Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery
Runaway slave Sojourner Truth gained fame in the nineteenth century as an abolitionist, feminist, and orator. This exhibition showcases the photographic carte de visite portraits of Truth that she sold at lectures and by mail as a way of making a living. Cartes de visite, similar in format to calling cards, were a new mode of mass communication in the 1850s that quickly became relatively inexpensive collectibles. Truth could not read or write, but she had her statements repeatedly published in the press, enthusiastically embraced new technologies such as photography, and went to court three times to claim her legal rights. Uniquely among portrait sitters, she had her photographic carte de visitescopyrighted in her own name and added the caption “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. Sojourner Truth,” foregrounding her self-selected proper name, her agency, and her possession of self.
In her most famous captioned photographs, Truth looks out at us with a confident and level gaze. Seated in the photographer’s studio next to a table, she holds knitting in her hands, its thread winding its way across her lap. Scholars have long seen the knitting as a sign of Truth’s aspiration to middle class gentility, but she saw knitting as sign of industry and a useful skill to be taught to the recently emancipated field slaves living in the Freedmen’s Village of Washington D.C. where she worked tirelessly from 1864-1867.
This exhibition reconstructs the flood of paper—federal banknotes, photographs, letters, autographs, stamps, prints, and newspapers—that created political communities across the immense distances of the nation during the Civil War. Like the federal government that resorted to the printing of paper currency to finance the war against slavery, Truth was improvising new ways of turning paper into value in order to finance her activism as an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights.
Since the US Treasury announced the decision finally to put a woman on the ten-dollar bill last year, Sojourner Truth has rightly been considered a candidate, but Truth did not await such a decision. One hundred and fifty years ago, she independently authored her own currency.
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