There’s a story about twin sisters who had an alcoholic father. As adults, one became alcoholic herself, and the other never touched a drop. When interviewed and asked about the people they had become, the twins, remarkably, gave the same response:
“With a father like that, is it any wonder?”
The same experience—two different views. One chooses to use her tragic experience as an excuse; the other sees it as a mission statement for her life—NOT to repeat history!
Sojourner Truth and Oprah Winfrey are two women who also knew how to respond to tragedy, and though they were born almost 150 years apart, they have much in common:
Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth) was born into slavery and remained a slave for 50 years. She had twelve brothers and sisters, few of whom she ever knew. Most were split up and sold as slaves to different plantation owners. As an adult, she experienced even more loss. She was forced by one of her masters to marry another slave, and many of their children were sold off as slaves as well.
Oprah Winfrey had a rough start to life as well. Her parents split up when she was young, and at age nine, she went to live with her mother. There, she was sexually abused—first, by an older cousin, and then later by others throughout her childhood. When it became too much to bear, she ran away, was found, and was sent to live with her father.
The Right Attitude
Both of these women had reasons to live a victim’s life—blaming the past for their problems. And who would blame them? Slavery for 50 years? Repeated rape? That’s enough to forever damage the strength to survive of most people.
Sojourner and Oprah are not most people.
Their attitudes are like that of the second twin—I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else! That’s my mission in life!
A Voice That Gets Noticed
Despite being black and female (two groups that have traditionally been discriminated against throughout history), each of these women used a strong voice to get attention.
Sojourner eventually made her way across America, finding ways to meet with some of the most influential people of the time (including the President, Abraham Lincoln!). When slavery was abolished, she fought even more strongly for the rights of blacks and women. Her most famous speech emphasized the equality and strength of the female population. Here are a few excerpts from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? . . .
Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?
I could work as much, and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?
I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and I cried out with a mother’s grief . . .And ain’t I a woman?”
It was a powerful speech that had a lasting impact on those who attended that convention and on others they would go on to influence later.
Oprah’s voice also garnered attention, even early on. When she moved to live with her father, she started making use of that gift, and soon became part of her school’s drama club and student council. She represented her state at the White House Conference on Youth, and her voice was “discovered” during the talent portion of a beauty contest.
She continued to capitalize on this strength and moved from being a radio newscaster in high school to a reporter and co-anchor at a local tv station while still in university. In 1984, she took over a Chicago talk show that eventually became The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah’s show now enjoys an audience of over 15 million viewers worldwide. Her voice is heard, to be sure!
A Heart for the People
Sojourner talked about the rights of blacks and women, but she also backed up that talk with action. Slaves often found it difficult integrating back into society. If slavery is all you’ve ever known, you don’t know what it’s like to be a citizen. Finding work and a home you can afford can be a challenge. And despite the law, discrimination is still rampant—though laws may stress equality, attitudes take time to change. Sojourner not only talked about change, but she rolled up her sleeves and went to work, helping slaves find their way in a new “free” society.
Oprah is the first female African-American billionaire ever. She could easily sit back, enjoy the fruits of her labor, travel, have fun, and have more money than she could ever know what to do with.
But she knows how to use her wealth and influence to help others.
Her generosity is evident every single show, when she gives away thousands of dollars of awards, prizes, and scholarships to those making a difference, to those in need. She supports education and gives financial assistance to Morehouse College, Tennessee State University, and the Chicago Academy of the Arts, to name a few.
In 1994, she used her influence to help support the National Child Protection Act, a bill eventually signed into law by President Clinton. The law means that there is now a national registry of the names of child abusers. Those who hire people to work with children have a roster with which they can screen new applicants, making the world a little safer for kids. It’s easy to see how Oprah has taken the tragedy of her own childhood and transformed it to help others.
It’s amazing to see the strides women have made today. Considering how much of history they’ve been repressed and discriminated against, women have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
With women like Sojourner and Oprah leading the way,
Thank you for the opportunity to read this article. I had never heard of Sojourner Truth, but I have heard of Oprah and all the wonderful things she is doing to make this world a better place. Now I know of one more woman who has tried to improve the lot of others. Your article is indeed inspiring and well written, giving us a sense of history as well as the present. May God indeed richly bless you.