"A New Biography Examines the Life of Sojourner Truth: A Princeton professor explores the facts and fictions of the legendary
slave-turned-activist," Chronicle of Higher Education, 13
Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated September 13, 1996
A New Biography Examines the Life of Sojourner Truth
A Princeton professor explores the facts and fictions
of the legendary slave-turned-activist
By Karen J. Winkler
Who hasn't heard the words attributed to the former slave
Sojourner Truth:"And ar'n't I a woman?"
She is remembered as a 19th-century black woman who demanded
recognition, who reportedly ripped open her dress at a public meeting
to force white feminists to confront her humanity. She has become an icon,
her words and image blazoned on T-shirts and posters.
But who was the woman behind the symbol? And why has she
become so important to contemporary society?
A book due out this month by the Princeton University historian
Nell Irvin Painter -- Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol --
tries to answer those questions. The last few years have witnessed a flurry
of academic interest in Sojourner Truth, with two scholarly biographies
and a new edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, her life
story that she originally dictated to a friend. But scholars who have
seen Dr. Painter's manuscript say that its readability and its breadth
-- ranging from psychological theory to an analysis of 19th-century photographs
to a survey of over 100 years of writing about the former slave -- will
make it stand out.
W.W. Norton & Company is betting on it. The publisher
has scheduled a tour of more than 20 cities for Dr. Painter; press representatives
say that colleges and universities have been calling them, offering
to finance her appearance.
That is due in part to who Nell Painter is. She has held
many of the prestigious posts in her profession and served on most of
the important editorial boards of her field.
"I know her as a friend and a black woman scholar
who -- because her work can't be ignored -- makes it easier for other
black women to have access to scholarly attention. She's a pioneer,"
says Nellie Y. McKay, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin
Dr. Painter started her career as a Southern historian.
She has written on black migration from the South to Kansas after Reconstruction,
white plantation mistresses, politics in the United States in the late
19th and early 20th centuries, and Hosea Hudson, a black Southern Communist.
At first, Sojourner Truth didn't seem to fit those interests.
Born a slave in upstate New York, Truth never got farther South than Washington.
Dr. Painter says that she had just finished her book on
Hosea Hudson and was stretched out on a couch one day with her cats, trying
to recoup while reading Arnold Rampersad's biography of Langston Hughes.
"I found it inspiring," she says."Then this
voice came to me and said, Do me! I said, Who the hell are you? It was
That was in the mid-1980s. Asked how she felt when, after
several years of research, she discovered that at least three other scholars
were also working on biographies of Truth, Dr. Painter says with a hint
of a smile,"I like to think of the spirit of Sojourner Truth going
about to likely biographers." She adds that we need to know more
about the lives of black women in the past.
The facts about Sojourner Truth are scarce. Born Isabella
Van Wagenen sometime in the 1790s, she seems to have negotiated her own
freedom by 1826, a year before New York emancipated slaves. As a free
woman, she became active in Pentecostal religion. Living first with an
extended family run by the self-styled"Prophet Matthias," she
rechristened herself Sojourner Truth and became an itinerant preacher,
later a much-sought-after speaker among abolitionists and feminists.
But because Sojourner Truth was illiterate, almost no first-hand
records survive. Besides the Narrative, other written sources are
the work of people who observed her.
The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, in an 1863
article for The Atlantic Monthly, recounted Truth's famous confrontation
with Frederick Douglass. When Douglass told a public meeting that ending
slavery might require violence, Truth rose from the audience to caution
patience:"But Frederick, is God dead?"
Similarly, the feminist Frances Dana Gage recorded Truth's
challenge to a meeting of white advocates of women's rights: "And
ar'n't I a woman?" Gage depicted the meeting as hostile to black
Dr. Painter began to have doubts about these accounts when
she read contemporary articles about the women's-rights meeting: None
of the journalists present mentioned Truth's question.
Since then, the historian Carleton Mabee's biography
Sojourner Truth (New York University Press, 1993) has shown that Gage
fabricated the incident. His book also says that, while Truth probably
did confront Douglass, her words may have been different from those in
In her book, Dr. Painter agrees that many of the stories
about Sojourner Truth are false, but she says that is not what she finds
interesting. Instead, her focus is on how -- and why -- Sojourner Truth
and others remade Truth's image.
"I'm as much interested in the symbol of Sojourner
Truth as in her life," she says."It tells you a lot about the
way race functions in our society."
For that, she has had to go beyond the written sources.
One approach that she uses is to draw on psychology. For
example, in discussing psychological theories about the impact of abuse
on children, Dr. Painter's book interprets the phrasing and structure
of Sojourner Truth's Narrative to argue that she was probably sexually
abused -- not only by a slave master, but also by a mistress. The way
that Truth repeatedly referred to"unaccountable" and"unnatural"
acts, followed by non sequiturs about her mistress, is suggestive of the
way victims approach sexual abuse, Dr. Painter says.
"Psychological theories help explain a lot that other
historians have found inexplicable," she says. They help, for example,
to suggest why Isabella became entangled with the often-abusive Prophet
Matthias."Theories about how children become attached to people who
have been mean to them help us understand this period in Truth's life.
They show us that Sojourner Truth came out of slavery very insecure."
If so, Dr. Painter goes on to ask, how did Truth remake
herself from the woman who submitted to the autocratic Matthias, into
one of the leading public speakers of her day?
