Nell Irvin Painter
Nell Irvin Painter
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
ISBN: 0393027392
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
Nell Irvin Painter talked about her book "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol," published by W.W. Norton. It chronicles the life of Sojourner Truth, a former slave, who became a spokeswoman and symbol for racial and gender equality.
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TRANSCRIPT
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
Program Air Date: December 8, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nell Irvin Painter, who was Sojourner Truth?
NELL IRVIN PAINTER, AUTHOR, "SOJOURNER TRUTH: A LIFE, A SYMBOL": Well, if you ask some people, Sojourner Truth didn't exist. She's a fictional character. If you ask other people, they haven't a clue. If you ask other people, they'll say she was a tough black woman who stood up in front of an audience of cowering black Negrophobic white women in 1851 and she took down her dress and she rolled up her sleeve and she said, “Aren't I a woman?” All of those are off.
LAMB: What is she then? Who is she?
PAINTER: Sojourner Truth was an itinerant preacher. Sojourner Truth means itinerant preacher. She was a woman who had been born Isabella. She was born a slave. She was not born a slave in the South, as many people assume. She was born a slave in Ulster County, New York, along the Hudson River in about 1797. We don't know exactly because nobody was keeping track at that point. And she died in Battle Creek, Michigan, which was kind of the Berkeley of its day, in 1883. And she spent the first part of her life in freedom -- the late 1820s until 1843, working as a household worker -- live in household worker. That's how she supported herself. But she also belonged to a group of sort of -- ooh, weird -- no, I shouldn't say that -- enthusiastic religious folk. And then in 1843 the Holy Spirit told her to change her name. She became Sojourner Truth and she started wandering off to Brooklyn and then along Long Island and then up the Connecticut River Valley, and stopped in Northampton. And over a period of time became a feminist and an abolitionist. And we know her as a feminist abolitionist.
LAMB: Now on the cover of your book you have a picture.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: How old was she in this?
PAINTER: Let's see. She would be about 67, 68.
LAMB: How tall was she?
PAINTER: About six feet tall. And she really did knit.
LAMB: And so do you. We caught you doing that before the show started. You say in the book that she's often -- people are often confused between Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: What's the difference?
PAINTER: The difference is that Sojourner Truth was born in the North and made her vocation of speaking aloud, as one of her biographers, Erlene Stetson says, and Harriet Tubman was born in Maryland and escaped from slavery, and then went back several times during the 1850s to bring out others, perhaps as many as 200. So Sojourner Truth spoke aloud and Harriet Tubman was herself a -- I suppose, a train, I could say, on the Underground Railroad. And she was not comfortable as a public speaker.
LAMB: What is Sojourner Truth's real name?
PAINTER: It was -- well, Sojourner Truth's real name is Sojourner Truth. She was born with a different name, but on the first of June, 1843, she became Sojourner Truth and that was her name.
LAMB: What was her original name?
PAINTER: Her original name was simply Isabella because if you were born enslaved, all you had was one name.
LAMB: But there was a Dutch name that she -- did she use the Dutch name?
PAINTER: Yes, when she went to New York City. She actually left slavery a little bit before she was emancipated by state law, and she spent that year or so with a family -- Dutch family that did not believe in slavery. And I think they also shared her Methodist religion at that point. They were called Van Wagener And so when she went to New York City, where she needed a last name, she was Isabella or Belle Van Wagener or Belle Van Wagener. I've seen that, too.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in her?
PAINTER: Oh, I've been interested in her as long as I can remember because when I was a kid growing up, we had -- I grew up in California, where we didn't have any black or Negro history in school. But my parents made sure that I learned something. And so I knew the names of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth from as long as I can remember. And when I started becoming a historian, I was interested. The idea of doing a book on Sojourner Truth, though, didn't come until the mid 80s.
LAMB: Where do you work now?
PAINTER: Now I work at Princeton. I teach the history of the American South.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
PAINTER: This is my fourth. I have one more in me.
LAMB: And you've already made up your mind on what that's going to be?
PAINTER: I think so. I think so. I think it's going to be on personal beauty. And it was actually inspired by that book because the -- that book has one chapter on Sojourner Truth's images, which she herself controlled, and I'd like to, in a moment, come back to the question of verbal and visual images. So I spent a lot of time with Sojourner Truth's photographs and taught myself, through reading and through going over to the art museum at Princeton -- or the art library -- how to deal with images because, you know, we historians are not taught to read images. We're only taught to read words. And I became very interested in images. So I think the next book will not be chronological, but shaped around the images.
LAMB: Now what were these called back in the days that they were taken?
PAINTER: They were called carte de visite and they were about that big -- about baseball card size, actually -- and they functioned rather like baseball cards in the sense that people would have them made, they were inexpensive because you could do four or eight or 10 at one time and then develop them all and then just cut them up. And so all sorts of people had them and they were used for all sorts of purposes. They were used for fund raising. Sojourner Truth used hers for fund raising -- if you can point out the caption on one of those. She used one caption over and over again: “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” Sojourner Truth. And what she meant by that was, “I sell the shadow,” which is the photograph, “to support the substance,” which was her bodily substance. So you could use them for raising money, you could use them for -- oh, for promoting yourself. So it was ve -- very common for traveling authors or speakers to have them.
