BOOK REVIEW: Sojourner Truth A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter

Imagine growing up in the 19th century. Canada is still in the very infancy stages of settling. Slavery is the norm especially in the South. There are no ways for you to reach out or stay in touch with your family as they got bought and sold to the highest bidder. You see the terror and fear as you grow up in a small village named Hurley in Ulster County New York and about 7 miles away from the Hudson River. Sojourner Truth was believed to be born around 1797 as Isabella. She was born into slavery to the Dumont family. She would sing and clean her days away as she participated in a life that was common and in some ways peaceful. However as in most stories that happened in most times there is not much recorded. Factor in that Isabella was illiterate and uneducated her storey would have been hard for her to record. She did have a narrative that she travelled all over the country and sold to raise money for various causes that she believed in.

The idea of being emancipated was a novelty idea to Isabella. Her parents were slaves and she was born into slavery it is amazing that this woman who stood for so much got the strength to rise to the top. She is one of two powerful Black women to come from that time. The later born a whole generation behind Isabella. Isabella paved the way for many. But let’s not get too far ahead. As in some cases the living conditions were deplorable as a slave. The idea of one day being free was met with great trepidation. The slaves that she new or have heard of being set free was usually due to the fact that they were too old to be of any value to their masters so they were “put out to pasture”. What an incredibly daunting idea.

Isabella’s desire to be alone was a fate she journeyed alone. Her husband was content falling into a routine but Isabella wanted more. She laid out her own timetable as to when she wanted to be free and worked towards that. Her goal to be free was July 4, 1827. She took into consideration the action of the State in New York and the agreement she had made with her master John Dumont. This was one and a half years before the last of the slaves were to be emancipated from New York. Unfortunately for Isabella she ended up injuring her hand so bad that she wasn’t able to do her work at maximu efficiency and Mr Dumont withdrew his promise. Isabella new how hard she worked. She was able to do the work inside faster than anyone and even go to tend the fields afterwards and still work harder than any man. She stood at 5’11 and was built like an ox. Despite her lack of education she was still as smart as a whip. Her voice was said to be masculine at times and she was known for having a voice of an angel. But that has to do alot with her speaking with such force and determination. She was powerful to say the lease so it was no wonder her master would want to keep her around for whatever reason he could.

In 1827 a celebration known as Pinkster was celebrated by many of the African descendants. They would crown a king, dance, drink and staged eleborate ceremonies. The purpose of this celebration was for the African born slaves to educate those born on American soil. This year if fell on June 4th a month before the final emancipation of Black slavery in New York. Nervous with anticipation she told her then master, Maria Van Wagenenen that she dreamed that her previous master would come to fetch her and she would go willingly. As in a true preminition Mr Dumont came to fetch her. He was smiling as he waited for her to climb into the carriage. She had the feeling of a wolf wearing sheep clothing as she looked at him. She had in fact ran away from him when he renegged on their agreement. With the ever present looming of the calendar and fear and anticipation growing inside of her she collected her baby and walked towards him.

Nobody knew just how long Isabella had laid on the ground for. As she awoke Mr Dumont was long gone. “Isabella would speak later of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Experiencing a second birth of entire sanctification, she had been born again with an assurance of salvation that gave her the self-confidence to oppose the rich and powerful of this world.” (Pg 30). When all the elements of the world seemed to appose her she gained strength in her new found friend and saviour, Jesus. Her new life course took her in a powerful direction. She discovered that all the years of negative frustration that all black women faced at that time became an incredible source of power. This power ensured her survival and her inability to fail. She was the epitome of what a true African-American woman represented. “But even without an institutional identity, her faith placed God on her side in a way that still serves people without worldly resources.” (Pg 31)

She aligned herself with preachers of the Methodist church. It was during this period of her life that she was romanced by the idea of Matthias the Prophet. Living in a commune setting she gave everything she had to Matthias. “A chasm seems still to seperate the strong, canny person who would create the legendary Sojourner Truth from the woman who stayed with a scoundrel who beat her up, suppressed her preaching, took her money, and made her do his housework for nothing, who lay aged with another man’s wife and proclaimed that his spirit was helping with the floors and the laundry. How could the woman who could outpreach John Maffitt submit to being bossed by Mathias and fondled by Ann Folger?” (59)

What is incredibly inspiring as you read through the chapters and life is her attitude towards what she believed. There would be no stopping her and her desire to help all of those less fortunate. Even by today’s standards Sojourner was subjected to abuse and sub standard living conditions. No matter the direction she found herself in did she ever stop the work or the message that she would spend the rest of her life trying to reach as many as possible.

