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Yale Daily News

Published Friday, September 20, 1996
Princeton celebrity tells the Truth

BY NICOLE ITANO
Contributing Reporter

Although she once doubted she would ever write another life history, Princeton University history professor Nell Painter graced Yale yesterday with a visit on a promotional tour for her new biography, "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol."

Painter, who two years ago declined an offer to join Yale's faculty, spoke to a small audience in Sudler Hall. She discussed her newly released book detailing the life of Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century women's rights advocate and anti-slavery crusader.

The former slave, she said, is historical figure shrouded in myth. According to legend, for example, Truth was an adviser to former President Abraham Lincoln. In reality, Truth had only one short meeting with "The Great Emancipator." Painter said she wanted to find the real person behind the stories.

Truth, born into slavery in the state of New York, became a free woman as a result of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. After gaining her freedom, Truth, an illiterate mother of three, became an itinerant Pentecostal minister.

She traveled around the country speaking in support of women's rights and the abolition movement. She also published a small autobiography she dictated to a writer.

Painter said her book is more than a story of Truth's life. It also attempts to show how Truth has become a symbol for her ideas.

"She's an authentic hero," Painter said. "There's a call for strong black women and Sojourner Truth is that woman."

Painter said her book is controversial because she uses 20th-century psychology to interpret a historical figure who lived over a century ago. For example, Painter said she found hints in her research leading her to believe that Truth had been sexually abused by her mistress while a slave, and she tried to understand how those experiences affected Truth's life and actions.

Her audience didn't seem to mind the book's alleged controversy.

"I've heard her before talking about Sojourner Truth, and it's never boring," Joan Mensah GRD '96. "It's the best of revisionist history."

The idea to write a biography of Truth came to Painter after reading a friend's biography of Langston Hughes, she said. Painter had written "The Narrative of Hosea Hudson," sometime earlier, and said the experience exhausted her. But after finishing the Hughes biography she was inspired to write another, though she did not have a subject.

"Suddenly I heard a voice calling 'Me!'" said Painter, explaining how she decided to write about Truth. "I've gained a new respect for spiritual voices."

Working on a biography of Truth has led Painter to her next project, she said. She plans a work on the idea of personal beauty using pictorial representations and "cutting herself free from chronology."

Painter, author of four books including "Sojourner Truth," was brought to Yale by the Yale Program on African and African American Studies. She is beginning a tour to promote her new book that will take her to 13 cities around the United States.

Painter received her Bachelors of Arts from the University of California at Berkeley and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is currently the Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton.

Copyright © 2002 Yale Daily News Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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