LAMB: What's this right here?
PAINTER: Now that is not a carte de visite. That is a drawing from about 1867, and I put that there because it falls within the same period of Sojourner Truth's carte de visite. And it was made by a man who had been a child in the Northampton association where Sojourner Truth was in the 1840s. But you -- leave it. Leave it open. You -- well, I don't know if you can see it. If you were looking through the book, you would see that this picture, unlike hers -- she is part of a larger frame, and it's a picture of someone doing work. It is not a picture that's focused on that particular person and her sleeves are rolled up. It was very common when people talked about Sojourner Truth or black people generally to show the body -- the unclothed body. And you'll notice in her pictures, though, she's all closed up completely. She's covered.
LAMB: What do you think she would be like?
PAINTER: You know, when I first started on this in about 1989, I thought if I were sitting here and Sojourner Truth came and sat where you are, we could have a comfortable conversation. And it would just be hunky dory and we'd get along just fine. And as I learned more and more and more about her and more and more and more about the antebellum North, which was a crazy, crazy time and place -- there were all sorts of people. You know, if you went out in Westchester County, for instance, in the 1830s or '40s, you'd probably encounter about six or eight people telling you, “Come to Jesus. I have the Word.” People were always hearing the Holy Spirit telling them to go preach their word. And there were lots and lots of itinerant preachers. At any rate, as I learned more about Sojourner Truth herself, more about Isabella, more about the period, her closeness to me receded and she came less and less and less familiar. And so now I think if she were sitting where you are, I would just have to listen.
LAMB: I’m looking in here for the best photograph to show what her hand was like.
PAINTER: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And it may be this one because -- did she have a missing finger right here?
PAINTER: No. Her hand was like this.
LAMB: Maybe I'll show the cover.
PAINTER: Yeah. You can see it there somewhat.
LAMB: What had happened to it?
PAINTER: She was injured in her last year of slavery. But interestingly enough, even though other people harped on her experience of having been a slave, in none of her pictures does she display her slave wound. She never shows that hand prominently, and she never shows the scars on her back or anything like that.
LAMB: And as a slave, where did she live?
PAINTER: She lived in Ulster County, New York, in and around New Paltz.
LAMB: And what did she do as a slave?
PAINTER: Everything. Remember that in the North, we're not talking about a land of plantations: 99.5 percent -- 99.9 percent of the enslaved people in the North were on farms, they were one or two enslaved people working with handymen or hired girls or hired men or whatever, indentured whites -- just a really big mix. And so they would have been pretty much by themselves as black people. And so it meant that they were much more like all the country people around them. Her first language was Dutch because that was the language of the working people around. So when she was living with the Dumonts, for instance, she would get up in the morning, start the fire in the kitchen, peel the potatoes, put them on to boil, go out, milk the cows, bring back the milk, fix the breakfast, and then, after the family ate, she'd clean up after that. And then she'd go out in the field. She did everything.
LAMB: What were her parents like?
PAINTER: Her parents were perpetually depressed. They were also enslaved. They were, within that category, they were relatively privileged because they had their own house and they had their own garden; you would call them cottagers. But they had lost 10 to 11 to 12 children to the slave trade, and losing a child like that is like having your child die. And we know how traumatic that is. So in the first few pages of Sojourner Truth's narrative, she repeats that her parents would sit around the fire and tell her about her siblings who had been sold away. And her mother would take her out, look up at the stars and say, “See those stars? Those stars are shining on your brothers and sisters. We don't know where they are, but we're all under the same heaven.” So what I put together with this was a very downhearted -- understandably downhearted -- household.
LAMB: You mentioned the narrative. What was the "Narrative of Sojourner Truth"?
PAINTER: The "Narrative of Sojourner Truth," first printed in 1850, another big edition in the 1870s and a final edition in the 1880s, was an ex slave narrative; that is, it was Sojourner Truth, who did not read and write, talking to another woman named Olive Gilbert, who was writing down Sojourner Truth's -- or Isabella's experiences as a child and as a young woman. Now since this first came out in 1850, it does not include the kind of high moments that we know of Sojourner Truth's life because it was published before she became an itinerant abolitionist.
LAMB: How did you go about -- you say 1989 you started this?
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: How did you go about researching it, putting it together and writing it?
PAINTER: Some of it was historian skills. For instance, I went to the American Antiquarian Society, which was extremely valuable for me. And there ...
LAMB: Where is that?
PAINTER: Worcester, Massachusetts. And it's a great collection of printed matter from the United States, from Colonial period down to about 1876. So I could read the newspaper accounts of what was going on while she was doing various things. For instance, there's a moment when she is in the Kingdom of Matthias. This is a kind of David Koresh religious cult. So I could actually read the newspaper coverage of the trial that came out of that and learn a good deal about it from other people's points of view. There're also a couple of books about that. They're now rare books and so you have to go to a place like the American Antiquarian Society to find them.

So I did historian's work, but I also did two or maybe three different kinds of work. I've told you about learning how to read the photographs. That was something new to me, and I thought it was important for this particular project. I also worked on psychology and that's where I began to really focus on what it must have been like to live in a family where your parents were lamenting the loss of their children. That's where I began to understand the psychological weight of having been enslaved, of having been beaten, of having been fondled by your mistress. We now know what is likely to happen to people after those experiences and people who suffer that kind of brutality are greatly at risk of depression themselves, of low self esteem, of difficulties with sexuality and with anger at themselves and at others. And more importantly, of passing this on to the next generation and the next generation. So it's transgenerational.
