In this valuable work about the life and career of Sojourner Truth, Nell Irvin Painter performs the difficult labor of writing a biography about a woman who did not herself write. For all her famous eccentric eloquence and the existence of her Narrative of Sojourner Truth (dictated to the amanuensis Olive Gilbert, who lent Truth’s words her own interpretation, and first published in 1850), Truth was illiterate. Unlike other orators and prominent reformers, she left no diaries and only letters dictated through others. The challenge faced by the biographer is thus one of sorting through the various historical sources that have survived that were created by others about Truth (or, in the case of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by her, but filtered through the pens and opinions of others) in order to tell, as accurately as possible, the story of her long, varied, and amazing life.
In championing this process, Painter filters through and evaluates the checkered documentation of Truth’s life and helps lend meaning to Truth’s experiences by placing the events of that life—her enslavement, her attitude toward her master, her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a woman, her understanding of the Bible, her laboring, her move from a rural to an urban environment, her dedication to abolition, and so forth—in larger cultural and political contexts. Painter uses interdisciplinary methods, drawing from the fields of art history, sociology, and psychology as well as from history, and she analyzes contradictory iconography (including a painting, several photographs, and a statue of Truth) as well as written texts to explore the ways in which Truth’s image was repeatedly created and re-created in her own time and later periods.
Painter succeeds admirably in her goal of presenting Truth as a multifaceted person. Her portrait of Truth presents one who faced complex challenges and experienced a series of major transformations in the focus of her life. Sojourner Truth is presented as a person with flaws as well as one of incredible energy and force of will. Painter also presents Truth as a unique and compelling personality who repeatedly had pointed political impact upon the major reform movements of her time. The issues that attracted her activism included, but were not limited to, abolition, suffrage, women’s rights, and questions of policies toward freed blacks after the close of the Civil War. As an itinerant preacher and lecturer, Truth possessed an uncanny ability to reach audiences persuasively and to seize the crucial moment in public gatherings to rise and cut to the heart of divisive issues. Her power came in part from her combination of muscular femininity, blackness, and working-class orientation. The embodiment of these qualities set her apart from the white middle- class reformers with whom she consorted, some of whom, as Painter demonstrates, made her into a kind of primitive pet or artistic object. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1863 article, “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl,” which Painter discusses in chapter 17, celebrated Truth as a naïve exotic, a native of Africa (Truth was actually born in the United States), and the sculptor William Wetmore Story’s Libyan Sibyl statue (1860), supposedly based on Truth, had more to do with Rome in its aesthetics than with Africa. As Painter shows, Truth’s own representations of herself, the photographic carte-de- visites she had created and sold to help support herself on the lecture tour, contradicted these images of her created by whites. The photographs, or “shadows,” as she referred to them, depict instead a woman who is very black, very carefully and conservatively dressed, and domestic, usually with knitting in her hands. Truth’s Africanness, her stupendous abilities as a speaker and her personal embodiment of the most disenfranchised elements in American society, along with her gumption, are part of the myth of her life, as well as its reality.
(The entire section is 2,223 words.)