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Yale Daily News
Published Friday, September 20, 1996
Princeton celebrity tells the Truth
BY NICOLE ITANO
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
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
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
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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