LAMB: At what point in your research did you get the most excited?
PAINTER: Oh, gosh, that's hard to say.
LAMB: Or a couple of times where you found things and you know ...
PAINTER: Right. OK. The first big squeal -- this was in the American Antiquarian Society -- and in many of these photographs, Sojourner Truth is holding knitting and I wondered if she had been holding that to convey a sort of motherliness or womanliness or gentility or hominess. And at one point in the American Antiquarian Society, I was reading the papers of the Northampton Association and I found in the ledger book where Sojourner Truth, there called Mrs. Sojourner had purchased yarn. So I squealed. That was really lovely for me to find.

I think the most interesting part, though, was putting together the legend of Sojourner Truth in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, with the best I could find of what actually happened. And I could do that, again, at the American Antiquarian Society, because I could read the anti slavery newspaper that was covering that area and whose editor was the secretary of the meeting. And there I found -- that was really fun putting those together -- or taking them apart, I should say. And I discovered that what happened in 1851 and how it got explained in 1863 are two entirely different matters. And it is the 1863 version, the “Aren't I a Woman” version, that most of us know of Sojourner Truth.
LAMB: Now this is just an instinct of mine. When you first came in you were knitting.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: You're tall.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: How tall are you?
PAINTER: Oh, 6'2".
LAMB: A Ph.D.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Is this from Sojourner Truth to Nell Irving Painter -- is there a connection here? Do you feel some sense of, you know, that this is a proof that you've come a long way as as a woman, as a race, as a ...
PAINTER: Well, I don't feel that I am all black people. I feel like I'm myself. And I come from a particular family and a particular place. Sojourner Truth came from a particular family and a particular place. She grew up in rural upstate New York; I grew up in urban Oakland, California. And I and my family are not particularly Pentecostal. She was Pentecostal after she became free. So in that sense, we were very different. She never learned to read and write, and she learned by hearing reading, which is, of course, how people did it from time immemorial. And I was an inveterate reader from the time I came out of my mother's womb.

So, in that sense, I don't feel connected. But I do know that for the rest of our country and perhaps for the rest of the world, Sojourner Truth and I are grouped together as black women. And I don't mind that. And so in that sense, I am connected to her, just as I am connected to all other black women in this country and over time. But we do have extremely different experiences. And one of the things I was trying to do here was to humanize Sojourner Truth, to show her as an individual with her own life and her own experiences in addition to this symbolic black woman.
LAMB: There's a photograph in here of one of her daughters.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Which one?
PAINTER: That is Diana, probably.
LAMB: And how many children did she have? And where did Diana fit in all of this?
PAINTER: Diana was the oldest. She had five children. We know about four of them -- three daughters and one son. The other child we can't account for and I guess several times what might have happened or who she might be or he might be. In the famous Sojourner Truth speech -- that is the 1851 speech, as recorded in 1863 -- Frances Dana Gage has her saying that she's had 13 children -- chilluns sold away from her and “Aren't I a woman?” Well, she didn't have 13 children.
LAMB: How many times was she married?
PAINTER: Once. She married once in slavery to a man named Thomas and so far as I know, Thomas was the father of all her children. From what I can tell, they had a reasonably happy but not romantic life. They had planned to have their little cottage and their little garden by themselves, and that didn't work out. And so when they were emancipated, Thomas decided to stay in Ulster County. He was much older than she. And she decided to seek her fortune in the city, which many people were -- country people were doing at the time. And he died in the poor house, probably not too long afterwards.
LAMB: You have this right here.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Where did you find this? And what is it?
PAINTER: That is from the Historical Society of Battle Creek and Battle Creek is where Sojourner Truth died. And it's the only known signature -- in fact, the only known example of Sojourner Truth's writing and you'll see that it's not the writing of someone comfortable with writing.
LAMB: What would she sound like?
PAINTER: I'm not quite sure. Just ...
LAMB: Or in the dialogue, because I know you write a lot about that. Dialect, I mean.
PAINTER: She would have sounded like someone with an Afro Dutch heritage, to start with, but with an excellent command of English. So I would -- I've been saying that I need to go to St. Martin or Aruba or something and find out exactly how this sounded. That's where we might find that kind of a voice. The important thing, though, is that she was not a Southerner and didn't speak Southern.
LAMB: How many different places did she actually live?
PAINTER: Oh, golly. She lived in Ulster County, she lived in New York City, she lived in Northampton, where she bought her first house when she was in her 50s, she lived in and around Battle Creek. That's it.
LAMB: And what was Northampton all about?
PAINTER: Northampton was Sojourner Truth's second commune of three.
LAMB: Well, why don't we start with the first one, then? We'll go through the communes.
