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Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That
Nell Painter in gray handknitted sweater, photo by Dwight Carter
Photo by Dwight Carter
Nell Painter in gray handknitted sweater, photo by Dwight Carter
Photo by Dwight Carter

Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That is a new book (in process) by Nell Irvin Painter.
Nell discusses her new book in progress with Cynthia Greenlee for the Smithsonian Magazine, article "The Remarkable Untold Story of Sojourner Truth."

Here is a short excerpt from Greenlee's article:

Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emerita of American history at Princeton University and a visual artist, published her landmark book Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol in 1996, a time when women’s studies and Black studies were gaining firmer footholds at American colleges and universities. But her book on Truth met with a curious critical silence, even after she’d written a string of other well-regarded books. The prominent Women’s Review of Books did not review it. Her fellow literary scholar and friend Nellie McKay made some inquiries at the journal and reported to Painter that a couple of reviewers “had trouble with the book.” In a forthcoming book called I Just Keep Talking: A Life in Essays, Painter identifies the probable source of that trouble: “my insistence, my exceedingly painstaking documentation, that Sojourner Truth did not say, ‘Ar’n’t/Ain’t I a woman?’ ”

Painter still voices frustration about the way this phrase worked its way into the feminist canon. Gage’s “memory” of the speech has Truth speaking in the ventriloquized dialect that 19th-century white authors often put in the mouths of African Americans. Her version begins like this: “Well, chillen, whar dar’s so much racket dar must be som’ting out o’kilter.” These words seem to situate Truth among the enslaved of the South, a region to which she is never known to have traveled until after the Civil War.

Sojourner Truth wasn’t Southern, and English wasn’t even her mother tongue.

Truth was born enslaved by Dutch-speaking New Yorkers, one category of near-forgotten slaveholder inside another nearly forgotten category: Northerners. New Netherland—a colony that included much of today’s New York State—was once the North American outpost of a global Dutch empire…

Painter remains firm in her conviction that Robinson’s account is more accurate than Gage’s. Truth often stayed at Robinson’s home when in Ohio, and she may have even vetted his version before it appeared in the newspaper. In the meantime, Painter is working on yet another book about Truth, with the emphatic title Sojourner Truth Was a New Yorker and She Didn’t Say That.

—Extract from Smithsonian Magazine, "The Remarkable Untold Story of Sojourner Truth," by Cynthia Greenlee. March 24

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1850 Narrative of Sojourner Truth title page
Title page of Sojourner Truth’s 1850 autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Raptis Rare Books.
(From Smithsonian Magazine, "The Remarkable Untold Story of Sojourner Truth," March 2024)

About Nell Irvin Painter

NELL IRVIN PAINTER, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University, is the author of books of history including the New York Times bestseller The History of White People; Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol; and the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2007, she has received honorary degrees from Yale, Wesleyan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dartmouth. After earning a PhD in history from Harvard, she also completed degrees in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and the Rhode Island School of Design. Painter lives and works in East Orange, New Jersey, and has made artist’s books in residencies such as MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross, and Bogliasco. She currently serves as Madam Chairman of MacDowell.