Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth: Materialism versus Philosophical Idealism

At a time when most women enjoyed little personal freedom and African women had almost no personal freedom; formerly enslaved African women, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, challenged their oppressors at every step.
 
They won supporters from every sector of society and were held up as heroines during their lifetime. 
 
Neither woman adopted a self-care, self-absorbed attitude typical of some of today’s black organizing—and we love them for it. 
 
It’s because of their shining examples that we continue to hold them up today as heroes of African people. 
 
It is important, however, to draw a comparison of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in order to see the basis of the politics that both of them came to represent. 
 
While both women contributed to the historical legacy of African resistance in the United States in particular, the different strategies and political affiliations they chose would define a historical split in the politics of African women.
 
On one hand, Sojourner Truth is claimed by feminists because of her affiliation with the women’s suffrage movement and her definitive speech Ain’t I a Woman, which specifically draws out the contradiction of being African and a woman, meant to appeal to the morality of white women who were organizing for equal rights to white men.
 
On the other hand, Harriet Tubman is claimed by most Africans because of her material approach to obtaining freedom for herself and others, by actually rescuing people and engaging in military resistance against those who opposed African freedom.
 

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth, born Isabelle Baumfree, was born into slavery in Swartekil, New York in 1797.
 
She escaped her captor in 1826—one year before New York state abolished slavery—because she had been promised freedom and it was not given.
 
After achieving freedom, Truth continued to face hardships as a result of being a colonized African woman in the northern states.
 
The most critical struggle was fighting for her children who were illegally sold into slavery and caring for her ailing, dying enslaved parents.
 
Much of Truth’s life was spent as a Christian evangelist. She used her deep faith in god as the primary method by which she advocated for “women’s rights,” prison reform and abolition.
 
She spoke at many events, sponsored by white women, who required hers and other black women’s voices, as a strategy for “women” to get the right to vote.
 
However, when African men were granted the right to vote before white women, many white women suffragists revealed their white oppressor nation tendencies and became full blown race nationalist, bashing black men by calling them enemies of women.
 
It’s important to note that during this time in history, both the abolitionist and suffrage movements were tied together.
 
White women-led suffrage movements in particular, opportunistically built their movement out of the struggle to end African enslavement: not so different from how white women organize today.
 
What white women were fighting for—equal rights to men—was something that had already been imposed on African women through the process of enslavement and colonialism, when African women were stripped of our womanhood and made equivalent to animals, just like African men.
 
Although feminists claim Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman speech as a contribution toward feminist thought—feminist thought being a critique of patriarchy (men)—it was actually a criticism of the white oppressor nation women who were afforded the grace of being a lady, at the expense of African women and African slavery overall.

 

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross in 1822, was born into slavery in Maryland.
 
After Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 she went on to make over 13 rescue missions to the south to free other Africans trapped in bondage; only stopping on the eve of the American Civil War in 1860.
 
In 1861, Tubman joined the northern Union army as cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy.
 
She became the first woman in the history of this country to lead an armed military expedition which resulted in freeing over 750 Africans and the destruction of property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
 
Harriet also recruited Africans for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
 
Like Sojourner, Harriet was also a woman of faith; however, Tubman had a history of practice, dedicating her life to uplifting African people by struggling for material institutions that she believed would guarantee the long-term freedom and repair of African people.
 
While Truth ended her life as an evangelist who stopped hating her white oppressors because she was introduced to her “lord and master Jesus Christ,” Tubman lived out her life in the nursing home she built, for poor and aging Africans. 
 
And even though Tubman had close relationships with white people, she had a history of measuring white people’s unity by what they actually contributed to the African freedom struggle, as evidenced in her disagreement with Truth about Abraham Lincoln:
 
“Tubman questioned Lincoln’s motivation for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and critiqued what she perceived as his slow and reluctant embrace of black freedom.
 
“She also blamed Lincoln for the policies that perpetuated unequal pay and treatment for black soldiers.
 
“Sojourner Truth, in contrast, readily accepted Lincoln’s reputation as the ‘Great Emancipator’ and remarked after meeting him in the fall of 1864 that she ‘had never treated with more kindness and cordiality than I was by the great and good man Abraham Lincoln, by the grace of God President of the United States for four more years.’” [1]
 

Philosophical Idealism vs. Materialism

Their divergent paths are clear examples of the organizing principles that make up the strata of African organizing today and what the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) defines as Philosophical Idealism vs. Materialism, as described in the following excerpt from, An Uneasy Equilibrium: Parasitic Capitalism vs. African Internationalism:
 
“Idealism is an erroneous, petty bourgeois view that sees ideas, gods or the spiritual or other greater power as the primary force that determines reality. Idealism teaches that there are aspects of life or the universe that are static and unknowable.
 
“The materialist worldview of African Internationalism informs the African working class that the world can be changed and that it is our responsibility to change it. African Internationalism is a theory that requires action—the unity of theory and practice.” [2]

Tubman took on the great task of changing the world by acting.
 
Despite her faith, which taught her to pray, she acted on her instinct and physically contributed to tangible gains for African people. She was a hardcore materialist to the very end.
 
In the time since Harriet and Sojourner, there have been efforts made to secure freedom for African people.
 
From Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) to the Black Panther Party; movements have been built.
 
However, nothing has taken the question of African freedom to its final conclusion like the APSP who, since the defeat of the Black Revolution of the 60s, have been organizing a worldwide African revolution for a free, united Africa and African People. 
 
It was during the process of building the worldwide African freedom (Uhuru) movement, that the African National Women’s Organization (ANWO) was developed as a strategy of the revolution; whose task is to recruit and develop Harriets. 
 
This is a stance we are winning among African women who were left with nowhere to turn because of the nearly 50-year lack of exposure to revolutionary theory that would have advanced the role of African women as part of the African liberation struggle. 
 
During this gap, many African women turned toward feminism as a path to individual freedom.
 
But feminism, as we’ve documented many times, lacks a national consciousness and a final conclusion.
 
Unlike African Internationalism, it does not answer the question, how will African women achieve freedom.
 
That is why we maintain that it is petty bourgeois and idealist in character. Feminism, of any kind, will not free African women.
 
In our mission to develop more Harriets, we are not calling for some sort of masochistic display of self-sacrifice; instead we are calling on African women to unite with and contribute to the revolution.
 
African women are understanding more and more that struggling against capitalism is not divorced from our everyday life.
 
In fact, our very existence within capitalism is filled with experiences that prompt our resistance.
 
We are calling on you to be organized among other African women in order to win that resistance.

Honor Sojourner! Fight like Harriet!
Fight for your freedom!
Join ANWO!
ANWOUhuru.org

[1]Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century By Kristen T. Oertel
[2]An Uneasy Equilibrium: The African Revolution versus Parasitic Capitalism, African Internationalism The Theory of the African Working Class, Omali Yeshitela 2016

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