American Literature Sojourner Truth
by
Nell Irvin Painter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0079

Introduction

Sojourner Truth (b. c. 1797–d. 1883), born enslaved as Isabella Van Wagenen in the Hudson River Valley of Ulster County, New York, spoke Dutch as her first language. One of the two most widely known 19th-century black women (the other, Harriet Tubman, was also a former slave without formal education), Truth rose to prominence as a feminist abolitionist in the 1850s and worked in freedmen’s relief in the 1860s and 1870s. She died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883. Freed enslavement a year before New York State’s general emancipation of 1827, she moved to New York City in the late 1820s, where she belonged to various dissident Methodist sects, including the infamous Kingdom of Matthias in the mid-1830s. On Pentecost 1843, at the height of the Millerite millenarian movement, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and struck out as an itinerant preacher. Her obvious intelligence, moving singing voice, and powerful speech drew crowds, first in the service of charismatic religion, then for more secular ethical concerns. In the early 1850s, Truth remade herself once again as an eloquent opponent of slavery and champion of women’s rights. Human rights remained her enduring cause. On a speaking tour in early 1851, she entered the abolitionist historical record in Akron, Ohio, at a convention for women’s rights. This appearance gave rise to the phrase “Ar’n’t I a woman?” widely associated with her but invented by the journalist Frances Dana Gage twelve years after the fact. Truth’s speeches continued to be reported at varying length and with increasing use of exoticizing dialect. Unique in her preaching and lecturing abilities, Truth was the only formerly enslaved woman able to sustain a public career over more than three decades. In her widely reported addresses, she deployed her deep knowledge of the Bible against those who would deny black people and women their full human rights. In the 20th century, Truth’s religion largely disappeared from her depiction as a fiery pivot linking two causes: that of women (presumed to be white) and that of blacks (presumed to be men). The symbolic figure of Sojourner Truth functions in American society today as an embodiment of universal human rights. Schools, housing projects, senior citizen centers, a US Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1986, even a 1997 NASA Mars Explorer, bear her name as the avatar of American inclusiveness. In 2009 Truth became the first black American woman with a bust in the US Capitol. Sojourner Truth did not read or write, even though she was included in a bibliography of American literature. Thus, no sources come directly from her hand, and every utterance attributed to her is mediated through another author. Therefore, “primary sources,” which cannot reproduce Sojourner Truth’s own writing, include material produced during her lifetime that is not historically reliable. Any thoughtful discussion of Sojourner Truth must consider the ways in which she has been construed over time, whether or not such representations hold up historically.

Reference Works

Information presented in reference works before the mid-1990s is likely to be haphazard, incomplete, or wrong, even though influential. Therefore, the works in this section are indications of the state of early Truth commentary rather than as reliable sources of historical information. Recent works by Sojourner Truth specialists draw on scholarship and place her among various communities of her contemporaries and similar historical figures. Painter 2000 is the most reliable source in this list.

  • Byington, Juliet, ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 94. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

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    Placing Truth within a literary context, this entry repeats basic information regarding Truth’s life and utterances along with a fragmentary quotation.

  • Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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    Filling the need for information in early women’s studies even before primary sources had been researched, this collection is unreliable on Truth. Kerber and De Hart represent popular understandings of Sojourner Truth in 20th-century women’s studies collections.

  • Loewenberg, Bert James, and Ruth Bogin, eds. Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

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    Addressing a growing hunger for information on black Americans, this unreliable collection appeared before scholarly investigation in primary sources. However, it is likely still to appear in libraries as being reputable.

  • Nelson, Emmanuel S. African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

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    A consideration of the reception of Truth’s Narrative follows a brief biography. Available online by subscription.

  • Painter, Nell Irvin. “Truth, Sojourner.” American National Biography Online (February 2000).

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    The standard reference biography of Truth’s life within the context of her American historical contemporaries.

  • Painter, Nell Irvin. “Truth, Sojourner.” In Black Women in America. 2d ed. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine, 259–263. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    The standard scholarly historical reference work on Sojourner Truth within the context of African American women’s history.

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