited my call. I answered to the names that affirmed my call. It is not what they call you that matters, it is what you answer to.

SOJOURNER TRUTH refused to allow anyone to silence her. Her voice was God-given, and she would use it until the day God claimed it back in death. Neither white suffragettes nor white racists intimidated her. When she was informed that Confederate sympathizers threatened to burn down the hall in which she was scheduled to speak, she said, "Let them burn down the hall. I will speak upon the ashes."

In her famous 1851 speech at the women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth asked to speak. "I want to say a few words about this matter," she said. "I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? And arn't I a woman? I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. Arn't I a woman? ... The poor men here seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, then give them to her and you will feel better." She refused to let white women, white men, or black men off the hook. Racism and sexism are connected.

My journey has always been with my people-African Americans-and my community-the impoverished red-light district of Norfolk, Virginia. Early on I wrestled with racism and economic injustice. I was slower to wade into the waters of sexism or my own homophobia. I did not want the evil of racism watered down. I didn't want it placed on the sidelines with all the other "isms."

I discovered that when you've seen one experience of injustice, you've seen them all. They all rise from the same taproot of idolatry. They flow with the same intention to oppress, to dominate, to have power over another. And so I, Yvonne Virginia Delk, informed and given permission by my mentor Sojourner Truth, emerged from my box. I saw. I made the connections. I became stronger.

Facing the truth-and telling the truth-not only set us free, but calls for new ways of being, of speaking, of acting, and of witnessing. I have been described as a spiritual preacher, a committed activist, a soul on fire. The spirit that drives me is not only fueled by my passion for justice but also by my anger and rage at the injustice I see and experience on a daily basis.

When Sojourner Truth was in her 60s, she desegregated the streetcars of Washington, D.C., by suing the company for not allowing her to ride. In her old age, Sojourner campaigned for land in the West to resettle African Americans from the South. Like her, I too have traveled up and down this land telling the truth as I see it about racism, sexism, economic injustice, and violence. I have stood with Sojourner Truth in the face of death, but with hands reaching for life. Sojourner Truth is my taproot. I draw from her prophetic imagination and courage. She defines who I am in ways that I am not free to walk away from. I am because she is, and because she is I also can be. I am her daughter.

Yvonne V. Delk, former director of the Community Renewal Society and a Sojourners contributing editor, was a travelling preacher and activist when this article appeared. In 1974, she became the first African-American woman to be ordained in the United Church of Christ.

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