PAINTER: OK. I think this is a sign of someone who is looking for family. The first commune was the Kingdom of Matthias. This is the early 1830s, first in New York and then in Westchester County. Matthias was a Scots American born Robert Matthews, who, like many others in New York and, in in fact, in the North, was inspired by Charles Grandison Finney, who was a great evangelist of the 1820s, 1830s and '40s. And so he was a man prone to religious enthusiasms. And one day in Albany he was shaving and the Holy Spirit spoke to him and said, “You can't shave anymore. You are a Jew, and true Jews do not shave.” So he stopped shaving, and then God told him to go the West and preach his truth. And so he left and went around to the West and came around, and then ended up in New York City. And at this point, Isabella -- Sojourner Truth -- was living with people who shared her religious enthusiasms, and one day the prophet Matthias came knocking and Isabella opened the door. And here he was, looking like the chromo gena -- Jesus with all his beards and such. And she said, “Art thou the Christ?” And he said, “Yes, I am.” And all of them fell together washing each other's feet and understanding each other and taking each other in and becoming a family. And that family grew and then moved and sort of occupied the home of a wealthy couple up in Mt. Pleasant, now Ossining.
LAMB: Right near Sing Sing.
PAINTER: Yes. And they were the Kingdom of Matthias for two, three years.
LAMB: What happened to him, Father Matthias?
PAINTER: Well, first of all, he felt that there was gentile law and there was his law. And people who got married under gentile law didn't have to stay married. So he plucked out the wife of the man who owned the big house in Westchester County, said she was his match spirit. And this set all sorts of roiling in family matters because then her former husband had to have a match spirit. Who would that be? You know, it was free love. So there was that. And then one of the men, a man named Elijah Pierson, who was actually from New Jersey, and who was the man with whom Isabella had been working. In fact, it was Elijah Pierson and Isabella and prophet Matthias who met that first time. And Pierson, who was an older man and who was needing a match spirit of his own, died in a way that can only be called, well, sexually frustrated. And so Matthias was charged with murder. And in the sense that this commune didn't believe in medical care and they just put him in a room -- Elijah Pierson, when he was ill -- until the bad devils got out of him, he died from neglect perhaps. But he didn't -- during the trial, it came out that he was not murdered. So both the prophet Matthias and Isabella were let off the hook because it was not murder.
LAMB: And was she the only black woman in this group?
PAINTER: She was the only black person. She was one of two working class people -- two working class women. And the others were ranging from really quite privileged to middling. So it was a funny kind of a fit between class and race.
LAMB: By the way, how had she gotten out of slavery in the first place?
PAINTER: Oh, the state of New York emancipated the last of its slaves in 1827. However, young people had to remain as indentures, so she couldn't take her daughters.
LAMB: But did she walk right out of the family and into this world of the commune?
PAINTER: Almost. Almost. She went from Ulster County to be with some people called Latourette and they had their own kind of society. And then Pierson was involved with them, and then he peeled off and formed his own group. She was with him. And then Matthias came to them, and then they went up to Mt. Pleasant. So it was kind of a coming out.
LAMB: What was the second commune?
PAINTER: The second commune was an industrial commune. This was in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry. And here the people were not particularly religious. They were ecumenical as far as religion goes. But they were anti slavery and they were for women's rights. And it was there that Sojourner Truth discovered abolition and women's rights. And she got there in 1843, in the fall, early winter, and the ...
LAMB: She's still Isabella?
PAINTER: No. She's Sojourner Truth by this time.
LAMB: At what point did she make that switch again?
PAINTER: The 1st of June, 1843. So now we're talking the fall -- late fall of 1843, so it's not a whole lot of difference in time. And she only meant to stay there for the winter and then continue on her way. But she liked it and she stayed, and actually, she outlived the commune, which fell apart in 1846. But she stayed on and actually bought a house.
LAMB: There's a statistic you have here in your book. You say there were 270 Utopian communities founded in the United States between 1787 and 1919. What was a Utopian community, and was this one of them?
PAINTER: This was, yes. A Utopian community -- Utopia means both “no place” and “good place.” And so it was a place that would be set off where people would try to perfect human life. And some people know about Brook Farm, which really didn't get off the ground. Oneida was one. There were several in the North. I don't believe there were -- no, there were some in the South as well, but many, many more in the North. And, of course, in our generation, we can think back to the 1960s with the hippie communes. So it was very much that kind of an impulse that is to pull away from the world the corrupted world, and then make a better place that would hopefully grow and spread its beneficent influence to the rest of the world.
LAMB: How many people were in this commune in Northampton?
PAINTER: Let's see. We're talking about 100 or so. It's hard to tell exactly because people came and went. And there were also children who went to the school. They had -- ran an excellent school, and children came to that school who were not part of the families in the commune.
LAMB: Now that's a town that has Smith and that Calvin Coolidge used to be mayor, I think, of the town.
PAINTER: Yes. Yes. It's also the town that Jonathan Edwards was from and also, I believe, Lyman Beecher was there, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher's father. So it's a notable place. It's also where Graham of graham crackers was.
LAMB: Who did she meet there? Any other names that ...
PAINTER: There are lots of names that people would have recognized at the time. I won't burden you with a lot of them, but let me just mention two whom people will still probably recognize. One was William Lloyd Garrison and one was Frederick Douglass. And they were -- well, Frederick Douglass, by this time, was beginning to start his rounds on the anti slavery lecture circuit.
LAMB: Let me just -- simple question on both.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Who was William Lloyd Garrison and who was Frederick Douglass?
PAINTER: William Lloyd Garrison was probably the most prominent anti slavery person in the United States.
