Book review: Truth or dare
Sojourner Truth by Nell Irvin Painter, Norton pounds 21
Sunday 16 November 1997
Dizzied by emancipation, she fell into born-again religion, cleaving to a fanatical, sexually driven sect. In middle age, she renamed herself "Sojourner Truth" - Pentecostal preacher, abolitionist and, if she'd known the word, feminist. The publication of her dictated Narrative (whose proceeds bought her first house) and skilful use of publicity photos, ensured that she died a black American icon. And she has been promoted as such an overwhelmingly evocative symbol of American cultural history that, when an explorer was sent to roam Mars this year, it was called Sojourner.
That's the story. Or is it? It is hard to squeeze sense or meaning from Painter's sticky, almost wilfully orotund biography. The cover photo is startling - a strong, bony black woman whose hard, mannish hands cradle her knitting, stares accusingly through white, lozenge-rimmed spectacles. The details of Truth's life seem equally seductive, but the biographer's tortuously scholarly prose pushes the reader away.
To be fair, Truth's posthumous sanctification clouded the facts. Though illiterate, she was her own spin-doctor, vetting the photos and cannily adjusting biographical details that jarred with her Pentecostal picture. Her biographer claims to have studied this "chasm" between the real and the glossed version of Truth, yet her prose is still exceedingly unenlightening, delighting in obfuscation. Answers on a postcard for the meaning of: "Holiness spoke to her as one who had succumbed to the sin of vanity."
So is this Princeton history Professor (who makes frequent references to "my work") just a less than adequate wordsmith, or is there something more subtle going on? So many slippery questions remain unexplored. Why did Truth retain affection (even in freedom) for an owner who abused her? Despite her feminist tenacity, why did she alight again and again on brutal patriarchal set-ups - sniffing out the submissive role and making it her own?
Painter virtually ignores these psychological minefields. Why? In case they deplete the icon? It's as if, in fleshing out the myth of Sojourner Truth, she daren't give us permission to scrutinise the scrubby little inconsistencies that might actually bring her to life.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
- 2 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 3 Satellite full of sexually experimental geckos adrift in space, Russia loses control of mission
- 4 Exclusive: Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in tatters as charity watchdog launches investigation into claims of Government funding misuse
- 5 Israel has discovered that it's no longer so easy to get away with murder in the age of social media
Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor 'wheel on people who have mental health problems' says comedian Jo Brand
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Orange Is The New Black season 3: Pornstache isn't coming back
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage from US parenting groups
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains
John Barrowman praised for Commonwealth Games opening ceremony gay kiss