[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Sojourner Truth
A Life, A Symbol
By Nell Irvin Painter

Chapter One: Isabella, Sojourner Truth, and American Slavery

SOJOURNER TRUTH, born Isabella, is one of the two most famous African-American women of the nineteenth century. The other, Harriet Tubman, the "Moses" of her people, also came out of slavery. Many people confuse the two because both lived in an era shadowed by human bondage, but Truth and Tubman were contrasting figures. New York was Truth's Egypt; Tubman's was in Maryland, these respective places marking each woman with a regional identity that Truth, at least, later came very much to prize. Born in about 1797, Truth was a generation older than Tubman, born in about 1821. Tubman will walk these pages from time to time, but only as a guest.

A woman of remarkable intelligence despite her illiteracy, Truth had great presence. She was tall, some 5 feet 11 inches, of spare but solid frame. Her voice was low, so low that listeners sometimes termed it masculine, and her singing voice was beautifully powerful. Whenever she spoke in public, she also sang. No one ever forgot the power and pathos of Sojourner Truth's singing, just as her wit and originality of phrasing were also of lasting remembrance.

As an abolitionist and feminist, she put her body and her mind to a unique task, that of physically representing women who had been enslaved. At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.

We think of Truth as a natural, uncomplicated presence in our national life. Rather than a person in history, she works as a symbol. To appreciate the meaning of the symbol-Strong Black Woman-we need know almost nothing of the person. Because we are apt to assume that the mere experience of enslavement endowed Truth with the power to voice its evils, we may forget a shocking fact: No other woman who had been through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise, and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term. Harriet Tubman spoke up occasionally at antislavery meetings, and the drama of her actions lent weight to her words. But she could not sustain appearance after appearance.

Only Truth had the ability to go on speaking, year after year for thirty years, to make herself into a force in several American reform movements. Even though the aims of her missions became increasingly secular after midcentury, Truth was first and last an itinerant preacher, stressing both itinerancy and preaching. From the late 1840s through the late 1870s, she traveled the American land, denouncing slavery and slavers, advocating freedom, women's rights, woman suffrage, and temperance.

Pentecostal that she was, Truth would have explained that the force that brought her from the soul murder of slavery into the authority of public advocacy was the power of the Holy Spirit. Her ability to call upon a supernatural power gave her a resource claimed by millions of black women and by disempowered people the world over. Without doubt, it was Truth's religious faith that transformed her from Isabella, a domestic servant, into Sojourner Truth, a hero for three centuries--at least.

SOJOURNER TRUTH was one born again, not only in the evangelical sense of the phrase and not merely because Isabella Van Wagenen rechristened herself Sojourner Truth. She was, all through, a self-made woman, and that was so much the case that beginning to write her biography becomes a challenge to definition as well as genealogy.

Biographies normally set the stage for the appearance of the protagonist by examining ancestors for portents of greatness. I will do what I can along those lines, though the track leading backward from Isabella quickly grows faint. Tracing the genealogy of any slave is a difficult thing to do. I know Isabella's parents' names but can go back no further into her family history with any certainty. The genealogical task is also complicated by the relationship between Isabella Van Wagenen and Sojourner Truth, each of whom has her own separate birth date. Isabella's is in the late 1790s on a day that cannot be designated exactly; Sojourner Truth's is 1 June 843.

We know that Isabella created Sojourner Truth by reinventing herself and leaving her old vocation and habitat, but Isabella is not all there is to Truth's ancestry. The symbols of American history come into play here, for Sojourner Truth presented herself as a former slave, and we still identify her with the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. The allegorical territory of American slavery is always situated somewhere--everywhere--in the South. Thus, to a great extent, Sojourner Truth appears to emerge out of a generalized southern setting. Here lies a conundrum--separating person from symbol and Isabella from Sojourner--for Isabella was a slave in New York State, one of tens of thousands of enslaved New Yorkers. The history and human geography of Isabella's New York were worlds away from the mythic South we associate with American slavery and with Sojourner Truth.