LAMB: White?
PAINTER: I'm sorry?
LAMB: He was white?
PAINTER: Yes. He was from Vermont. And one of the reasons that he was very prominent was that he was the head of the American Anti Slavery Association and another was that he ran a newspaper out of Boston called The Liberator. So he had a whole network of friends throughout the North. And when the Civil War brought about emancipation, his friends gathered up ...
LAMB: Which one is he here?
PAINTER: The one in the middle.
LAMB: Him?
PAINTER: Yeah. And the one over here on the right is George Thompson, who was visiting -- and, in fact, who was the person who began to take Sojourner Truth out as an anti slavery lecturer. And then on the far side is Wendell Phillips, who was also well known as an abolitionist. He was someone from a very privileged background but who felt that it was important to champion working people and they included slaves. This is the earliest daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass had run away from slavery, thanks to the woman who became his wife, ran away from Maryland, at Baltimore, and ended up as an abolitionist in the very early 1840s.
LAMB: And they're all there -- I mean, she's meeting them all in Northampton?
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Were they all a member of the community?
PAINTER: No. Neither Garrison nor Douglass was a member, but Garrison's wife was the sister of one of the most important founders.
LAMB: How was Sojourner Truth making a living at this point?
PAINTER: Well, everybody in the commune put everything together and they were paid a few cents an hour. So they had everything they needed. They lived in that large building that you showed earlier and bathed in the creek. I hate to think of what it was like in January.
LAMB: What was she trying to do at this point in her life?
PAINTER: Well, at that point she felt that she was with very good hearted people who were not white supremacists. And I must say, as I worked on this book, I was -- I shouldn't be surprised, but I was floored by the level of white supremacy in this country in the 19th century. It was -- you could almost not find anybody who didn't believe that white people were better than black people, and black people should just be out of sight and just doing work. So these were some of the few people whom she could find -- few white people who were not shackled with this white supremacy. So she found that it was a comfortable place psychologically. She was able to have her daughters there with her. She did work like everybody else and everybody else did work. This was different from the kingdom of Matthias. And so she liked it there and she stayed for a long time. Now Frederick Douglass was not a member, but he and Garrison and others would come to western Massachusetts, kind of like a progressive summer camp. You know how beautiful western Massachusetts is.
LAMB: Back to you. You were born where in California?
PAINTER: I was not actually born in California. I was born in Houston, Texas, in the Houston hospital for Negroes. I spent my first 10 weeks in Texas, and then my parents took me and my brother and took us to California.
LAMB: What are your -- are your parents still alive?
PAINTER: Oh, yes. My parents are alive and flourishing, and everybody wants my parents.
LAMB: And what do they do?
PAINTER: They're both retired. My father retired as a chemist from the University of California at Berkeley and my mother retired as an administrator in the Oakland public schools.
LAMB: Can you remember the first time you ever got interested in writing?
PAINTER: Gee. I think it was my mother's writing to me. I spent a lot of my youth away from home.
LAMB: Where?
PAINTER: In Nigeria, in France, in Italy, in Trinidad.
LAMB: Doing what?
PAINTER: I don't want to talk about it.
LAMB: Well, the program's over.
PAINTER: At any rate -- OK, I did junior year abroad in Paris -- in Bordeaux, France, and I was on Crossroads Africa in Nigeria. So my mother would write me these wonderful letters and I would write back, so I was used to expressing myself in words from correspondence. So I think my mother was my first writing teacher. It's come around full circle, though, because I am now her coach and her editor. She's working on her second book, and we're working together.
LAMB: What was her first?
PAINTER: Her first book, published in 1992, was called "The Unsung Heart of Black America" and it was about a middle class black church, one we went to, in the 1950s and '60s in Oakland.
LAMB: Where did you go to your undergrad?
PAINTER: Berkeley.
LAMB: Getting ...
PAINTER: It was the only place I wanted to go.
LAMB: Why?
PAINTER: Well, I'd grown up there practically and it's a beautiful place, and all the smartest people were there, and it was wonderful.
LAMB: And what did you study?
PAINTER: Actually, I studied in anthropology. I was in that generation that was tested, tested, tested, tested, tested and it was very clear that I was smart. And as I was tested, it was clear, according to the tests, that I not only loved history but I was very gifted in history, and I thought, “Well, that just proves the tests don't make any sense at all because I hate history.” What I hated was the history I'd learned in high school, which was Cold War history, and I was fully aware of what was going on around us in the South. I knew about segregation. I knew about lynching. I knew about white supremacy. None of that was in my schoolbooks. So I thought, “Well, I don't want to have to do it.”
LAMB: What kind of history did you call it?
PAINTER: Cold War history.
LAMB: Cold War. I'm sorry. I thought it was -- go ahead. You were talking about then, why you got interested in history and ...
PAINTER: Oh, I got interested in history when I was elsewhere. So in France, I got interested in French history. I lived on one side of Bordeaux, and then I would go around the cathedral and then get to the university. And I found myself wondering about the history of the cathedral, so I ended up doing French medieval history, and I was good at it. It was one of my four fields for my general Ph.D. exams. And then when I was in West Africa later on, in Ghana, I started a master's degree in -- actually in African studies, but I finished it in African history at UCLA. And so doing other people's history I discovered that, yes, I did love history.
