- Ain’t I a Symbol?
When, in 1872, Theodore Tilton proposed to write her life, Sojourner Truth replied that she “was not ready to be writ up yet, for she had lots to accomplish first.” 1 Illiterate, Truth could not leave her own written traces of her life, and the absence of such “authentic” utterance is particularly ironic for a figure who is known, not for what she has done, but for what she has said. Truth is celebrated in cultural memory for her words, and her words come to us only from other people’s pens. Nell Irvin Painter’s biography of Truth centers on this historiographical dilemma. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol tells two stories: it recounts with sympathy and shrewd complexity the life of a nineteenth-century woman, a slave in Ulster county New York, a Pentecostal evangelist, and an antislavery and feminist activist; and it tells the story of how all sorts of other voices fashioned her into a symbol of African authenticity, Christian faith, and strong black womanhood. The gap between these two identities is quite significant. Truth stands for slavery, and in the American imagination slavery is southern. Then named Isabella, the woman who would become Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 in New York. She never worked on a plantation. Her first language was Dutch, so that whatever Truth’s voice sounded like it could not have been the southern dialect invented for her by so many of her reporters. At least for the first half of her life it was religion, far more than questions of political rights for blacks or women, that motivated her work and her preaching. And her religious beliefs— [End Page 149] millenialism gradually softening into spiritualism, including an early period of participation in the infamous “Kingdom of Matthias”—may strike Truth’s fans as particularly unpalatable.
Painter posits the historical person and the symbolic projection as rivals. Her goal throughout the book is to dismantle the figure of legend with the precise tools of carefully corroborated historical detail. For Painter the symbolic Truth appears dangerous, or at least undesirable, both because of the ways in which symbols invite appropriation, and because of the ways in which they flatten and simplify the complexities of individual lives. In her “Coda” Painter admits the failure of these aspirations; for all her historicizing efforts to demystify she cannot quite eliminate the mythic figure of the tall black woman raising her bare arm and intoning “I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar’n’t I a woman?”
The most shocking of Painter’s revisions (one not exactly new to her work, as it has been suggested with different amounts of avidity ever since 1991 when The Black Abolitionist Papers reprinted Marius Robinson’s newspaper coverage of Truth’s speech) is that Sojourner Truth never said those words at all. 2 Rather Frances Dana Gage, describing the 1851 Akron Woman’s Rights convention in an article written in 1863, invented both the combative ambiance of the convention and Sojourner Truth’s spectacular role in it, including the words of her insistent refrain. Describing how difficult it has been for her to detach the historic Truth from this legendary phrase, Painter recounts a telling anecdote: after a friend and colleague had read her manuscript,
we speculated on the reading public’s reception of my message that Gage, not Truth, invented “ar’n’t I a woman?” At the close of our conversation, he joked: “I think she said it. It sounds like her.” With earlier frustrations ringing in my ears, I could only sigh, “That’s not funny”(283–84).
Funny or not, the joke acknowledges something that the sigh fails to recognize. Gage’s words are all that most people know of Sojourner Truth, so much so, that “Ar’n’t I a woman” not only sounds like Truth, but is Truth. After all, through decades of T-shirts, posters, and electrifying quotation her...