ISABELLA was born in the village of Hurley, in Ulster County, New York, about seven miles west of the Hudson River. Hurley (its first Dutch name was Niew Dorp) lies about ninety miles north of New York City and sixty miles south of Albany. The county's original inhabitants were Waroneck (Mohawk) Indians, who called a creek that empties into the Hudson River "Esopus," meaning small river. After much struggle in the mid-1610s that came to be known as the Esopus Wars, Dutch settlers overwhelmed the Indians without entirely displacing them. For more than a hundred years afterward, large numbers of Indians remained in a region that, with the arrival of Africans, would become tri-racial.

A hilly region of frigid, fast-running streams and rivers, Isabella's birthplace belongs to the New England upland of forested mountains, and lies west and slightly to the north of Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A cold, rocky place of long winters and short summers, Ulster County is covered with northern flora: spruce, balsam fir, hemlock, red cedar, yellow birch, as well as the oak, hickory, and pine that are found throughout the eastern United States. If she stood in a field with time to enjoy the scenery to the west, Isabella would have been able to see the Catskill Mountains, whose highest peak, Slide Mountain, rises to 4,180 feet.

Ulster County was one of New York's original counties, organized m 1683 and named after the Irish title of the Duke of York. At the turn of the nineteenth century it was overwhelmingly rural, producing wheat that was fair-to-middling in quality and lots of decent wool. When Isabella was born, before the advent of railroads and before New York City became a lucrative market, Ulster County was a backwater. Beautiful in a cold and craggy fashion akin to New England, it was not easy to traverse by road. Travelers used the river or bogged down trying to cross difficult terrain.

In rural counties like Ulster--in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in New Jersey--the culture of local blacks was likely as not to be Afro-Dutch, although some blacks were Afro-Indian. They worked for Dutch farmers in areas where as many as 30 to 60 percent of white households owned slaves. At the turn of the nineteenth century Ulster County's total population was 29,554, of whom more than 10 percent, 3,220, were black people scattered widely across the countryside.

Most slaveholding New York State households owned only one or two slaves; a large slaveowner, like Isabella's first master, might have six or seven at a time, but New Yorkers who owned more than twenty slaves could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the late eighteenth century, of course, no stigma attached to the trafficker in people, and masters did not hesitate to break up slave families through sale. But all was on a much smaller scale than the southern system of slavery.

Several factors, including the wide distribution of slaves among white families, combined to give rural black New Yorkers a singular culture. The contrast was especially sharp in comparison with southern blacks, often living in much larger homogeneous communities, who developed a vibrant Anglo-African culture revolving around plantation slave quarters. Half of all black southerners lived in communities of twenty or more African Americans, large concentrations that allowed them to learn their culture from other blacks and to create a distinctive way of life.

In New York State, by contrast, there were large numbers of blacks only in New York City. On the farms of rural New York, where slaves like Isabella lived and worked, one or two Africans commonly lived with a Dutch family and remained too isolated and scattered to forge any but the most tentative separate culture. Surrounded by Dutch speakers, rural black New Yorkers grew up speaking the language of their community. A good 16 or so percent, perhaps more, of eighteenth-century black New Yorkers, like Isabella and her family, spoke Dutch as their first language.

Such sound from black folk astonished those who were not from New York. A southern slave, accompanying his owner on a trip to New York, grew frustrated trying to extract directions from an Afro-Dutch woman. To his query about the way to New York, she answered: "Yaw, mynheer," pointing toward the town, "cat is Yarikee." Isabella as a young woman would have spoken in just this way. Over her lifetime she learned to speak English fluently, but she lost neither the accent nor the earthy imagery of the Dutch language that made her English so remarkable.

