Sojourner Truth: Fully Human
Sojourner Truth does not need to be a mythical woman, created whole the moment she left slavery, an ex-slave whom whites can accept. Her involvement with the Prophet Matthias’s commune demonstrates that like many of us, Isabella “was yearning for family [and] religion” (60). Like any co-dependent partner in a relationship, she “seems to have felt at home when being treated badly”, whether it was from the Dumonts or Robert Matthews. Isabella was not at the center of black, male, ministerial New York; those notable men “would have been embarrassed” by her because she “lived with the white prophets and cultists” who were so common at the time (70-1). These women, Painter says, “who lived with their employers and shared their views, … who remained outside of …. ‘the black community,’ mostly disappear from history’s view” (71).
But Isabella Van Wagener became Sojourner Truth, a woman searching for home while anxious to have her own words not in doubt (75). As a Millerite, Truth believed in the idea that she was living at the end of the world (83), and the heterogeneous Millerites, with their emphasis on not having a home for the world was about to end and preaching of the coming of the Lord (84) would have attracted Truth. Truth had found a religious home until she was reminded of how extremism’s unseemliness (84) created doubts about who she was. She reigned in at least one Millerite meeting (85), thereby creating a bridge away from fanaticism (85). Millerites accepted, claims Painter, Truth’s heterodoxy in order to have her preach at their meetings (86).
Sojourner Truth’s “biographers [may] want her to have a single, essential identity, unchanged over time” (59), but that is not how people live. Yes, African Americans in American history and culture are given a different status than whites, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t human. By describing Truth’s relationship to cults, Painter explains how Truth is a human like any of us, a woman who can be captivated by ideas of love and belonging. It is Truth’s entire history, even the religious history that makes us uncomfortable and which does not conform to the (white) ideal of a righteous black (potentially Southern) woman that makes Truth’s entire history important. Not all black female ex-slaves were like the Southern nursemaids seen in movies and in books. Like Truth, there were Northern black women, ex-slaves and free born, who do not fit the invented ideal that white America feels comfortable with. By exploring Truth’s entire history as best she can with the limited materials available, Painter depicts the entire woman, a co-dependent Isabella Van Wagner cum Sojourner Truth who yearned for home and belonging and who felt guilt over her selfish desires for freedom (43). This guilt-ridden mother, who faced many challenges but had many friends to help her, not the mythical Sojourner Truth, is one we can relate to and who helps to tell the entire history of black America.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.