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In Search of Sojourner Truth : SOJOURNER TRUTH: A Life, A Symbol.<i> By Nell Irvin Painter (W. W. Norton: $28, 370 pp.)</i>

<i> Marie Olesen Urbanska, professor emeritus of American literature at the University of Maine, is the editor of "Margaret Fuller: Visionary of the New Age."</i>

Today, if they remember her at all, people identify Sojourner Truth as the ex-slave who dramatically bared her breasts and demanded “Ar’n’t I a woman?” at a 19th century women’s rights rally. In her painstakingly researched biography, Nell Irvin Painter seeks to find out “the truth about Truth.”

She should be applauded for bringing to a wider audience the story of this extraordinary self-made woman and for making acute observations about the myths of slavery. Unfortunately, the author tells her story in tedious prose that might lose nonspecialists.

Painter, a Princeton history professor, points out that “the allegorical territory of American slavery is always situated somewhere--everywhere--in the South.” Yet Truth was born into slavery in the North; over the course of her speaking career, she adopted Southern mannerisms to woo her Northern audience.

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In about 1797--not surprisingly, Painter could not determine the exact date of this slave’s birth--Truth, then called Isabella, was born in largely Dutch-speaking Ulster County, N.Y. At age 9, the Dutch-speaking slave was sold for $100 to a man who spoke only English and she was beaten for failing to understand his instructions. After being sold for the third time, she remained with the same family until she was emancipated by New York law in 1827. The law decreed that slaves born before 1799 gained their freedom on July 4, 1827--but those born later were required to serve their masters until age 28 if male, 25 if female.

What this meant was that Truth was freed, while her five children had to remain in slavery. Instead of staying nearby, she left to pursue her calling on a larger stage. At this time, Truth took another action that was unprecedented for an illiterate, penniless, newly-freed black woman. With the help of local Quakers, she filed a legal complaint for the return of her 6-year-old son, who had been illegally sold in Alabama. Within a year, he was returned to her custody.

Truth was a woman of intense religious faith who credited God with giving her the power to challenge the establishment. She likened the “liberating presence of Jesus” to “a soul-protecting fortress” which raised her “above the battlements of fear.” In the late 1840s she was swept up in the widespread belief that the apocalypse was near, based on a vision by William Miller, a Second Adventist spiritual leader. Reflecting this social ferment, she took another unorthodox step and changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth.

Emboldened by her new name, she embarked on a 30-year career of preaching antislavery feminism. She dictated “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth” to a friend who found her a publisher, the equivalent of a vanity press. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s testimonial that the outspoken woman had a “mind of no common energy and power” helped spark sales of her book.

Truth delivered the speech for which she is known today in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Intriguingly, Painter makes a strong case that Truth never asked “Ar’n’t I a woman?” four times, but instead gave a rhetorically less dramatic talk, which was chronicled at the time by a local journalist. Twelve years later, the author notes, Frances Dana Gage “invented” this question in her embellished version of Truth’s speech at a women’s rights convention that Gage chaired.

Conscious of the class distinctions that divided women, Painter writes, Gage sought to educate her middle-class audience about the reality of the lives of poor women. Responding to opponents of women’s suffrage, Gage argued that although some “ladies” led comfortable lives, most women worked hard. As Truth’s self-appointed speech writer, Gage understood that Truth “physically represented women who had been enslaved” and she put her message in compelling rhetorical form.

Painter’s scholarship is meticulous, but some of her assertions are not supported by evidence. She writes, for example, that “most Americans thought of slaves as male"--a peculiar and unsubstantiated generalization. In fact, popular writer Lydia Maria Child wrote in 1833 of the sexual exploitation of slaves. In 1845, famed transcendentalist Margaret Fuller publicly deplored the forced field work of pregnant slaves.

Painter has succeeded in presenting details about Truth, but the author’s interjections of her frustration with the limitations of research material detract from the narrative thread. “How fine it would be to sit in an archive,” Painter writes, “open a document to the page dated 1828, and read from Isabella’s own hand how it came to be that she left Ulster County for New York City.” The thread is also complicated by Painter’s six-year struggle to embrace the power of Truth’s symbolic value versus her historian’s quest for the truth.

That said, Painter’s analysis of the 19th century’s intellectual context is impressive, as is her marshaling of the facts of Truth’s life. In her coda, Painter contends that even though Sojourner Truth may never have declaimed “Ar’n’t I a woman?” she was nevertheless the early embodiment of a strong and eloquent black woman--an important historical symbol who fulfilled the needs of her audience both yesterday and today.


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