If I could have a single relic of nineteenth-century history, it would probably be one of the many cartes de visite of Sojourner Truth. Let me tell you why.
About the size of an iPhone, the carte de visite was the most popular portrait format in the 1860s. Usually celebrity cartes were sold by enterprising photographic studio owners, but this was not the case with the portraits of Truth, a formerly enslaved woman who became known as an abolitionist, itinerant preacher, and supporter of women’s rights. Truth chose her own poses, had the images printed en masse, and sold them to support her speaking tours—hence the fantastic, mystical caption printed on each:
“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. / SOJOURNER TRUTH.”
(Holy crap, right?)
Each of these pieces of paper represents an astonishing amount of agency. Black women in the nineteenth century had no control over how they were portrayed by white artists, and their opportunities for self-representation were almost nil. Often the only reason a black woman appeared in a photograph was to keep the white child on her lap from squirming.
The cartes de visite of Truth are unique, and show how she intentionally constructed her public image in a way that would encourage support for the causes she preached. In several of them she leans on a walking stick, peering into the distance and literally enacting the name she chose for herself: Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, but rechristened herself “Sojourner Truth” in 1843 upon feeling called to preach against slavery. The image above, from 1864, is especially striking for its low vantage point, which monumentalizes Truth and emphasizes her towering height. At six feet, she was nearly a foot taller than the average American woman of her day. The blank background—with no other figures or decorations—stresses her independence. She is powerful and decisive, a woman whose body language says “listen to me.”
But the woman in this photo was a bit of a rebel too, and could potentially be seen as a threat to “mainstream” (read: Anglo, Christian, hetero, male-dominated) society. Truth also needed an identity that fit with what was expected of women in the mid-nineteenth century. Balancing out the “sojourner” portraits, then, are what I call the “demure lady” pictures. A prime example is the one below, also from 1864. She sits instead of standing, with her attention on her knitting instead of the journey ahead. The background’s ambiguous void has been replaced by the suggestion of a gentle domestic interior. Atop the patterned tablecloth is a vase of flowers, a frequent inclusion in female portraits as a symbol of fertility. Truth had five children, so this would have seemed appropriate to viewers.
Convincingly demonstrating her own femininity was still an uphill battle. Truth is most famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, given at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. In it, she rails against the idea that men and women are fundamentally different
I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
It’s a thrilling speech, but alas, Sojourner Truth probably never uttered any one of those sentences. She did give a speech at the convention that likely followed the same gist, but the version excerpted above is a fabrication, printed a full twelve years later by the journalist Frances Dana Gage. Among Gage’s many embellishments is the attempted use of a stereotypical black Southern dialect that would have been completely out of place for Truth, who was born in upstate New York and (due to her owner being Dutch) only spoke Dutch until the age of nine. Whatever her speech pattern was, it definitely wouldn’t have sounded like she had stepped out of the pages of Huck Finn.
But I digress. Being an independent black woman of large stature had the unfortunate effect of provoking constant rude questions about her femaleness. After an 1858 lecture she gave in Silver Lake Indiana, a man from the audience shouted that the sixty-one-year-old Truth should disprove the rumor that she was really a man by having one of the women present examine her breasts. According to historian Deborah Gray White in Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South,
[Truth] told the men that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring, and that many of these babies had grown to be better men than those in the audience. From her place in front of the congregation Sojourner Truth bared her breasts and told the men that it was not to her shame that she did so but to theirs.
Sojourner Truth did many things and saw many things in her long life. She was sold away from her parents at nine years old. As a teenager, she saw her lover Robert beaten nearly to death by his owner when their relationship was discovered. After gaining her freedom, she sued her former owner for illegally selling her son down South, and became the first black woman in the United States to win a lawsuit. She traveled the nation. She bought her own home. She suffered the death of her grandson, a Civil War soldier. She flashed a bunch of people in Indiana (By the way, thanks a bunch for your poor representation, people of my home state.). She changed the discourse of abolitionism and the Women’s Rights movement.
She also had a real knack for wearing contrasting patterns.
LOOK AT HOW SHE’S MIXING POLKA DOTS AND STRIPES. This picture fills my heart with joy every time I look at it. Oh, what I would give to know the colors of these garments! Though she was known to have chided other women for dressing extravagantly, she apparently had nothing against cultivating personal style. Neither did her friend Frederick Douglass, shown below in his brooding, handsome phase (note the plaid bow tie + botanical print waistcoat):
For more on Sojourner Truth, see her dictated memoir Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850); Deborah Gray White’s excellent book Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999); or one of the many biographies in existence.