The Historical Truth
Sojourner Truth’s America
By Margaret Washington
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 480 pages, $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Jean M. Humez
“Sojourner Truth” was the new, public name adopted in 1843 by an itinerant religious speaker of African ancestry, formerly Isabella Hardenbergh and then Isabella Van Wagenen (1797 – 1883). Her self-naming on this occasion, as she turned away from an old life that had come to seem sinful to pursue a spiritual calling, was the second time she had symbolically reclaimed her true self. She had been born into slavery in a rural Dutch-speaking county of New York state just after the Revolutionary War and was “self-liberated” in 1827—“walking away” from the household of John Dumont just a few months prior to the date when she would have been legally free under New York’s 1817 gradual emancipation law. Isabella, or Bell, as she was called at that time, was able to call on an antislavery family in the vicinity to support her against Dumont’s claims of continuing ownership. She arranged to work off the sum paid for her and her baby by the Van Wagenens, in order to purchase her freedom officially, and she took the new last name from this family that held a celebration in honor of her emancipation.The complex story of Isabella’s thirty-year experience of Northern slavery became one more weapon in the antislavery struggle of the 1850s. Its narrative contours were initially shaped in the 1850 mediated memoir, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Bondswoman of Olden Time (on which Truth collaborated with the antislavery reformer Olive Gilbert—and, according to new information uncovered by Margaret Washington, probably another antislavery activist, Sarah Benson, as well). The 1850 memoir also covered twenty years of Isabella’s post-emancipation experience, which includes events and relationships that have presented Truth’s admirers and biographers with many interesting problems. Moreover, Truth’s stories of her own experience were retold improvisationally in dozens or even hundreds of public appearances on the platforms of the antislavery, women’s rights, and other reform movements, and some of the stories were recorded in abbreviated forms in reports on those performances.
Thus Truth’s twenty-first century biographers face a most challenging task as they try to assemble an accurate, coherent account of her evolution from an abused, unfree child into the independent activist woman who could effectively stand up for both her own rights and those of other exploited people. The heroic iconography created by Truth’s associates and admirers from the moment she became a public figure has often been taken up uncritically by later social justice movements, and the fact that all the sources are mediated by other writers only makes the search for the historical Truth that much more frustrating. (In my own essay on the collaboration between Truth and Gilbert on Truth’s life story, I have explored some of the difficulties the process involved and the residues these difficulties leave in the text. See “Reading the Narrative of Sojourner Truth as a Collaborative Text” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Spring 1996).
Sojourner Truth’s America, the most recent biography of Truth, represents more than fifteen years of painstaking research and writing by Washington, a professor at Cornell University, who also edited a modern edition of the 1850 Narrative (1993). As articulated in her introduction, Washington’s central concerns in this comprehensive and fascinating study are to offer “a contemporary perspective on nineteenth-century progressivism that places a black woman at the center of those stormy times” and to contribute to the “recovery” of “Sojourner Truth’s voice,” in part by “reconstructing her material circumstances, her cultural geography, and her friendships and linking her words to her deeds.” Distinctively, Washington also aims to make the book “a spiritual biography” by incorporating a womanist, or black feminist, perspective—one that refuses to remove gender from its specific social nexus—and to show how Truth’s “search for community” underlay her activism on behalf of African American people.
Washington uses a wide-angle lens to explore themes in the social, cultural, and political history of the “America” that Sojourner Truth inhabited during the various stages of her long life. This approach makes for a complex narrative that admittedly places considerable responsibility on the reader to identify the most salient information. The reader sometimes wishes for a more condensed presentation of the immense amount of information so lovingly gathered by Washington from newspaper accounts, letters, memoirs, genealogical archives, and other primary sources. But in large part by giving us such a rich picture, Washington provides some wonderful new angles of vision on her subject’s consciousness and motivations. Her book makes a tremendous contribution to Truth scholarship and is a great gift as well to those working in the fields of nineteenth-century African American women’s history and American social agitation more generally.
