Nell Irvin Painter


"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 September 1996

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 at Madison.

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 Sojourner Truth."

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 people.

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 Stowe's version.

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 Sojourner Truth."

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 did that."

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 judged."

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."

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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