Today We Learn About: Sojourner Truth

Nell Irvin Painter’s 1996 book entitled, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol tells the story of a young slave girl named Isabella who rises from her meager beginnings to become Sojourner Truth, a woman that many hold as an inspiration, and a woman that is widely regarded as a symbol of abolitionist and feminist ideals. Painter employs a unique approach to her subject matter, as the reader is given extensive background information on not only Sojourner Truth, but also most of the people and institutions she spends time with over her years of preaching and activism. In doing so, Painter treats the reader to a thorough examination of Sojourner Truth, but also of the movements that she has come to represent. Among the movements discussed in the book are the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, African-American resettlement, and the personal struggles that Truth must endure until the end of her days.

In Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, Nell Irvin Painter seeks to inform the reader of a fact that might feel obvious, but is nonetheless lost on many. Throughout her years, Sojourner Truth came into contact with many an individual who aided her in her journey towards the symbolic figure she is today. While at first Painter’s extensive background information and apparent asides may seem to be a burden, they really help to illustrate the depth of Sojourner Truth’s social network. Likewise, Painter assists the reader in gaining a grasp of the influence that many people had not only in Truth’s life, but on the movements they represent. Individuals like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe are given substantial page space, as are organizations like the Northampton Association and The Kingdom of Mathias. These groups, some well known and others less so, serve to illustrate to the reader that Sojourner Truth was surrounded by strong-minded, strong-willed people throughout her life. She took the skills that she learned from each of these groups and crafted a unique outlook and approach for herself. Sojourner Truth lead an extraordinary life, surrounded by extraordinary people and circumstances. She took these ingredients, mixed them with her own experience, and turned her legacy into that of a symbol for African-Americans, for women, and for all of those who have faced immeasurable hardship.

Spirituality is a consistent theme that Painter turns to in the telling of Truth’s story. Sojourner Truth was a tremendously religious women, and this book leads the reader to believe that this is the source of a large amount of her resilience and determination. Truth uses powerful biblical imagery in many of her speeches, she travels the land as an itinerant preacher, and she is very close with several clergy and spiritual leaders throughout Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. Truth uses religion and spirituality as a support system. It aids in her overcoming her hardships, assists in her preaching, and helps her to spearhead movements that few others are willing to take up. Religion is so important to the story of Sojourner Truth, that no amount of prose could ever do it justice. Painter instills in the reader the knowledge that in all of the decisions Truth made throughout her life, she consulted God and relied on Him to show her the way.

Missing from Painter’s book are speculations as to why Truth followed the path that she did. The reader is given some insight into how Truth reached her status as a symbol, but we are lacking an explanation for why she made some of the decisions she did. On a few occasions, it is explained that Truth sought the counsel of God, and He guided her. This is satisfactory, but it would be very interesting if Painter were able to uncover some more concrete evidence. I imagine Isabella as a young, strong-willed, well-spoken girl who may have been taught by other slaves that there are some things worth fighting for, and that a young Isabella took this charge and grew into an activist Sojourner Truth. This, among many other scenarios, is unfortunately all speculation. It would be revealing to discover a source of inspiration for Sojourner Truth outside of the bible, and those around her as an adult. Some previously untold tale of her childhood, perhaps.

Is it possible that Truth took up the causes she did because she was trying to escape shackles beyond those of slavery? Considering the torment that Truth surely experienced as a youth in her role as a slave, it is easy to imagine that she witnessed and lived through very damaging events. Could her life long struggle to overcome large, seemingly impossible odds be a symptom of the damage that was caused in her childhood? I believe that it is entirely possible that Sojourner Truth was so strong because she had demons to overcome and helping others to overcome their own demons, to overcome institutional demons, was all in an effort to heal the pain that she lived with on a daily basis. The problem with elevating a person to the point of symbol, is that often times we forget that they are still human. I believe that Truth is a victim of this tendency, and we should view her life with a keen eye in an effort to uncover her motivations.

Also present in Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, is fair amount of information regarding Sojourner Truth’s portrayal in the media. The reader is told of many stories that were written about her from various viewpoints, as well as photographs that Truth had taken in order to make some money to support her preaching. While some of the newspaper stories are downright racist by today’s standards, others look at Truth with a kind eye, extolling her positive virtues. Absent, however, is an in depth opinion of Truth regarding these articles. I am curious to know how she reacted to the writings about her, whether she preferred some over others, or whether she found any of her portrayals to be offensive or inaccurate.