LAMB: What was your Ph.D. in?
PAINTER: American history.
LAMB: And your special -- your thesis?
PAINTER: My thesis, which became a book, my first book, called "Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction," published in January 1997 -- no, January 1977, yeah.
LAMB: And there's a whole chapter in there on Kansas and how Sojourner Truth ...
PAINTER: Yes. Isn't it funny? It just came around in a circle.
LAMB: Well, we've talked a lot here on this show about the idea that some American white politicians wanted to send blacks back to Africa ...
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Colonization.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: This is the same thing the other way, Sojourner Truth wanting blacks to go to Kansas.
PAINTER: Well, she didn't want them to go to Kansas against their will. That's a crucial difference. But she had worked in Washington, DC, with the freed people, the refugees who were pouring into the district from Maryland and from Virginia. And after the war ended and there was not a lot of work, they were sort of displaced people. She and another woman worked for a while trying to have them put into jobs in Battle Creek and in Rochester and other places in New York, but that was extremely expensive and difficult. So then she thought, well, if some of this Western land could be set aside for these people, then they could settle in the West and have their own institutions and farm and be self supporting. So that was her ideal. Nothing came of it, but she was delighted when the exodus to Kansas of 1879 occurred.
LAMB: Again, she lived how many years?
PAINTER: About 86.
LAMB: During her life, when was she the most active? When was she the most visible?
PAINTER: Oh. Well, you have to decide whether “most visible” means seeing her in person or being known. She ...
LAMB: Try being known.
PAINTER: Being known, the break comes in 1863, when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote and published an article called "Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl." And then people could see her for the first time. People who had been rubbing shoulders with her for years -- all of a sudden she was a VIP, she was somebody.
LAMB: What is the -- because it comes up often -- the Libyan sibyl?
PAINTER: The Libyan sibyl? It's that statue that you're showing and this is a statue by an American sculptor who lived in Rome called William Wetmore Story, from a very privileged background around Boston.
LAMB: Son of Joseph Story?
PAINTER: Yes -- and had been trained as a lawyer and made a great success as a lawyer. But in his heart, he really wanted art, so when his father died, he went off to Rome and became a sculptor.
LAMB: His father was the youngest ever appointed to the Supreme Court, Joseph Story.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: And what's “Libyan sibyl” mean? What's it about?
PAINTER: Well, there are four sibyls in the Sistine Chapel -- Michelangelo's chapel -- and he has a Libyan sibyl. There's a Delphic sibyl and I forgot what the other sibyls are. And they are very active paintings and -- Michelangelo's sibyls. Story only has two, the Greek sibyl and the Libyan sibyl. And they're very settled. They're actually kind of boring. He is a forgotten sculptor now, I'm afraid. But at the time, he seemed to be an important person and the Libyan sibyl went to an exposition in London in 1860 -- '61.
LAMB: You write, “Accuracy sometimes eluded Harriet Beecher Stowe. ‘Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl’ is rife with errors, careless and contrived. She writes, for instance, that Truth had come from Africa, though Truth never made such a claim. Even though Truth was very much alive in Battle Creek at the time and lived until 1883, Stowe calls her dead.”
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Harriet Beecher Stowe was -- how important was she in literature in those days?
PAINTER: Harriet Beecher Stowe -- Harriet Beecher Stowe was Tom Clancy. Harriet Beecher Stowe was Stephen King. Harriet Beecher Stowe ...
LAMB: This is her brother with her here?
PAINTER: Yes, the most famous preacher in the land at the time. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the best selling novel of the 19th century.
LAMB: Named?
PAINTER: "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And that first came out in serial in 1851 -- came out as a book in 1852 -- runaway best seller. And she wrote one other anti slavery book called "Dred" in 1856 -- or was it 1854? At any rate, by 1863, she had stopped writing anti slavery stuff and was talking about her travels. She had become a VIP, so went to Rome for the winter and so forth, and she built this big ugly house in Hartford, which was expensive, so she was writing to the market. In 1863, we have black men going into the Union army, we have the Emancipation Proclamation and the reading public in the North is saying, “Tell us about the Negro. Tell us about the Negro.” So people were telling us about the Negro and she was, too. They had actually met 10 years earlier. Sojourner Truth had gone to Harriet Beecher Stowe for a blurb and gotten one, and so Stowe was, I suppose, writing from memory. Her version of Sojourner Truth doesn't ring true to me. She makes her into a kind of a quaint figure of fun. And when I first read "The Libyan Sibyl," I winced. But it was extremely, extremely influential.
LAMB: By the way, as you were putting this together, did you begin to change your opinion at all about Sojourner Truth and what your image was before you started?
PAINTER: Well, since I had only this surface image to start with, I had everything to learn. The first thing I did was go to the Black Abolitionist Papers. This is a collection on microfilm of utterances of black abolitionists. It's a wonderful collection, multivolume. And so I took the volume from the '50s and looked up Sojourner Truth and found Sojourner Truth, Akron, Ohio, 1851. I look and the speech there was not what I recognized. There was no, “And aren't I a woman?” I thought, “Uh oh,” and I put it aside for a few years. Then after I had done my work in the American Antiquarian Society in 1991 and understood the chronology of Sojourner Truth in Akron, Sojourner Truth going to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe writing about Truth in 1863 and then Frances Dana Gage writing about Truth in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe, then it began to make sense.
