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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe FOCUS Section


August 20, 2000

Sojourner Truth was no slouch when it came to image politics. Her riveting name is probably a reason she's one of only a few 19th-century women widely heard of today. Her legacy might be very different had she called herself "Itinerant Preacher."

She obviously knew something about projecting an image.

Truth was also an astute self-promoter. Seeking publicity, she called on leading writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe. She dictated a narrative of her life, which she sold along with photographs in which she posed with a carefully selected array of props. Inscribed on each picture were the words "I sell the shadow to support the substance." And she cultivated an association with the leading icon of her times, Abraham Lincoln.

But most people don't know much about the woman other than that she was born a slave and was on the right side of history with regard to equality. The connection between her name and her vocation also indicates her zealous Christianity.

Now an effort to memorialize Truth with a 21st-century bronze statue on a small triangle of land in the Florence section of Northampton, near where Truth lived from 1843 to 1855, has run a gantlet of very contemporary image-politics pitfalls - if not pratfalls.

The anguish that often goes with choosing designs for public art is compounded by the fact that hot-button issues - race, gender, and faith - are all in play. Stories about Truth's life, apocryphal and real, have been used to support many different agendas.

As Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter points out in her 1996 biography, "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol," Truth is remembered mainly for words rather than deeds. An 1883 obituary in the New York Globe stated that "Many people know Truth's name without understanding why. Even admirers often admit their ignorance of whatever she might have done."

In the last 30 years Truth has become a feminist icon because of the so-called "Ar'n't I a Woman?" speech in which she supposedly chastised white feminists for overlooking the plight of black women. So when a process set up last February to winnow a field of 49 artists applying to design the statue yielded five finalists - all males - the apoplexy in Northampton's overlapping arts and feminist communities was palpable.

The backlash when five women were added to the finalist pool generated its own brand of vitriol. Nationally syndicated talk-radio host Judy Jarvis complained about "affirmative action" contaminating the art world.

Organizers commissioned maquettes, or three-dimensional models, of designs proposed for the $200,000 memorial project from the expanded pool of 10 sculptors and expanded the selection committee to include several women who protested the original crop. Now, deliberations among the new group of 19 local clergy, artists, teachers, and activists, only two of whom are African-American, are beset by political and aesthetic disagreements.

All this controversy and more over a woman who called herself "Truth."

She was born Isabella, a slave in Hurley, N.Y., 60 miles south of Albany sometime in the 1790s. Her parents, James and Elizabeth, belonged to a Revolutionary War colonel named Johannis Hardenbergh. Her first language was Dutch. Through a series of events, many deeply traumatic, Isabella changed hands, so to speak, several times and was owned by a family named Dumont about from the age of 12 to 30.

She took the last name of the Van Wagenens, who purchased her freedom in 1826. Under New York law her official emancipation came on July 4, 1827.

She went to New York City and got involved with religious extremists of the exuberant revivalist ilk around Robert Matthews, who called himself "The Prophet Matthias." Painter describes him as "the David Koresh of his times."

Inundated by legal troubles relating to alleged homicide and unorthodox sexual practices, his ministry collapsed, freeing Isabella Van Wagenen to return to the preaching career she had started before coming to the city. She moved east to Long Island and then Connecticut, finding fellowship and inspiration in Millerite camp meetings.

She proclaimed her new identity as Sojourner Truth in 1843, a year many in her milieu expected the world to end in a ball of fire. Her path then led to a commune in Western Massachusetts called the Northampton Association for Education and Industry. They took their intellectual agenda, which included the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and vegetarianism at least as seriously as their Christianity. She met leading reformers like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. This group shaped the rest of Truth's life and the competing legacies ascribed to it.

Truth's instincts as a promoter of both her ideals and herself are exemplified by her venture into the popular "slave narrative" genre of the 1840s. Illiterate, she dictated her life's story to a woman named Olive Gilbert. Sales at 25 cents a copy became an important part of her income. Later she used technology introduced in the 1860s and had her photographic image mass produced on what were called "cartes-de-visite."

In her biography of Truth, Painter tells how encounters with two writers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Francis Dana Gage, influenced the public imagination in ways later generations would seize upon. Seeking a blurb to help sales of her narrative, Truth visited Stowe, by then the well-known author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in Andover in 1853. A full decade later, in a rush to feed demand for magazine articles about heroic Negroes in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Stowe wrote an article called "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl" for The Atlantic Monthly. Stowe portrayed Truth, in Painter's words, as "a quaint and innocent exotic" and as a woman who "disdains feminism" and embraces God. The article introduced Truth to a wider public and defined her historical persona well into the 20th century.

Ironically, the success of Stowe's article prompted Francis Dana Gage, a lesser-known writer of the day, to capitalize on her encounter with Truth 12 years earlier at a suffragist meeting in Akron, Ohio. Her recollections of an impromptu oration by Truth in response to concerns of the mainly white attendees became the basis for the "Ar'n't I A Woman?" speech that has been a bedrock of academic feminism since the late 1960s. Gage depicted Truth as an electrifying, show-stopping presence chastising those who would advocate for white women's rights at the expense of all women's rights.

Without detracting from Truth's remarkable achievements, Painter's scholarship debunks much of the drama and some of the facts attending Gage's account of that speech. As a historian, Painter also explains how the exaggerated drama with which Gage imbued Truth's words fit in with the desire of contemporary feminists to find heroic historical figures of color.

It probably says more about our times than it does about Truth that a controversy over who should get a commission to memorialize her erupted around the gender of the artist to be chosen.

Besides feminists and fighters for racial equality, fundamentalist Christians could also logically lay claim to Truth's legacy. Feminists beat them to it and in the process "sloughed off that part of her," said Painter, but the reason Truth is remembered today has everything to do with "her preacher's heart."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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