A major reason that we are lacking insight into Sojourner Truth’s inner thoughts and feelings stems from the fact that she was illiterate. This plays a major part in her life story, and in the book that Nell Irvin Painter has written. Truth had previously dictated an autobiography, but even this could be called into question as Truth may not have wanted to share some of her feelings with another person directly, much less the world at large. Painter’s book is overcast with speculation of the various opinions of Truth, with no real first hand account. As Painter says in her Epilogue, with history research, it is usually best to get information from as close to the person in question as possible. This applies to both physicality and timeframe. What better source than Truth herself? I believe that the reader is really deprived by Truth’s illiteracy. It is entirely possible that later in life, Truth would have been more comfortable in publishing some of her deepest thoughts, or even a diary of some sort. We will unfortunately never have the luxury of reading such a work.

The information lost in Truth’s life is also compounded by the misinformation that was likely spread during her life. Painter spends time speaking of the conflicting views of Truth, even devoting a chapter to the author’s own struggle to decipher which account of Truth is the “real” Sojourner Truth. If Truth had been able to write, the historical record may contain first hand accounts that could shed some light on the mystery. What a treat it would be to read Truth’s thoughts of herself, written in her own hand, with no one to judge her but God and her conscious? The additional viewpoint would aid the reader and researcher alike. Not only that, but we would have an additional viewpoint on the innumerable influential individuals that Truth came into contact with throughout her like. Needless to say, her illiteracy has effected her legacy and I believe that a case can be made for the effect being a negative one.

In the third part of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, Nell Irvin Painter presents us with a disjointed series of chapters that examines some of the most interesting aspects of Sojourner Truth’s life. These include her proclivity towards her own photograph, and her support of resettlement in Kansas. By covering these aspects of Truth’s life, Painter seeks to provide the reader with an in depth, multifaceted view of the woman that was Sojourner Truth.

Truth had herself photographed many times, in various poses. She sold these photographs in order to support her itinerant preacher lifestyle. She also produced these photos because it was her way of tell her own story, in her own words. Truth was in complete control of the photographs, and therefore they are the closest thing that we have to a personal narrative. Because of this, historians have examined these photographs down to the props, clothing, and sitting position of Truth. All of these details reveal a little bit about the woman who has grown into a symbol. By dressing in tailored clothes, with a bible, while knitting, Truth sought to convey a specific message to the viewer. This message was one of confidence, refinement, and respect. These were not common traits amongst African-Americans of her time, making her photographs an easy way for Truth to resist the institutions that she preached against.

Sojourner Truth supported the idea of an African-American resettlement in Kansas. Many prominent African-Americans of the time, most notably Frederick Douglass, disagreed with the notion. Truth stood opposed to these people, having the opinion that the newly freed African-Americans in Washington, D.C. could make a better life for themselves if they were to live on their own, with their own land. This was an interesting opinion on the part of Truth, because throughout her life she took the stance of, “stand up and fight.” Her support of resettlement could be viewed as her advocating that African-Americans run from their trouble, but in reality I believe that Truth was frightened at the behavior of her race. She is on record as believing that it was shameful for men and women to loiter all day, living off of the government. She thought that by resettling, it would entice men to work instead of acting sedentary. Many men and women did venture west, in fact, and many of them did prosper. Truth did not have as large a hand in this migration as she would have liked, but nonetheless, on some level she appears to have been correct in thinking that working for oneself is preferable to living off the government. This raises an interesting question, however. With African-Americans moving westward towards Kansas looking to make a life for themselves what would become of those who did not? This question is not addressed fully in the book, as the reader is left to ponder whether modern day urban areas that were very similar to the Washington that Truth described, are a product of her time and the trappings that came along with it.

Nell Irvin Painter displays the surroundings and life of one of the most recognizable names in American history. She does so by revealing the woman herself, but also those that lent a helping hand while Truth was on her mission to preach, share, and educate. This unique perspective set Painter’s book above the rest in a sea of writings on Truth, and gives the reader the treat of not only becoming familiar with the woman that was Sojourner Truth, the symbol that was Sojourner Truth, but also the myriad of individuals that helped to deliver the message we now associate with Truth’s legacy.


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