Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Sojourner Truth: I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance

portrait of Soujourner Truth

Laurie says:

I was listening to a Nell Painter video that Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to, talking about, among other things, her book The History of White People. I just finished the book, and it’s fascinating.

She mentioned on the video that Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and suffragist, (whose biography she’s written) had used photography. Of course, that immediately registered with me and I had to find out more.

Sojourner Truth was perhaps the most famous African-American woman in 19th century America. For over forty years she traveled the country as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed, using her quick wit and fearless tongue to fight for human rights.

Nell Painter says:  No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.

One of the ways Truth supported herself was by selling portraits.

… Many former slaves depicted themselves in these photos with whip-scarred backs and clad in the rags of slavery. But Sojourner Truth — who sold the cartes-de-visite to support herself — chose to represent herself as a respectable middle- class matron, sometimes wearing glasses, knitting, or holding a book. “I think we can see Truth becoming strong enough to refuse to define herself as a slave,” (Quotes are from a The Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book)

Looking at the contemporary photos of Truth on the web there is a clear self presentation. Syreeta, in a review of the movie Lincoln on Feministing discusses this brilliantly.

Sojourner Truth, according to the Willis/Krauthamer book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans And the End of Slavery, understood the power of photography, and actively distributed photographs of herself:

“Those pictures were meant to affirm her status as a sophisticated and respectable “free woman and as a woman in control of her image.” The public’s fascination with small and collectible card-mounted photographs, allowed her to advance her abolitionist cause to a huge audience and earn a living through their sale. “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” proclaimed the famous slogan for these pictures.

Truth was not alone in her understanding of the power of photography. A host of other African-Americans, both eminent and ordinary, employed the medium as an instrument of political engagement and inspiration. “Envisioning Emancipation” argues that photography was not incidental but central to the war against slavery, racism and segregation in the antebellum period of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s.”

… Truth understood the power of images was just as powerful a weapon as any. Even the composition of the photograph of Truth (noted above) has a subliminal power, appropriating classic European portraiture in her seated posture, her resolute gaze, showing a black body as American. Human.

The truth-telling photography and empathy that photography conjures isn’t new but understanding it as a mode of cultural and social activism during the Civil War era is and certainly worthy of a look back.

Truth-telling photography and empathy are what my work always aspires to. I need to learn a lot more about this history.

(Photo from Syreeta’s post on Feministing)

4 Responses to “Sojourner Truth: I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance”

  1. Geri Sullivan Says:

    My brother and paternal grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as Soujourner Truth.

    You might be interested in talking with the Sojourner Truth Institute in Battle Creek, MI. Their website states, “the Heritage Battle Creek Research Center houses one of the most extensive archives of Sojourner Truth artifacts and records in the United States.”

    I know the president of Heritage Battle Creek, and also the main person at the research center and archive. I’m available to help with electronic introductions if you’d like and, depending on your Detcon1 travel schedule, we could look at doing a day trip over to Battle Creek a day or two before the convention or (more of a long shot for me) a day or two after. It’s about 2 hours west of Detroit.

  2. Mark Soderstrom Says:

    You might find the work of Saidiya Hartman interesting and useful. In her book “Scenes of Subjection” she examines the creation of spectacle connecting terror and slavery and the ideology of self in the 19th century. She does provide an interesting critique of the role of a particular kind of white sentimentalism in the propagation of abject black images of slavery.

  3. Laurie Says:

    Thank you. As I said in the post, I just finished Nell Painter’s “History of White People” and next is her biography of Sojourner Truth but it sounds like “Scenes of Subjection” is on my list after that.

  4. Laurie Says:

    That’s great. And as we discussed on the phone I’m looking forward to going to the Institute. If I do get to see a number of photographs of her, I expect I’ll be writing about it. Right now the whole concept of presentation is being particularly interesting

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