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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

February 20, 2000, Sunday

National Desk 
Women Added to Finalists for Abolitionist's Statue
By The New York Times 

 NORTHAMPTON, Mass., Feb. 18 - Seven years into a project to honor the rights advocate Sojourner Truth with a bronze statue, organizers are finding themselves in the middle of a dispute over fairness.

When they announced last month that they had chosen five designer finalists, all male, from a field of 49 entrants about equally balanced between men and women, local artists expressed outrage and gathered 100 signatures in protest.

Last week, the Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue Committee announced a new list of finalists, now including five women.

Some of the first set of finalists were not happy. "I'm trying to bite my tongue and not say anything negative," said one of them, Thomas Jay Warren of Vilas, N.C. He has been awarded commissions for statues of such people as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.

The expanded list also became fodder for at least one national radio show, whose hosts, Judy and Jason Jarvis, complained that affirmative action was invading the art world.

A committee member, the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, dean of religious life at Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley, responded that "the process that chose the first five men had integrity and was fair but we had to have a gender-balanced diverse pool."

The project, she said, was sparked by grass-roots activists after the Rodney King beating eight years ago.

"We wanted to do something powerful to combat racism that was not a onetime event," Ms. Ayvazian said. "Sojourner Truth is a local hero and she needs to be honored with a statue in our community."

Born as a slave in 1797, Isabella Van Wagener changed her name to Sojourner Truth when she was free. She lived in Northampton from 1843 to 1857 and was a member of a utopian community called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry.

Truth was no stranger to gender politics. In 1851, she spoke about her place in the women's rights movement during a meeting in Akron, Ohio.

The speech, later known as "Ain't I a Woman," has become part of the feminist canon.

But even the speech is open to dispute. "Later attempts to cast Sojourner Truth as an outsize force of nature fit well with a 1960's feminist agenda," according to Nell Irvin Painter, a Princeton University history professor, who wrote a biography of the woman. A white reformer, Frances Gage, wrote down and embellished Truth's remarks for her own polemical purposes, Professor Painter said.

Sojourner Truth was known as a fiery orator who Professor Painter says was often "an electrifying black presence in a white crowd."

Truth was skilled at promoting herself. She was one of the first African-American women to have her image widely disseminated.

She had her picture printed on a "carte de visite." Slightly larger than business cards, her cards were "wildly popular in the 1860's," Professor Painter said.

Sojourner Truth sold these images, along with transcripts of a narrative of her life story, to support her preaching. "I sell the shadow to support the substance" was printed on the bottom of each card.

Her image is now is in the hands of the 10 contest finalists. Each has been given $1,000 to produce a maquette, a small three-dimensional rendering of a design.

A winner will be announced in August.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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