She argues that a form of Pentecostalism -- which she calls
"Perfectionism" -- imbued Truth with a sense of power from the
Holy Spirit. In the period after her emancipation, the former slave embraced
a vision of the imminent end of the world, when blacks would be saved
and whites damned. But by the end of her life, when she felt stronger,
she turned to a gentler spiritualism.
To flesh out Sojourner Truth's interior life, Dr. Painter
also looks at the"cartes-de-visite" that became popular
in the United States in the 1860s -- small black-and-white photographs
bought and sold like popular stories.
Many former slaves depicted themselves in these photos
with whip-scarred backs and clad in the rags of slavery. But Sojourner
Truth -- who sold the cartes-de-visite to support herself -- chose
to represent herself as a respectable middle- class matron, sometimes
wearing glasses, knitting, or holding a book."I think we can see
Truth becoming strong enough to refuse to define herself as a slave,"
Dr. Painter says.
Her book repeatedly contrasts this Sojourner Truth to the
Sojourner Truth in the many myths about her. Dr. Painter's point is not
just that Sojourner Truth was different from what we have been led to
believe, but that those differences say a lot about American society.
She argues that in the 19th century, amid wrenching struggles
to end slavery, most writers saw in Truth proof that blacks and whites
could live together. Abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe emphasized
her moderation, depicting her as a peaceful Christian who appreciated
white efforts to end slavery; feminists such as Frances Dana Gage stressed
her role as a link between the causes of black and women's rights.
In the early 20th century, Dr. Painter writes, the consciousness
of the suffrage movement became white, and Sojourner Truth dropped out
of the symbolism of feminism; at the same time, black intellectuals began
to adopt Truth as an image of a strong black woman.
By the 1960s, as both feminism and the civil-rights movement
evolved, some writers once again began to depict Truth as a bridge between
the two causes.
Prepublication reviews have praised Dr. Painter's work
for reading like a novel and appealing to a wide audience. Scholars familiar
with the book say that its biggest impact is likely to be in directing
attention to black people as individuals.
"There's been such a tendency to see black Americans
as a whole, with little thought to the differences among them," says
Wisconsin's Dr. McKay."By making Sojourner Truth a real person, Nell
is offering a much-needed alternative."
Dr. Mabee, an emeritus professor of history at the State
University of New York College at New Paltz, says that"when I started,
there was almost no critical analysis of the sources. I wanted to hunt
down the facts for my Truth biography. But Nell Painter's work is thought-provoking:
She's got something new to say with her discussion of the symbolism of
Dr. Painter's approach is also likely to be controversial
-- particularly its sections on possible child abuse. She acknowledges
that when she presented a paper on Sojourner Truth to a scholarly meeting
a few years ago,"everyone said, Gee that's interesting, but how can
you prove it?"
"Of course there's no proof. It just seems to fit."
Linda K. Kerber, a professor of history at the University
of Iowa, published an article by Dr. Painter in a collection of essays,
U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays (University of
North Carolina Press, 1995), that she helped edit. Dr. Painter's piece,"Soul
Murder and Slavery," deals with the psychic scars created by slavery.
Dr. Kerber calls it "gutsy."
"For the last 20 to 30 years, a whole generation of
historians has been at pains to stress the strengths and agency of black
people, to see the strategies that they forged to survive the brutality
of slavery. Then here comes Nell saying, that's good, but let's not gloss
over the damage."
"I think she's very careful about how she uses psychological
theory, but historians are notoriously hostile to psychology, so I expect
some people to object," she says.
For Dr. Painter, focusing on Sojourner Truth's image has
spurred an interest in cultural representation. She is now at work on
how Americans produced concepts of beauty in the late 19th and early 20th
Centuries."In a sense, I've moved a long distance, from political
and intellectual history to what's almost art history. Sojourner Truth
It is clear from other scholars that Nell Painter is a
forceful personality in her profession. Dr. Mabee recalls being on a panel
with her that dealt with Truth:"Some people in the audience were
clearly hostile. They asked how I, a white man, could write about Sojourner
Truth. Nell Painter stood up and said, I invited him because I think he
has something to say. Other people clapped, and we went on."
Those who are close to her add that the breadth of Dr.
Painter's interests takes a toll."What always strikes me about Nell
is her intellectual energy and curiosity. That makes her move into new
areas -- but it's also exhausting," says a long-time friend, Thadious
M. Davis, a professor of English at Brown University.
At times, Dr. Painter says, she has been depressed and
even thought of leaving the profession."Maybe that's a reaction to
always feeling that I'm on display. People ask me what it's like to be
an educated black person. It's tiring -- I feel like I'm always being
She also says that she has never felt entirely comfortable
as a historian. After graduating from the University of California at
Berkeley in 1964 -- an anthropology major who never took a U.S. history
course -- she knocked around the world, spending a year in Bordeaux, visiting
Ghana, where her parents were working, joining a friend in Trinidad. She
came back to the United States not sure what she wanted to do: She started
graduate school at Harvard University because her parents had offered
to pay for it, but she began in African history and bit by bit gravitated
toward U.S. history.
"I don't think Harvard ever knew just how little history
I knew," she says."I'm sure my spotty background has a lot to
do with my odd pattern of writing history: I've never been properly formed
as a historian."
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