Sojourner Truth: “A woman in control of her image”

Holiday movie-viewing season probably means that you undoubtedly will catch one of the most talked about films of the year, Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” I saw the movie a few weeks back and it’s pretty grand. Yet, I had a healthy amount of skepticism going in, because it is a Spielberg jawn, which would mean there would be a douse of self-righteous audience pandering hoakieness, but muted by the powerful script from screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. “Lincoln” as a title is kind of a misnomer: it’s a legislative drama, watching white men wrest, insult and struggle with each other over the legality and morality of human bondage while the Civil War dragged on.

I’m a descendant from all of that work. And for a moment, because the screenwriting was so damn good I wasn’t too sure that tthe 13th amendment would pass. I know the outcome. My president is black. I voted for him. I have the right to vote and get paid to work. I don’t have to pay poll taxes. No one asks me for papers when I travel across state lines or who I belong to. But I did laugh at myself because I got shook. That is the power of film, my friends.

Still, I winced at four scenes in the film (no spoilers) that– as some have pointed out– were missed opportunities of illustrating the plurality of mid-19th-century America, and how blacks were active actors in shifting the tide of public opinion that ultimately led to full emancipation. Images of free blacks, newly arrived in DC during wartime as a backdrop to much of this legislative drama, rather than the pacified silent observation of a few carefully-placed black actors would have enhanced my viewing experience, giving me a more fully realized vision of the period.

For that kind of complexity, I’d have to go back to basics. Thankfully, a new book from historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press), provides the narrative and images, filling in gaps that the film and previous scholarship hasn’t been able to. Abolitionist and suffragist, Sojourner Truth, according to Willis/Krauthamer 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 carte-de-visites, 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. It’s a significant detail to the story of understanding that the emancipation of blacks was more than just the benevolence of white men in a lame duck session of congress. There is a poignant scene where Lincoln finds his young son asleep in the office amid daugereotyps photographs of abused slaves that Lincoln looks through himself before lying asleep on the floor next to him. 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. It’s why this photo of President Obama in the Oval Office is so overwhelmingly meaningful:

photo cred: Pete Souza

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