While it may be impossible to truly measure joy, A Private History of Happiness(BlueBridge, 2012) offers such profound moments of such emotions, one cannot help but feel affected and uplifted. George Myerson offers ninety-nine tales of inner strength, love, perseverance, and charity meant to inspire and motivate. This selection, excerpted from “Creativity,” recounts Sojourner Truth’s journey to reunite with her long-lost son, who was sold into slavery after his birth.
The Feeling of Inner Strength
Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner, telling her story to a friend (Florence, Massachusetts, late 1840s):
I’ll have my child again [. . .] I have no money, but God has enough, or what’s better! And I’ll have my child again [. . .] Oh my God! I knew I’d have him again. I was sure God would help me to get him. Why, I felt so tall within—I felt as if the power of a nation was with me!
Sojourner Truth was born around 1797 as an enslaved girl named Isabella on an estate in Ulster County, New York. She was sold successively to three owners during her childhood, the last being John Dumont and his wife, also in Ulster County. The wife in particular treated her extremely cruelly. As a young woman, Truth had been forced to marry an older slave, Thomas; she had five children. Eventually she left the Dumonts and came to stay locally with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. In 1827, slavery was abolished in New York State. Truth found out that her son Peter (born in about 1822) had been sent to a slaveholder called Solomon Gedney, who then sold him to a planter in Alabama. But it was illegal to sell a slave out of the state of New York.
It was about twenty years later that Sojourner Truth, who had taken this name in her subsequent career as a preacher, abolitionist, and campaigner, was telling the story of her earlier years to a friend named Olive Gilbert, whom she had met as a fellow member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (a utopian group) in Florence, Massachusetts. Olive Gilbert wrote down the experiences as dictated, with some comments, and they were published in 1850. It had been, in many ways, a personal conversation in which one friend told another of her life.
Here Truth reached the moment when she had gone in search of Peter and had sought out her previous owners, the Dumonts. Her aim was to find the man who had illegally sold her son.
She remembered the encounter very vividly. John Dumont’s wife reacted with cruel contempt to her inquiry about Peter, and Truth recalled for Olive how she reached “a moment’s hesitation” and then suddenly and irrevocably she realized that she was not going to be defeated. She knew, and was able to declare, that “I’ll have my child again.” This, too, was met with dismissive indifference by Dumont’s wife. Where would she ever find the money to pursue her cause?
In response, Sojourner Truth found words that welled up from a deep source of inspiration inside: “I have no money, but God has enough, or what’s better! And I’ll have my child again.” She repeated this declaration like an anthem. Later in life, she became a great orator in the cause of abolition and women’s rights. As Olive Gilbert wrote, she possessed “a spirit-stirring animation” that moved her audiences. Here that stirring power of expression came to self-awareness under the pressure of a great hardship.
Many things about this encounter were deeply unhappy—Dumont’s hostility and also the anguish of not yet knowing how she would recover her son. But deep inside, this was also a moment of exaltation. She later recalled that, as she heard herself speak these words of poetic beauty and assurance, she “felt so tall within.” It was her own language that had given her this deep, answering self-affirmation, the happiness of discovering her own visionary will and expression. So great was the energy that she felt “as if the power of a nation was with me!”
Sojourner Truth’s fight for her son’s return was complicated and further testified to the force of will that she had discovered. She was directed by a friend to the home of Quakers who gave her support. From there she went to the Grand Jury at court and, with further legal help paid for by her supporters, she eventually forced the return of her young son by suing the man who had sold him illegally. Such was the threat to him—of fine and imprisonment—that Gedney had to travel to Alabama and retrieve the boy. The case was brought in the autumn of 1827, she recalled, and Peter was returned to her the following year. Her powerful words did come true: “I’ll have my child again.”
Reprinted with permission from A Private History of Happiness: Ninety-Nine Moments of Joy from Around the World by George Myerson and published by BlueBridge, 2012.