Personality Psychology – Sojourner Truth Essay

Sojourner Truth (c.1797 – 26 November 1883)

Sojourner Truth dedicated her life to fighting slavery, and advocating equal rights for women. She first began speaking in 1827, giving personal testimony of the evils and cruelty of slavery; and later as a staunch supporter of suffrage, also advocated for equal rights for women. At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, she delivered her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” which is now revered among classic text of feminism. She lived her life in the water-shed years of American abolition of slavery and became a leader and recognized as an icon for equality of rights and freedom.

At birth, Truth was named Isabella and was a slave for the first twenty-eight years of her life because she was a child born by slaves. In 1826, Truth began life as a free woman; but only after eighteen years – in 1843 at the age of forty-six years, she rename herself, “Sojourner Truth is my name, because from this day I will walk in the light of His truth.

” (p.77). The moment of naming herself marked Truth’s cognitive freedom from her enslaved past.

Neo-Analytic Approach to Personality

The neo-analytic approach to personality asseverate that the individual’s sense of self as the core of personality; holding that the self “struggles to cope with emotions and drives on the inside and the demands of others on the outside” (Friedman & Schustack, 2011); that human nature is positive and goal-oriented; that society and culture shapes

personality; and that development continues throughout lifespan. For the analysis of Sojourner Truth’s personality, the concepts of neo-analytical theorist Alfred Adler are selected for the purpose.

Adler’s Concept of Humanity

Feist & Feist (2006) described Adler’s concept of humanity as that people are self-determinant, and their unique personalities are shaped by how they interpret their lives and experiences. People are ultimately responsible for their own personalities and possess the creative power to transform feelings of inadequacy towards a final goal of either personal superiority or goal of success for society.

i. Striving for superiority or success

Adler believed that the central core of personality is the striving for superiority towards a final goal. The final goal – while fictional and has no objective existence – unifies personality and renders all behaviour comprehensible. According to Feist & Feist (2006), Adler posit that feelings of inferiority motivate a person to strive for either a self-centered (selfish) goal of superiority, or an altruistic goal of success for all humans. The final goal compensates and reduces feelings of inferiority and weakness, and drives the individual to seek either superiority or success. Truth was a slave for twenty-eight years. During her enslavement, she was abused and treated as chattel or property. Her slave-masters dictated and hold sway her life. Her enslavement caused Truth to feel inferior – but yet her reaction to those feelings of inferiority was to strived for a goal for success (for society).

Throughout her life as a free woman, Sojourner Truth devoted herself to fight against slavery and for equal rights for all. During the American Civil War, Truth risked her life to gather and deliver supplies to black volunteer regiments; and was continually involved in various political causes. With the National Freedman’s Relief Association she continued to strive to better conditions and lives for all African Americans – of which her last campaign (sadly unsuccessful) was a land distribution programme for former slaves.

ii. Social Interest

Adler (1956) state that those who strive for success (instead of self-centered superiority) possess a “sense of personal worth that is tied closely to their contributions to human society. Social progress is more important to them than personal credit” ” (Feist & Feist, 2006, p.72). Truth transcended her oppressed past; turned out to be a healthy individual who was motivated without personal gain to help others to “seek success for all humanity” (Feist & Feist, 2006). She was not motivated by personal gain.

iii. Fictionlism / People’s behaviour and personality is shaped by their subjective perceptions. Adlerian approach maintains that that people are motivated by their subjective perceptions of what is true, and not by what is true. Their subjective perceptions of reality (i.e. fictions) influence them as if were reality. According to Feist & Feist (2006), fictions, regardless true or false, are powerful influence on people’s life.

An example of a fiction is the belief in an omnipotent God that guides and helps shape many people’s lives and actions. This is clearly demonstrated in Truth’s life.

Sojourner Truth’s parents taught her to believe in God, and that “God is always with her and she is never alone” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.22). Throughout her life, she held this belief in an omnipotent God, and it was her source of solace (especially during her enslavement), and later – guide her in decision-making and actions. Truth believed that God was her true master. After eighteen years as a free woman, a chance encounter became the tipping point of her self-realisation. A woman asked for her name and upon that very moment Truth realized that all her life she had her slave-masters’ names and thereby declared, “The only master I have now is God and His name is Truth.” And gave herself the last name Truth (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.77).

Truth maintained a practice of meditation and deep prayer through which she claimed God communicates with her. In her public speaking,she usually began with a declaration of her spiritual link, “Well, Children, I speaks to God and God speaks to me…I talks to God and God talks to me.” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.82 and 117).

Truth sought spiritual guidance during stressful times. For example when she had recently only left her former slave-master Dumont, she was intimidated by threats to her children to return to Dumont’s farm. After the incident she shared “Jesus stopped me” and that she experienced a powerful force that turned her around

when she tried to go back to the Dumont farm. Truth held that the event was a profound meaningful spiritual experience that convinced her that she was never going back to enslavement (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.41).