It is not possible to know exactly how Sojourner Truth spoke, for no one from her generation and cultural background was recorded. Isabella was the slave of the Dumont family from about twelve until about thirty, and many years later the daughter, Gertrude Dumont, protested that Truth's speech was nothing like the mock-southern dialect that careless reporters used. Rather, it was "very similar to that of the unlettered white people of [New York in] her time." As an older woman, Truth took pride in speaking correct English and objected to accounts of her speeches in heavy southern dialect. This seemed to her to take "unfair advantage" of her race.

Living so closely with tigers, Afro-Dutch New Yorkers imbibed other aspects of Dutch culture. If Afro-Dutch New Yorkers went to church--and in the countryside most, like their poor white neighbors, did not--they might join churches that were Dutch Reformed (as did Isabella's oldest daughter, Diana) or Methodist (as did Isabella). In Ulster County in the very early nineteenth century, young Isabella learned the Lord's Prayer in Dutch from her mother, and she may have attended Reformed churches as a child and young woman. This Afro-Dutch world was distinct, first culturally, then economically, from the slaveholding South.

ISABELLA'S birth coincided with a climactic invention--the cotton gin--which made slave-grown, short-staple cotton the economic underpinning of the American South. During the antebellum era of cotton as king, the economic and political interests of elite southerners increasingly diverged from those of elite northerners. This polarization was as yet embryonic in the late 1790s, because the political tensions that finally led to civil war had not yet acquired the agonizing sharpness that would dominate the middle of the century and bring Sojourner Truth into the public eye. When Isabella was born, the American North as well as the American South was a land of bondage.

The effacement of the memory of northern slavery has skewed American regional identities by exonerating white northerners and blaming white southerners. This erasure complicates the task of situating Isabella's life history, for by the mid-nineteenth century, when Sojourner Truth was a familiar presence in antislavery circles, New York belonged to the metaphorical land of liberty. With southern slavery as the symbol of American slavery, Truth's early life automatically migrated into a vague, composite antebellum South, a Southern Nowhere that for all its lack of specificity is definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line.

This metaphorical slave South appears in c lassie form in Harriet Beecher Stowe's phenomenally popular 1851-52 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Its types and themes had arisen in the antislavery press and slave narratives in the generation before Stowe published, supplying her with a stock of characters familiar in outline: the long-suffering, Christian slave, the cruel master with his whip and his mulatto concubine, the outraged slave mother, the slave trader, even the kind master and the jealous mistress. By the time Sojourner Truth became an antislavery speaker, this South had become a taken-for-granted setting antithetical to the free North.

Though foreign to northerners, the metaphorical slave South was at the same time familiar by dint of having so often been described. In this South, slavery was everlasting; slaves could not marry, own property, or learn to read or write. Their masters' powers were absolute, with the corruption that accompanies absolute power. Sex and violence suffused the entire institution. This slave South was a purgatory from which only the strongest, bravest, and most intelligent of slaves could flee, men and women like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Even these exceptional figures came from Maryland, right next door to the North. The Deep South was a hell that allowed no escape. In the far-away states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, unspeakable atrocities seemed to occur on a routine basis. Nothing was too awful to happen there.

Such a facile symbolic opposition: slave South and free North. But realities in Isabella's time were not so neat.

Slavery was an important part of northern life before 1800, however latter-day historical symbolism may have erased its stigma from the North. When Isabella was born, only Charleston among American cities had a larger black population than New York, and New York City's 5,865 blacks (including five slaves owned by Founding Father John Jay) accounted for about 10 percent of the total population. Almost 1,000 of the 6,281 black people in Connecticut and 12,422 of the 16,824 black people in New Jersey were still enslaved; black people were scattered throughout the North, and former slaves were to be found even in Massachusetts.

In the nineteenth century--as in our own times, mutatis mutandis--northerners preened themselves in their moral superiority to the slave drivers of the South, as though their own section had remained innocent of involuntary servitude. Such self-righteous censure of the South exempts northerners from their own slaveholding legacy, for when Isabella was born a slave, a commonplace national institution bound her.

© 1996 Nell Irvin Painter

Norton

Back to the top