Ain't I a Woman
The deeply personal pieces in my “Ain’t I a Woman?” series were created in response to learning that I had slave owners in my family history. This was a staggering reckoning. I was born in the North- the side of the "good guys," but moved to the shallow south of Maryland and Virginia some thirty years ago. It was not until I began to research my ancestry during lockdown that I discovered my “ancient planter” southern roots. Underneath those roots were buried the lives of generations of enslaved people, and into my karmic lineage fell the sudden, swift burden of an outstanding debt, unpaid.
I have spent the past several years trying to come to terms with this dark legacy; using my art practice to work through the anguish of truth. I knew I was opening myself up to attack working on such a painful topic. Critics have wrongly assumed that I did this work to assuage some sense of "White Guilt." In fact, I created this series to re-educate myself. If I didn’t know this about my own family, what else didn’t I know? I made a choice to use my quavering voice to speak the truth of what I learned out loud into the collective cultural context- "This happened." Not names, only numbers were accounted. Records and crosses were burned. Bodies were broken. Families were torn apart. Voices were silenced. There are policymakers out there even now attempting to erase this chapter from American history. For my own understanding, I set an intention to create a series of documents of lives lost and families shattered by the crimes of my ancestors, not to absolve them or myself. I searched through generations of family records and slave schedules to discover where my ancestors had lived and the numbers, though rarely the names, of the people who were uprooted from their own lands to work the soil of a strange shore. This isn't just a case of one particular family in one southern town, however. It was a systemic, multi-generational cataclysm that began the moment white colonizers set foot on these shores and was endemic in the North as well as the South. I have created hundreds of pieces in this process of re-education, only a handful of which made it to the light of day. Using period photographs alongside my original photography, layering maps and what family documents I could find, I created a series of photographic mixed media works to honor and dignify the lives of people robbed by my ancestors of their rightful stories. I looked directly into the past and came back to tell about it, that’s all. What happened was brutal and the process was humbling, but that’s the truth for you. Ain’t no carpet big enough to sweep it under.
The title of the series is taken from the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech by Sojourner Truth and the individual image titles are taken from the lyrics of the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice'' written by James Weldon Johnson. In this series of images I seek to shine light on a dark chapter in American history while paying forward my own form of soul reparations, however inadequate.
*This series won the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers in the Segregation and Human Rights Category and earned a spot in the 2023 Photolucida Critical Mass Top 200.
Limited edition prints are available, profits of which go to the Ten Million Names Project where I donate my time and Ancestry.com membership to researching African-American genealogy and helping people find their roots. Contact me at Linda@LindaPlaisted.com for more information.
"Ain't I A Woman" speech by Sojourner Truth
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? 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 ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and 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 thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from?
From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.