“I SELL THE SHADOW TO SUPPORT THE SUBSTANCE.” SOJOURNER TRUTH
In 1864 Sojourner Truth, a former slave turned abolitionist, filed a copyright for her name, using photography and mass media as a strategic tool to fight slavery and the damaging propaganda used to perpetuate it.
Her astute use of “cartes de visites”using her nom de plume was an economical way to share photographs and amplify her message.
Truth became a powerful orator speaking at abolitionist lectures in the north and she sold the carte de visites by mail to support herself and her devotion to her cause to end slavery.
The Berkeley Art Museum is running an exhibition on Sojourner Truth that compiles over 80 pieces of photography, cards and other ephemera that Sojourner Truth used to reinforce her strong abolitionist and feminist messages.
Many of the cartes on display at the Berkeley Art Museum were found in the family photo albums of the abolitionists who saw Sojourner Truth speak. In this sense, the carte de visite became a powerful weapon in fighting the portrayal of African-Americans in caricature and derogatory media.
The exhibition featured an immaculate display of items (including a gilded copy of Sojourner Truth’s book) and the stories behind each piece in the show were expertly memorialized in a museum handout that was an essential and informative adjunct to the items shown.
What I love about Sojourner Truth’s story is that at the age of 46 she re-named and re-invented herself (born Isabella Baumfree). She was determined to claim agency over her persona and using the tools and skills she had at her disposal, she executed on her vision. When she couldn’t read, she found someone to read and write for her; when she wanted to fight propaganda, she created her own counter-message; when she wanted to promote industry and advancement for black people she artfully demonstrated those skills in photography and reinforced those visuals in practice. In short, she was a master marketer.
If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will.