On May 29, 1851 an imposingly tall, strong black woman attended a women’s rights convention in Akron and at one point approach the speaker’s platform and asked “May I say a few words?” Few might have thought so at the time—including the woman herself—but the short, impromptu collection of words she proceeded to say when give an appreciative affirmative to her query have gone to become of the most important documents in American history.
When Sojourner Truth delivered that speech, it had no title. After all, she had just made it right there on the spot. American came perilously close to never getting that document which might never have been known to any but those in attendance had her words not made such a strong impression that they were recorded as text and published a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Marius Robinson working in close collaboration with the speaker who could herself read or write. This version does not even include the phrase which would soon become its title.
Twelve years later, Frances Dana Gage extensively refashioned that original transcript into a text that would be taught for many decades as the real deal. It was Gage who added the titular question into the actual speech itself. Gage’s work should not be considered a rewrite so much as an attempt to transform the power of speech into the power of the written word. The main ideas and structure are pretty much identical; where the difference lies in in the nuances of language. The primary problem with Gage’s language is that she attempts to impose slave dialect on it in keeping with the tenor of the times in which it was composed. Dialect stories were incredibly popular and pretty much the only avenue afforded to African-Americans wanting to get published. As a result, although today it may seem counterintuitive to the idea of refashioning an actual speech into written prose that seems like natural speech, at the time patois like “den dey talk ‘bout dis” was an acceptable form for conveying peculiarities of slave and Reconstruction-era culture.
The upshot, of course, is that such refashioning was unnecessary. Robinson’s transcript of Truth’s spoken words has since been revealed as one of the most powerful examples of persuasive rhetoric whether read or heard. Sojourner needed stylistic rewrite to speak her truth.