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-by Cheryl J. Sanders
A Strong Black Woman
Nell Painter's biography of Sojourner Truth offers readers a richly rewarding experience for both the mind and the spirit. In keeping with the book's subtitle, she sets forth in appropriate detail two facets of this towering figure in African American history-her life as a slave, evangelist, and antislavery feminist; and her symbolic representation inAmerican literature and popular culture. Painter has skillfully crafted one woman's story into a powerful lens that brings nineteenth-century images of slavery, African American spirituality, women's experience, American religious movements, and social reform into compelling focus. Indeed, one can feel the historian educating herself about broad and largely unexplored landscapes in the study of black and female participation in nonmainstream movements in American religious history.
The book begins with the birth of the slave Isabella in upstate New York in the 1790s, and provides a sketchy but adequately documented account of her early life. Painter is attentive to the role of slavery in the economy of the slaveholding North and provides a helpful overview of the Dutch Calvinist subculture in which Isabella learned Dutch as her first language. Isabella's life as a slave included farming, household chores, and nursing. There are poignant accountsof her firsthand experience of many of the horrors of slavery, including brutal whippings, sexual abuse by male and female owners, forced separation of familymembers by sale, and unfulfilled promises of emancipation. Especially insightful is Painter's discussion of the slave mentality that manifested itself in Isabella's perception of the white persons who abused her as substitute parents akin to God. Isabella's marriage to Thomas, a fellow slave, lasted from 1815 to 1826, during which time she gave birth to five children.
In 1826 Isabella walked away from slavery, the marriage, and all but the youngest of her children. Her act of freeing herself was the fruition of the spirituality ...