Mabee, Carleton, with Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend

By Sernett, Milton C. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Mabee, Carleton, with Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend


Sernett, Milton C., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Mabee, Carleton, with Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend

To read this latest contribution of Carleton Mabee to the historian's craft is to discover once again something of the excitement of the evidentiary search. More so than any other author who has chosen the formidable Sojourner Truth as subject matter, Mabee has attempted to sift the grain from the chaff and in the process presents us with as authentic a portrait of the legendary African American anti-slavery and women's fights lecturer as we are ever likely to have. What emerges from the shroud of the past is a personality much more complicated, and therefore much more interesting, than the mythic Truth created by those authors, both during her lifetime and more recently in the renaissance of interest in Black Studies and Women's Studies, who have appropriated the story of Sojourner Truth to speak to questions of the day. In short, all future attempts to chronicle the life of Sojourner Truth, or Isabella (1797-November 26, 1883), must acknowledge a debt to the more than six-year long search for specific historical evidence Mabee embarked on that has resulted in this carefully constructed, even-handed, and multi-faceted biography.

Limitations on space precludes a listing of all of the many aspects of Truth's life where Professor Mabee offers new evidence or marshals together known facts to present a more reliable account than available elsewhere. Each of twenty-one chapters uses a thematic emphasis, beginning with Truth's experiences as a slave and concluding with an analysis of her religious world view. Collectively, the chapters carry forward the chronicle of her life while giving specific attention to high points which have become part of the Truth legend. For example, Chapter 6 focuses upon Truth's famous speech at the 1851 Akron women's Rights Convention. Mabee persuasively shows that the litany "Ar'n't I a woman?" as reported by Frances D. Gage twelve years after the speech was given and the claim that Truth' s speech caused a near-panic in the convention probably derive from Gage's creative imagination rather than accurately reflect events in Akron. The traditional representation of Truth's encounter with a despairing Frederick Douglass in which she allegedly asked him, "Is God dead?" comes under careful examination in Chapter seven (7). Mabee concludes that Truth more than likely said "Is God gone?" and that her intent in 1852 was to underscore her continuing confidence that "peaceful means" would triumph in the fight against slavery. In Chapter eleven (11), Mabee reviews the exaggerated claims regarding Truth's meetings with President Abraham Lincoln and concludes that her influence upon Lincoln has been overstated. Here Mabee even chides himself for having written in another format that Truth was effective in persuading Lincoln to approve the enlistment of black volunteers. …

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