Sojourner Truth’s America is clearly in dialogue with two important prior studies: Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, by Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse (1993); and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, by Nell Painter (1996). (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I was one of the original readers of the Mabee book for New York University Press.) Like Mabee and Painter, Washington provides a much more accurate, nuanced, and historically contextualized view of Truth than was available in the heyday of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, when (in Painter’s words), “Black and white feminists were searching for a poor black woman to insert into a women’s movement projecting an all-too-white and middle-class image.” But in contrast to Mabee and Painter, Washington does not often focus the reader’s attention on the tricky process of making historical judgments from flawed sources—perhaps because too much of this can distract from the story itself. Although she does acknowledge problems related to the reliability of her sources, there are times when she relies heavily on the Narrative in her account of Truth’s feelings. In the early years in particular, one wishes for more reminders of the memoir’s retrospective and mediated character.
Washington provides a wealth of information on Truth’s relationships, activities, and ideas to support her claim that Truth was “perhaps the most remarkable black woman in the nineteenth century.” Her exhaustive research, including some dedicated sleuthing by her graduate students over the years, which she graciously acknowledges, has turned up valuable new information unknown to previous biographers. For one thing, Washington has discovered the correct first name of the persecuting white mistress described as so hateful in Truth’s Narrative: Mabee calls her simply “Mrs. Dumont,” while Painter assumes she was John Dumont’s first wife, Sally. However, Washington identifies her as Elizabeth, Sally’s older sister, whom John Dumont married following Sally’s death.
More significantly, Washington’s research has established the high probability that Truth began speaking publicly against slavery as early as 1843. Nell Painter had challenged Mabee’s assertion that the first documented occasion on which Truth spoke publicly as a reformer was in October 1850, at a national women’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Painter had found evidence of Truth making antislavery speeches in 1844 and 1845, thus proving that “the evolution of the evangelist Sojourner Truth into the antislavery feminist Sojourner Truth had begun well before the publication of the Narrative.” Washington, more willing to speculate on the basis of suggestive evidence, points to a notice in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of May 11, 1843, of a “discourse from a colored woman” in the Sixth Street Methodist (Colored) Church, which, she says,“had to be Isabella Van Wagenen, the only known unlicensed black woman preacher living in New York and born in slavery.”
The first section of the book provides much interesting new information about “the Hudson Valley milieu into which [Truth] was born as Isabella Hardenbergh” and depicts the ways in which “Patriarchal Dutch slavery, the female household, and its religious ambience shaped her formative years.” The second section explores Truth’s “physical and spiritual maturation,” including her religious conversion and early work in New York City as a moral reformer in the orbit of white Perfectionists. This ultimately led her into a religious commune in the early 1830s. Dominated by a white, self-styled prophet, Matthias, the Kingdom, as the commune was called, dissolved in a highly publicized sex and murder scandal in which Isabella was briefly embroiled.
Finally, in the third section of the book, which is twice as long as the first two combined, Washington turns to what she calls “the heart of the book”—a narrative that “follows the footsteps of Sojourner Truth and her closest associates, analyzing and interpreting their activism” from the 1840s through the 1870s. The length and detail of the third section demonstrate Washington’s view that Truth’s deeds as an indefatigable speaker and agitator for social justice need to be foregrounded—perhaps partly in reaction to the tendency in other recent biographies to ask skeptical questions about the iconic Sojourner Truth.
The Mabee biography in particular, because it aimed to deflate exaggerated twentieth-century claims about Truth’s effectiveness, can be read as a challenge to the assertion of Truth’s historical importance as an activist. For example, Mabee writes:
partly because she could not read or write, her participation in reform movements remained marginal. She never became part of the decision-making inner councils of either the abolitionist or women’s rights movement, as [Frederick] Douglass sometimes did.
He was also the first to argue that the well-known refrain, “A’r’nt I a woman?,” attributed to Truth in suffragist Frances Gage’s description of a women’s rights convention, was probably Gage’s retrospective invention. Even more provocatively, Mabee concludes that Truth’s speakerly impact on the convention in which these words were (not) spoken was probably exaggerated by suffrage historians—as, he says, was Gage’s depiction of the initial, virulent hostility of the white women in the audience.
