In the seconds it takes to utter a few words, a living person -- Fuzzy Zoeller, say -- can become a symbol so powerful that it obscures all else that person has said or done.

Notables who've been dead for a century haven't a prayer of sidestepping symbolism.

The ongoing drama of the women's suffrage statue got me thinking this way. After a four-year fight, a coalition of women's groups in September got Congress to agree to move a statue of three 19th century suffragists into the Capitol Rotunda. A month later, C. DeLores Tucker, leader of the National Political Congress of Black Women, decried the statue's exclusion of Sojourner Truth, the great feminist abolitionist.

Now, the mostly white Women's Suffrage Statue Campaign says that Truth should be "fully honored," possibly with a separate statue, after the suffragist statue's installation, which could be as soon as next week. But Tucker and her supporters -- bolstered by a bill introduced yesterday in Congress by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) -- would postpone the suffragist statue's move.

Insists Tucker: "No statue without Sojourner Truth can truly represent the suffragist movement."

Of the many questions raised, one for me stood out:

Who, really, was Sojourner Truth?

It's hard to wrap flesh, blood and meaning around long-dead heroes. It's even harder to explain why it's important that we try.

Though she's at least as well known as the embattled statue's subjects -- Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott -- Truth's true self remains unclear. Was she the fierce, powerful ex-slave who asked, "Ar'n't I a woman?" The bespectacled black women's rights activist who also supported white feminists of her era? The orator so imposing that some doubted she was a woman -- until she angrily bared a breast, mortifying them?

Today, Truth is primarily a symbol: of black women's strength, independence -- and rage.

"The symbolic Sojourner Truth is the militant Sojourner Truth," says Nell Irvin Painter, a Princeton University history professor and author of the recent biography "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol."

"But in the obituaries that appeared after her death {in 1883}, one word kept coming up: intelligent," Painter says. "Today's stereotype of black women is one of militance. It's angry, sassy, castrating, but not intelligent . . . {which} takes away a part of our humanity."

Truth had to have been brilliant to be celebrated for her brains in the 1800s. People today "simply cannot fathom the constant humiliation and degradation of black people" at that time, Painter says.

Yet Truth, born "Isabella," a slave on a farm in upstate New York -- slavery wasn't limited to the South -- often overcame the unimaginable. Her parents, who suffered through 10 of their children being sold into slavery, lost Isabella at age 9 to an abusive family. Said Truth of being sold: "Now the war begun."

Yet this illiterate slave evolved into "a strong, effective, intelligent public figure," says Painter. Her secret: "a power that millions of black women have used . . . to reconstitute themselves -- the Holy Spirit."

Truth became a riveting singer, preacher and abolitionist orator, as well as a popular, outspoken feminist.

She also became a symbol. Painter and others insist that she never said, "Ar'n't I a woman?" and that the evocative quote -- which evolved into "Ain't I a woman?" -- was the invention of writer Frances Dana Gage. Gage, Painter explains, attributed the words to Truth more than a decade after the speech in which she was alleged to have said them; newspapers quoting the speech just weeks afterward never mentioned them. The quote has endured because it befits the symbol.

Truth's feminist legacy also was manipulated. Though Mott and Stanton later characterized her as wholly supporting them, Truth in fact broke with the women in the late 1860s when they refused to support universal male suffrage -- giving the vote to black men and uneducated white men -- before women's suffrage. Stanton suggested that it was untenable for educated women to get the vote after men she described as an "incoming tide of ignorance, poverty and vice," splitting the suffrage movement in two.

Hardly the militant, Truth mediated between the sides before allying herself with those who felt women would get the vote after all men won suffrage.

Those who prefer Truth's flamethrower image to that of fighter and healer "miss her humanity," Painter says. "Humanity is complexity."

The media-savvy Truth -- "who today would have a Web site and her own direct-mail operation," laughs Painter -- would love the current controversy. Though Painter has no problem with recognizing the individual achievements of the feminists in the statue, she feels that any statue honoring women's suffrage requires some Truth.

Such a statue would do more than honor Truth's greatness as a feminist abolitionist, Painter says. It would acknowledge that "black women existed in the 19th century, and not just as victims." And it would say, "Here's Sojourner Truth, who made history."