LAMB: What was the third commune?
PAINTER: The third commune never really got off the ground. It was called Harmonia. It was just outside Battle Creek, Michigan.
LAMB: How did she get to Battle Creek, Michigan?
PAINTER: I'm not exactly sure. I make an educated guess there that the people who were setting up this commune were Spiritualist Quakers, and she was hanging around with Spiritualist Quakers at the time. And they were astonishingly egalitarian for Americans at that time. So it was a congenial place to be. And also, Battle Creek had a lot of connections with Rochester. And I think that she either went to be with a friend or relative who lived in Battle Creek -- a friend or relative of a friend in Rochester -- or quickly found her there in Battle Creek and stayed. So it's the Battle Creek Rochester connection, I think, is also important.
LAMB: When you wrote the book -- let me just check the number here -- you had 26 chapters.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: And then a coda, a couple of chapters. Who were you writing for? And where do you write, by the way?
PAINTER: Where do I write?
LAMB: Mm hmm.
PAINTER: I did most of my writing in Stoneham, Maine.
LAMB: Why?
PAINTER: It's quiet. I don't get interrupted. It's comfortable.
LAMB: And what's the setting?
PAINTER: It's on a mountain lake, little house in the woods.
LAMB: Do you write looking out over the woods or do you write ...?
PAINTER: Yes, over the water.
LAMB: Does that work for you?
PAINTER: It certainly does.
LAMB: What time of day do you write?
PAINTER: Well, in 1995 -- the summer of 1995, I think I probably wrote from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. I just about knocked myself out.
LAMB: Why?
PAINTER: It's too much. You need to take a vacation.
LAMB: Why did you do that, though? Why did you spend all the time ...
PAINTER: I wanted to finish that book.
LAMB: And as you were sitting there looking out over the lake, who were you writing for? What was in your mind?
PAINTER: Well, let's see. I knew that I wanted this book to be accessible to general readers, so I was not writing to my historian peers. In fact, I published a separate article in a learned journal for my historian peers. So this one, I tried not to have any jargon in it. I wrote it for you. I wrote it for my cousin Charlie. I wrote it for my parents and their friends. I wrote it for all the black women who were interested in Sojourner Truth. You see, as I was writing, I very often was speaking, and when I ...
LAMB: You mean speaking to groups?
PAINTER: Yes. And when I spoke to black women's groups, they almost always said, “We are so glad you are doing this,” because they wanted to know. They really wanted to know, and so I was writing to them as well.
LAMB: What were they most surprised about as you talked to them about what you were learning about Sojourner Truth?
PAINTER: Well, they're very surprised to learn that Sojourner Truth didn't say, “And aren't I a woman?” But ...
LAMB: Why is that important?
PAINTER: Because that's all we know about Sojourner Truth. When you only have two visible black women historical figures and you take away half of one of them, that's earth shaking. But I think a lot of people suspected there was something not quite right about Sojourner Truth because she was too big, too strong, too right. So, you know, people were OK. From time to time, I'd run across young black women, however, who were enraged that I should strike down an icon, as they would say.
LAMB: And what did you say to them?
PAINTER: I said, “I'm not striking down an icon. I'm just being a historian, just trying to do what historians do and historicize” -- oh, no, I didn't say that word -- that's a jargon word -- “put Sojourner Truth in context.”
LAMB: Is writing hard or easy for you?
PAINTER: Writing is easy, actually, but I write about 100 drafts.
LAMB: A hundred drafts of ...
PAINTER: Of everything.
LAMB: ... of everything?
PAINTER: Yeah.
LAMB: A hundred?
PAINTER: Well -- OK, 98. But in the old days -- let me explain this. In the old days, when I used to write on a typewriter, I would start my drafts of that yellow paper. Remember yellow paper? So I -- you know, I just opened my mind and just keep going. I would never know exactly what I was going to say until my fingers were on the keyboard and I'd just type. And a lot of it would be junk, so I'd retype it and then I'd put in more, and it would get better, and so these were called zero minus drafts, and they were on the yellow paper. And then I would cut them up and cut and paste, and I'd have these cut and paste yellow pie sheets. And then finally it would begin to look like it should, and then I'd start typing on white paper, and then I'd have white paper with yellow parts on it. By the time it got to all white paper, that was the first draft.
LAMB: And now how do you write?
PAINTER: Same way.
LAMB: You don't do ...
PAINTER: I mean, I write on a computer, but I just do endless drafts.
LAMB: And how much do they change every time you change a draft?
PAINTER: Well, in this book, the summer of '95, I thought I had four chapters to go and it turned out to be six chapters. And then I took a lot of chapters apart. So you said there were 26 chapters now? Before the summer of '95, I thought there were going to be 12.
LAMB: How about pages? There are about 270 actual pages of copy. Is that as long as you wanted it to be?
PAINTER: It's longer. It's longer than I wanted it to be, actually.
LAMB: Really? How come?
PAINTER: Well, I wanted it to get into people's hands and everybody told me that readers like shorter books.
LAMB: Does that -- I mean, as a teacher today, does that bother you that people like things quicker and shorter?
PAINTER: Well, yes.
LAMB: What are you teaching now?
