SOJOURNER TRUTH by Nell Irvin Painter


A Life, a Symbol
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A successful effort to separate a human being from the familiar "Strong Black Woman'' symbol she has become.

A powerful speaker who moved audiences to laughter even as she delivered harsh truths about slavery and discrimination, Sojourner Truth has in Painter (Standing at Armageddon, 1987, etc.) a congenial biographer whose work is as readable as it is scholarly. Information on Truth is frustratingly incomplete, but Painter shines when striving to separate facts from myths and assemble those facts into a reasonable whole. A slave in upstate New York until 1827, Truth gained from her intense involvement with Methodism a sense of self- worth as well as an opportunity to speak publicly at religious camp meetings around New York City. Following a curious period of attachment to the self-styled Prophet Matthias (to whom she gave her devotion and all her money), Truth joined a Massachusetts cooperative community, where she met some of her future antislavery contacts. Central to the story of her growing celebrity is, of course, the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention, where, Painter convincingly argues, Truth made an effective speech--but not the expanded "ar'n't I a woman'' showstopper printed 12 years later by Frances Dana Gage. Likewise punctured are embellished accounts of Truth's meeting with Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe's largely fanciful Atlantic Monthly sketch of Truth, early examples of how various people (including, in this century, academics) craft "a usable Sojourner Truth of their own,'' emphasizing whatever they need her to be: slave, black, female, radical, or quaint. In this account, Truth is shrewd but angry, calling, Painter says, for revenge on " `white people'- -not `slaveholders' or `white southerners,' or any narrower subset of the guilty.'' That being so, one wishes Painter had contemplated more fully what this means coming from a woman who seems to have had an abundance of enduring white contacts but fewer blacks ones.

No one seriously interested in Sojourner Truth can afford to ignore this book.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-02739-2
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996


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