Freedom's illiterate friend

Sojourner Truth
September 11, 1998

Even in the world of mid 18th-century US anti-slavery and feminism, Sojourner Truth was a compelling presence. A famous speaker, charismatic in public and withering to her critics, she was many things to many people. In death she became an icon constantly re-invented by the changing needs and cultural fashions of American life.

Sojourner Truth was born (as Isabella Van Wagenen) into slavery in 1797, grew up a Dutch speaker, passing through the repeated agonies of family separation (the bitterest of slavery's cruelties), experienced religious self-discovery and flirted, as slave and free woman, with a variety of utopian (and quirky) social-political movements. Her life coincided with America's rediscovery of the value of slavery - thanks to cotton - and her commitment to anti-slavery became the core of her being. Influenced by Frederick Douglass's own autobiography, Truth (though illiterate) dictated her own narrative. Thereafter she was famous, her presence increasingly in demand on the platform of varied anti-slavery campaigns, in support of the Union in the civil war and latterly as speaker for mid-century American feminism.

From first to last (and in the century since her death in 1883) Truth was the subject of rumour and myth. Ridiculed by a succession of opponents for her pretensions (as a slave, as an African - which she was not - and as a woman), those critics quickly learnt not to cross her in public. Her rhetoric was biblical and utopian but whatever its origins, it had a stunning effect. In an age when politics was public and spoken, when the platform was the standard forum for debate, Truth had an unrivalled reputation as a captivating presence, able to pack halls and move her audiences. It is, of course, more difficult to assess her influence. Truth was not alone, for she campaigned (especially against slavery) alongside a galaxy of powerful men and women, black and white. In the end, slavery was brought down through the horror of the civil war, though its consequences lived on, long after slavery was ended.

Once again, Truth took up the postwar black cause, above all seeking to secure a decent, humane living space for ex-slaves. The South under Reconstruction was fraught with terror and dangers for the ex-slaves, most notably of course from white supremacists who refused to accept black equality. Truth campaigned (unsuccessfully) for what were, effectively, black homelands on the advancing American frontier.

In Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth has finally found a historian to do full and rounded justice to her life and times. Like all good biographies, the book is telling not simply about its subject, but also about the times in which Truth lived and which she came to represent in so many diverse ways. It is a sensitive, brilliant and affectionate portrait of a remarkable woman.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Author - Nell Irvin Painter
ISBN - 0 393 039
Publisher - Norton
Price - £21.00
Pages - 370

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