PAINTER: I teach the history of the American South, I teach graduate courses in African American studies and I teach graduate courses in Southern history.
LAMB: And how long have you been at Princeton?
PAINTER: Officially since '88, in body since '89.
LAMB: And where did you go between your Ph.D. and Princeton?
PAINTER: My first job was at the University of Pennsylvania, and then I went to North Carolina to the National Humanities Center, fell in love with North Carolina. University of North Carolina offered me a job and a promotion, which I accepted. But I have to tell you, before I could accept that job, I had to check out all the beaches in North Carolina and South Carolina, and I stayed in North Carolina till 1988.
LAMB: You got a picture here -- or it's actually a painting -- of Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: But as we get near the end of this, you say that she met with three different presidents?
PAINTER: Yes, and this is the best known with Abraham Lincoln. This picture was actually painted 10 years after Sojourner Truth's death and, of course, many years after Abraham Lincoln's death, and it's very famous because people like the idea of these two giants meeting and respecting each other, and that proof of that is that Sojourner Truth is sitting down and the president is standing up. On second thought, I think everybody would realize this is highly unlikely.
LAMB: You say there in the chapter that when she came to visit President Lincoln, he had been meeting with some white males.
PAINTER: Mm hmm.
LAMB: And there was a difference in the demeanor once he met with her.
PAINTER: Absolutely.
LAMB: How'd you know that? Where'd you find that?
PAINTER: I found that in the autobiography of the woman who'd gone with Sojourner Truth.
LAMB: Who was that?
PAINTER: Lucy Coleman. She was an abolitionist from Rochester.
LAMB: And what was the meeting about?
PAINTER: Well, Sojourner Truth wanted to meet the president who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. She ...
LAMB: How long was the meeting? Do you know?
PAINTER: Well, according to Lucy Coleman, it was like that. According to Sojourner Truth's open letter to the anti slavery papers that she wrote two months after the meeting, it was probably, oh, 15 minutes and very cordial. So we have these two competing versions of what happened with Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: What about Andrew Johnson?
PAINTER: That evidently was a very brief meeting, and also with Grant. There are also two different stories about Grant. But those two meetings are not as freighted with meaning -- symbolic meaning -- as the meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: You say that she voted for -- or supported -- she actually campaigned for Ulysses Grant ...
PAINTER: Yes, she did ...
LAMB: ...Ulysses Grant?
PAINTER: Yes, yes, yes, she did, she did. And she tried to vote for Grant, but, of course, women couldn't vote then, so she got turned away.
LAMB: You got ...
PAINTER: But she believed in women's voting.
LAMB: You've also got things like buttons and magnets and all that.
PAINTER: That's right.
LAMB: What is all this?
PAINTER: This is all the sort of Sojourner Truth symbolic stuff, the things that you can buy to wear or display to show that you are for strong black women or for strong American women or for multicultural feminists.
LAMB: Today?
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: Where do you find this?
PAINTER: Let's see. What do you want to show there?
LAMB: Well, here's a -- how about -- isn't this a ...
PAINTER: Yes, that statue I got at the National Portrait Gallery ...
LAMB: Here in town?
PAINTER: Here in Washington.
LAMB: And let's see. What else is over on the other side?
PAINTER: Let's see. The other side is a magnet that a very dear friend sent to me. And I think before that, you have a T shirt that my parents bought in the Dallas Ft. Worth Airport. And people have been sending me buttons. So they're all around.
LAMB: And what's the best thing people have said to you so far about this? Has there been enough time that people have been able to read this?
PAINTER: Yes. I think the most gratifying thing people have said is, “I couldn't put it down. It was really an interesting read.” And for me, that is what I really want to hear. Beyond that, people said, “I didn't realize this was such a complicated story.” And finally, they're surprised by the coda, which is a personal coda, and well, I won't tell people what's in the coda, but people are astonished and taken by it.
LAMB: And a coda means what?
PAINTER: At the very end, the tail.
LAMB: And the purpose of the coda -- I mean, I've read it, but it's to tell -- to do what?
PAINTER: The purpose it to situate myself with Sojourner Truth and this undertaking within the scholarly world and the popular world.
LAMB: From what I read, it sounds like that there was -- you had some -- many conversations and arguments over all this.
PAINTER: Yes.
LAMB: She ended up dying where and was she sick near the end?
PAINTER: Yeah.
LAMB: And where's she buried?
PAINTER: She was ill for the last, oh, three years or so with ulcers on her legs. It might have been diabetes. We don't know. She died in Battle Creek, where she had lived, or at least had been her base since the 1850s. And she's buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, which is a fancy cemetery. The prominent Seventh Day Adventists are also buried there.
LAMB: And how do the people of Battle Creek treat her today?
PAINTER: Well, she's one of the famous -- how do you say it? -- Battle Creekians?
LAMB: And if you go there, is things other than this monument?
PAINTER: Her house is no longer standing, but if you go to the public library, there's a big section of a Sojourner Truth collection which I was very grateful for. Dorothy Martisch puts together all the continuing clippings about Sojourner Truth, so you can see there what has happened to Sojourner Truth's symbol and memory up to this time.
LAMB: We're out of time. And here's what the book looks like. "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol." Nell Irvin Painter, we thank you very much.
PAINTER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.


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