Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

ISBN: 0393317080
ISBN 13: 9780393317084
By: Nell Irvin Painter

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African American American History Biography Currently Reading Feminism History Non Fiction Nonfiction To Read Women

About this book

Though she was born into slavery and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by her owners, Sojourner Truth came to represent the power of individual strength and perseverance. She championed the disadvantaged--black in the South, women in the North--yet spent much of her free life with middle-class whites, who supported her, yet never failed to remind her that she was a second class citizen. Slowly, but surely, Sojourner climbed from beneath the weight of slavery, secured respect for herself, and utilized the distinction of her race to become not only a symbol for black women, but for the feminist movement as a whole.

Reader's Thoughts


I first heard of Sojourner Truth in another book I was reading. She sounded very inspiring and I wanted to learn more. I was disappointed while reading her biography to learn that the inspiring situation was false. Truth was an amazing woman even without the false story and the real version is just as great as the fictionalized one.

Joshunda Sanders

I had no idea that the caption for the cover image, which is the most popular image that remains of Sojourner Truth, is "I sell the shadow to support the substance." Painter's fascinating biography paints the fullest description of Truth's life I have read, puts Truth's own autobiography into context & includes a number of surprising (to me) elements including a 1858 "breast-baring incident" during which Truth showed her breasts to prove her womanhood and shame the audience of mainly white men; details about Truth's complicated religious history -- she was an illiterate itinerant preacher known for challenging Frederick Douglass by famously asking him, "Is God Dead?", but later in her life frequented seances and hung out with spiritualist Quakers -- and, at the end, asks the question of whether or not we are comfortable enough with the nuances of Truth's life to be more curious than we are about her trajectory rather than her usefulness as a symbol. A very intriguing and well-written biography.


One reason I appreciated this book is because of the research the author did to determine what was true (about Truth!) and what was exaggeration and fiction. Also how biases kept certain parts of Truth's story from being told. It was very interesting to learn that even well read people don't want to know the facts if it removes a symbol they've relied on and that symbols are very important to certain people.


'Sojourner Truth: A life, A symbol' is an inspiring book that tells her story in a clear way highlighting all of her achievements. The book opens your mind to the many things that a single human being can accomplish and change if they set their minds to it. In my opinion the author Nell Irvin Painter does the story justice.


Prior to reading this I knew next to nothing about its subject beyond a caricatured view, which Nell Irvin Painter completely overturns. But I'm definitely going to seek out Margaret Washington's more recent Truth biography as well.


Nell Painter is a fabulous writer who helped me really know Ms. Sojourner.


Love her strength and courage! Love her. Wish I could have met her... maybe, somewhere else I will.

Waheedah Bilal

Incredibly well-researched illuminating biography of Isabella Baumfree, who became Sojourner Truth. If you think you know anything about slavery or her, read this, you will find it illuminating.

Georgia Butler

I enjoyed this book not only for the biography of Sojourner Truth but also for the nineteenth-century history of women's rights and the abolitionist movement. Must read for anyone interested in Women's Studies and/or Black History.

Ned Bustard

This is good history and a good read


This was a well researched book; sometimes a bit on the dry side, but very interesting none the less. The author focused heavily on trying to show Sojourner Truth the person, separate from the myth that she became. Interesting thing is that the myth of the Truth persona was already forming while Truth was still alive, and she allowed (encouraged?) the growth of the myth. The famous "Ain't I a Woman?" phrase is in all likelihood part of the myth, having been reported 12 years after the fact. I really had known nothing about Truth prior to reading this book other than that she was one of the premier figures in the Abolitionist and Women's Suffrage movements. Now I have an understanding of the life of the woman herself, and the context in which her myth took on a life of its own. Ought to be standard required reading as part of American History curriculum throughout the US high schools.

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