Another example of Truth’s staunch belief that God was on her side: In her fight to free and get her son to be returned to her, Truth prayed for divine intervention,“God… show those about me that you are my Helper” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.43). She was aided by Quaker abolitionists and a fair judge ruled justly in her favour.

iv. Value of human activity must be evaluated on the basis of social interest. Adler posit that social interest is the natural human condition and that it binds society as a whole. According to Feist & Feist (2006), Adler held that social interest is the only gauge to be used in judging the worth of a person: Healthy individuals “strives for perfection for all people in an ideal community…are genuinely concerned about people and have a goal of success that encompasses the well-being of all people” (p.75 & 77).

Sojourner continually spoke against slavery, campaigned for emancipation of slaves, suffrage and equal human rights. She spoke out against mistreatment and injustice in the army, gathered and distributed donations of food and clothing, and helped in military wards and hospitals. In 1864, Truth was recognized for her work and efforts by President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.

v. Masculine Protest / Society & Culture Shapes People Adler reasoned that culture and society influenced people to overemphasize the importance of being manly, i.e. masculine protest. Many societies promote the belief that men are superior to women, implicitly implying that women are inferior. However Adler uphold that women have the physiological and psychological needs as men and therefore want “more or less the same things that men want” (Feist & Feist, 2006, p.85). This echoes feminists’ campaigns for equal rights: political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities.

Truth attended the first national (USA) Women’s Rights Convention in 1850, and was inspired as well as motivated to speak and advocate for “Equality before the law without distinction of sex or colour” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.106). From that time on, she spoke for abolition of slavery and equality for women. In her 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron,Ohio, Truth challenge gender discrimination, subordination, and dispelled the illusion of woman as the weaker sex. “…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 ploughed 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?…” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.112-114)

vi. Lifestyle

A lifestyle encompasses daily activities erstwhile pursuing one’s goals. According to Hergenhahn (2009), Adler believed that for a lifestyle to be genuinely effective it must contain considerable interest, i.e. working toward a society that would provide a better life for everyone. People with a healthy, socially useful lifestyle express their social interest through action. (Adler described a lifestyle without adequate social interest as a ‘Mistaken Lifestyle’.) According to Feist & Feist (2006), Adler considered three intertwined social issues as fundamental to an effective lifestyle: occupational tasks – choosing and pursuing a career that makes one feel worthwhile; societal tasks – creating friendships and social networks; and love tasks – finding a suitable life-partner.

Truth’s lifestyle embodied all of Adler’s identified three social issues: * Occupational tasks: Truth embraced a career to fight for emancipation of slavery and equal rights for women. Besides public-speaking against slavery, Truth also worked to improve living conditions for all. In 1865, at the age of seventy, Truth accepted the task to “promote order, cleanliness, industry, and virtue among the patients at the Freedman’s Hospital” (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.149).

* Societal tasks: Regardless when she was a slave or as a free woman, Truth formed relationships which led to social networks of friends, supporters, and even ‘fans’. Her circle of friends included Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Richard Allen, John Jay, Frederick Douglass, and many many more equally enlightened beings.

* Truth was separated from Robert, her first love who was a slave from another farm, because his slave-master forbade their marriage as children from slave-parents would belong to the slave-mother’s owner. Later Truth married (on orders of her slave-master) Tom, one of the other slaves belonging to the same slave-master. Eventually, they grew to love each other in their own way and shared common respect for each other (McKissack & McKissack, 1992, p.33).

viiCreative Power

Adler believed that each person possess the power to create their own lifestyle. In line with existentialistic philosophy, Adler agreed that people are ultimately responsible for who they are and their behaviour. People are their “own architect and can build either a useful or a useless lifestyle” (Feist & Feist, 2006, p.79). The creative power propels each and every one towards a goal, regardless whether in the direction of social interest or not. An individual’s creative power empowers that individual to control their own life – to determine their final goal and strive for that goal, and contributes to development of social interest.

Truth’s personality reflected her optimal creative power that helped her manifest an effective lifestyle, successfully overcoming her lamented enslavement and then striving for success for all humans. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Truth would be considered an actualized personality.


Adlerians maintain that people are naturally positive and goal-oriented. He also posited that mentally healthy people strive for societal success for all humans. In analysis of Sojourner Truth’s personality, it is found that Truth explicitly actualized Adler’s Individual Psychology: Truth manifested her creative power to strive for success (for all humans), thereby lived an effective (valued) lifestyle which embodied social interests and dispelled implicit inferiority of being a former slave, black, and a woman, with a staunch belief that divine power (God) guided and helped her throughout her life.

Feist, J., & Feist, G.J. (2006). Theories of Personality (6th ed.). USA: McGraw-Hill Asia. Friedman, H.S., & Schustack, M.W. (2011). Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson

Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth
Liebert, R., Liebert, L. (1998). Liebert & Liebert; Spiegler’s Personality Strategies and Issues (8th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA.: Brooks/Cole.
McKissack, P.C.,& McKissack, F.(1992). Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? New York: Scholastic.

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