New York served as a symbol of great drama and more to that it was also a great system of malicious intentions. It was on June 1, 1843 (the day of the Pentecost) that she was “called in spirit”. She was reborn as Sojourner Truth and was called to serve in the East. Her life became a new mission to educate others to embrace Jesus and therefore freeing themselves from sin. “Isabella had a long-standing preoccupation with truth. As a girl she had been beaten and sexually abused, as an enslaved worker her word had been subject to disbelief, and as a litigant reclaiming her honesty, she was liable to be doubted in situations of the utmost seriousness.” (Pg 75)

Her very first stop along her mission of relaying truth was in the Midwest where the same types of idealogies were already on the rise. As an ex-slave and abolitionist she took a stand in what she believed in and what she felt was right.  She was the perfect voice for those that had either lost theirs or who too afraid of backlash. Imagine as a Black Woman in a predominantley White Male domain in walked Sojourner to speak her truth to help in ways that was so desperately needed in this time. It was known as the lecture circuit and her amongst other preachers travelled the US in order to preach to the World the view that were so important and necessary. It was more than her appearance that commanded attention. Her presence was commanding no matter who you were and what you stood for.

Sojourner also found herself in a room with Abraham Lincoln.  The conversation between them was surrounded on the basis of a bible that Abraham pointed out that he received as a gift from her people.  She also made reference to the title of Aunt that Abraham chose to identify her as.  At the time in the context used signified perhaps racist intentions. As Sojourner thanked him for his role in the Emancipation Proclamtion Abraham was tense.  She had a feeling that maybe Abraham’s intentions were less than honourable and she believed this feeling was confirmed in the lower rate of pay that the Black Soldiers had been receiving.

Through her journey as lecturer and preacher she noticed alot of ways in which Black people could control their destiny.  She encouraged them to be more than the government pay cheques that they received. She recognized that being able to sustain by the hands of your own truly kept you free. Being condemmed to live in squalor such as filth and multiple families they would forever be destined to live poor and to never amount to their dreams. She was a beacon of light in a time and to the people who needed it most.  She had a way of working a room even amongst the most elitest and most entitled individuals. To say she was respected amongst her peers is an understatement. She was very determined and over the years she published a a Narrative and became a symbol for mutliple movements.

“She was black-black as November night itself-tall, straight and muscular. Her wool was sprinkled with grey, that showed her years and sorrows, and her countenance was strikingly interesting.  Her features once must have been fine, and even yet beamed with more than ordinary intelligence; her launguar was a mixture of the African lingo and the manner of the whites among whom she lived.” (Pg 172)

She also fought for Black Women to have equal rights as Black Men. “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” (Pg 227) It was important for them not to be left behind. Before the civil war she was able to camapaign for both equally but as any headway was made it seemed to be more rewarding for one side.  What a crazy time of hierarchy and entitlement that she was so actively a part of it.  To be able to read first hand the impact that these debates were having.  To experience the true holyness and intentions of one woman who really had no reason to want to try and see the good in anybody. Rises above all of humanity to try and show the way of how rewarding it can be when we are all treated equally. She was one person so unique and  so pivotal in history that not too many know or even read about. I am so greatful for the opportunity to learn about her life and the mission she spent half of her life on (her whole life if you only consider the time from which she was Sojourner Truth). Her spirit is contagious even now in print. As I finish the last few pages and learn of how she is finally laid to rest I am so very greatful for all that she did. There are very records of her life during then but how can there truly be. She was elightened but illiterate and at a time where penmanship only was granted to the elitest she was unable to write from her own hand.

“She does not belong to me, but she belongs to Humanity and she would have been out of the way long ago, if you had let her alone.” (Pg 211).

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  1. Om Prakash Khare says:



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