I wrote about discovering Sojourner Truth’s cartes-de-visite in my post ” Sojourner Truth: I Sell The Shadow To Support The Substance.”
I came across the first mention of the cartes-de-visite in a video interview with Nell Painter, who has written a superb biography of Truth which I highly recommend.
Painter mentioned on the video that Sojourner Truth had used photography. Of course, that immediately registered with me and I had to find out more. As a photographer I immediately assumed that she had taken photographs. But when I did some reading, I learned about the cartes-devisite that she created. Because she was not literate this was the only medium where she had complete control of her presentation.
… 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.
… 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.”
Quotes are from the previous post.
As I read her biography I was reminded again and again what is lost in the simplified potted histories of social change and reform that most of us learn. She was born in slavery in up-state New York, grew up speaking Dutch, was emancipated when New York ended slavery, and spent as much of her life promoting religion and spiritualism as abolition and suffrage. She is stereotypically depicted as saying “Ain’t I a Woman” with a southern accent. (She never said it.) Her life, and 19th century America, were complicated.
Serendipitously, my friend Geri Sullivan read my post and wrote that she would be in Detroit at the same time I planned to be there in July. And she was going to her home town of Battle Creek on the trip. She knew Mary Butler at the Sojourner Truth Archive in Battle Creek and we could go there. I was amazed and delighted! (The archive is in Battle Creek because Truth lived there in the latter part of her life.)
The archive was planning to reframe their carte-de-visite’s of Sojourner Truth. Because I was coming they very thoughtfully kept them unframed until I visited. I was able to (carefully) hold them and photograph them. I looked at them in my hands and realized I was holding something that she might have held. I’m surprised my hands didn’t shake.
We spent several hours at the archive. Mary Butler is profoundly knowledgeable about Truth and the radical political 19th century history of Battle Creek. She was very generous with her time and her knowledge. We talked and I was able to look at a number of both documents and copies of documents that give a shape to what I know about her life. It was a memorable afternoon and I’m grateful to both Mary and Geri.
These are the photographs I took of the cards.
I love this photograph. The portrait feels like I can see her face across time.
I’ll be posting again about Battle Creek, Detroit, a remarkable sculpture of Truth, the Kimball House Museum and undoubtedly more.