Washington offers a spirited rebuttal to Mabee’s argument about Truth’s impact on the convention. She is less interested in the exact words Truth uttered than in the content of her speech and the importance of her presence and participation, at a moment when conservative feminists such as Jane Swisshelm were attempting to keep the antislavery and women’s rights movements separate. Keying off a contemporary newspaper clipping, Washington ends this valuable section in her book with her own provocative suggestion: that Truth’s refrain may simply have been the assertive phrase “I am a woman.” As this example shows, Washington’s book responds to hard-headed assessments such as Mabee’s both by providing more and better evidence and by arguing forcefully for a nuanced view of what it means to be influential in a social-change movement.
Sojourner Truth’s developmental pathway as a free adult woman has always provided challenges for her biographers, in part because of how this period is presented in the Narrative. Beginning with the year in which she was legally free, at age thirty, through the time when she was publicly identified with the organized antislavery and suffrage movements, in around 1850 at age 53, two major “problems” have repeatedly needed explanation for Truth’s supporters and admirers. The first was her choice to resettle in New York City with just one of her four children—leaving three daughters behind with her former owners. The second was her extended period of loyalty to the white pseudoprophet, Robert Mathews, alias Matthias, the authoritarian head of a religious commune with a severely misogynistic theological rationale, in which she was voluntarily involved for several years. Washington provides useful interpretations of both issues—though she is clearly happier when presenting the older Truth, as reconstructed from the documents of her public life after 1850.
Perhaps the central mystery that all Truth biographers must wrestle with is the apparent paradox of her strong, continuing attachment to the family of her former owners, especially to the patriarch John Dumont, long after she and her children were legally free. Painter broke important ground in her biography with a brief exploration of the possible impact on Isabella of physical and sexual abuse. She interprets the slave girl Isabella’s loyalty to and affection for John Dumont, even after she grew out of her childhood view of him as “a God,” in light of today’s literature on abused children’s survival strategies. Other biographers believe that Dumont coerced Isabella into a sexual relationship. They support this view primarily by pointing to a passage in the Narrative in which Olive Gilbert describes Truth’s motive for self-censorship of some terrible happenings under slavery—to protect those still alive. Painter argues, in part by pointing to the word “unnatural” in the Narrative’s vague, coded reference to sexuality, that the sexual abuse must have come from Mrs. Dumont.
Washington does not refer to Painter’s provocative hypothesis, but she does provide a similarly bold (and to some readers, perhaps equally shocking) interpretation of Isabella’s childhood relationship to John Dumont. As she had done in an earlier essay in the Journal of African American History, “‘From Motives of Delicacy’: Sexuality and Morality in the Narratives of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs,” Washington reads between the lines of the same passages on self-censorship in the Narrative and comes to a quite different conclusion:
In camouflaging the true source of dissonance between Bell and Elizabeth Dumont in the Narrative, Sojourner was not only protecting her former owner, his children, and her children but also her own reputation as an Abolitionist speaker, preacher, and reformer. A sexually passionate Bell involved with a white master threatened Sojourner Truth’s virtuous image. Although Olive Gilbert was herself a radical reformer, she nonetheless accepted the conventional sexual standard of women as pure at best and victim as next best, which placed “good” women on a moral and spiritual pedestal. Only later was an enslaved black woman (Harriet Jacobs) encouraged to publicly expose her sexual transgressions.
Washington is doubtless aware that her view of Bell’s relationship to Dumont as more likely passionate and mutual rather than coercive is likely to set some readers’ teeth on edge. Wisely, she carefully sets the stage by exploring the rural Dutch tavern culture in which Bell had worked prior to coming to the Dumonts’ house. She reminds us of the young girl’s “comeliness” and love of dancing, singing, and alcohol—and the likelihood that she was not a virgin when she arrived. She also points to the clear indications of favoritism and jealousy in the Dumont household, and speculates convincingly that one or possibly two of Bell’s children may have been Dumont’s, and were evidently protected by him in a way that infuriated his wife.
It’s an interesting and persuasive reading. By forcing us to give up a sanitized, desexualized picture of Truth (as well as a lingering insistence on victimization as the only imaginable form of sexual intimacy between master and slave), Washington does us a great service—one of many performed by this exciting and comprehensive book.
Jean M. Humez is the author of several books on American women’s contributions to cultural and religious history, including, most recently, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. She is professor emerita of Women's Studies at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.