In 1864 Sojourner Truth began selling cartes-de-visite to raise funds to support black soldiers serving for the Union Army and later, for suffragism. Nell Irvin Painter’s marvelous, astounding history of Truth, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), Painter has an extended analysis of Truth’s choices of self-presentation in these publicity photographs. More about those photographic images in a second.
Truth was a tall, spare woman with wide set eye held in a very direct gaze.She was confident in her movement and had what we call stage presence — and she often stood, literally, on a stage in front of white audiences. Above all, Truth was a religious prophet. She named herself Truth; she believed in millenialism and rebirth, in God and God’s power. She was physically born in 1797, named Isabella Baumfree and was the property of a Dutch slave-holding family in New York State. She was sold many times as a child and young adult and suffered greatly through physical and emotional abuse and neglect (for more about this aspect of her life, see Female, Black, and Able, an article from Disability Studies Quarterly). In 1826 Isabella walked away, carrying her infant daughter. (In 1829 the State of New York abolished slavery for good.) In 1843 Isabella re-birthed herself, naming her new self Sojourner Truth. Her religiosity is not something to ignore; it was her self as she determined it. In many ways, contemporary America is more comfortable with Truth as anti-slavery activist and women’s rights activist (hence her inclusion on the U.S. Treasury’s new $10 bill, where Truth will rotate with other major 19th-century suffragists, as she should). But Truth as religious speaker, that’s a bit harder to come to terms with — but that reluctance reflects our time period, not hers. (This Far By Faith, from PBS, has a great rundown of Truth’s religious history).
In 1881, January 27, the New York Evangelist published a missive from Truth. Just why Truth was such a powerful activist, persuading audiences to her point of view in the course of a few words, can be seen in the letter. “We talk often of a beginning, but there is no beginning but the beginning of a wrong. All else is from God, and is from everlasting to everlasting. All that has a beginning has an end. God is without end, and all that is Good is without end.” It was that simple. And that hard. The wrongs in Sojourner’s life: the inhumaneness of enslavement, the very wrongness of denial of rights to black people, to women, to herself — these were things with ends, because, as she so clearly pointed out, they had beginnings.
So, the photographic images. Truth might have had a way of seeing the truth of the matter, of viewing the real behind the seemingly-real, but she operated in a real world of want, need, and money. Even her self-composed caption for her most famous photography, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” reflected her understanding of the terms she had to live by. The “Shadow” was, like all other human constructions, a reflection of the larger truth. In Sojourner’s spiritual world, only God was true, only God offered substance. All else was illusion. The miracle of Truth’s work was that she neatly, efficiently bridged the gap, making the illusory real, because, after all, slavery was real, subjugating African Americans was real, oppressing women was a real action. When she asked an audience of white people “Aren’t I a Woman?” she used her body, her flexed arm, her head, and her womb to assert her human-ness — and to remind audience members of their human-ness in sharing the same body. Ultimately, enslavement, oppression these were actions with an end, and Truth saw that end nearing.
These images she created were powerful because they were her creations, she controlled them. As Nell Irvin Painter points out, Truth chose the dress, accessories, backdrops, and stance. She selected the image to be reproduced; she composed the captions while others wrote the lettering (she was illiterate or nearly illiterate). Here, we see Truth in her most well-known carte-de-visite. She stands, her injured and disabled hand grasping her cane’s handle. Her familiar white scarf-cap (not quite a wrap, by the way, more of a sewn cap), her white knit shawl with its fringe. Her work-bag hanging from her arm.
So let’s talk about Truth’s fashion choices. In an electrifyingly good essay in Religion and American Culture (2004), “The Robes of Womanhood,” Pamela Klassen talks about the ways African American Methodist women (AME tradition) had to walk a line in their clothing choices (along with every other freeking line they walked in life). Especially in the 1860s on, African American women walked between the trend of dressing “middle class” and with dressing plainly in order to convey a morality that transcended class. The plain dress thing is derived from Quakerism, in part because Quakers were the white-dominated Christian group that fought most openly, most effectively against slavery prior to the war, and because Quakers rejected the tendency towards consumerist celebration. Quakers also founded, directed, and often taught at schools and colleges set up in the south to educate newly-freed blacks for the first few decades after the War. And, as Klassen points out, African American women used plain dress and a kind of 19th century prudishness as a weapon against the sexualization of black women.
Want to see what was in fashion in, say, 1868? Why, this, for green gorgousity for one:
(dress from Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1868, gift of Mrs. William R. Witherell, 1953).
In contrast, here’s Truth in her glory in about the same year:
What is Truth telling her audience? For one, she’s endowed with holiness; she’s been sanctified through her Savior; she’s imbued with God’s message for her audience. I’m using religious language because, according to Klassen, that is what Truth is deploying. She was a singular woman who made her living talking to white audiences; she moved in a world of antagonism from white enemies and misunderstanding from her well-meaning white allies. Piety is conveyed in this outfit, with its enormous silk skirt, her polka-dotted sleeves, her striped waistcoat, and the crowns of the familiar white knit shawl and cap. If you look at that green dress, you can see the ways the lines of the dress (the extreme tightening of the waist, the belling of the skirt) and the ornamentation (follow that fringe around the breasts, and see how the fringe outlines the wearer’s pelvic area) sexualizes the body beneath it. Contrast that with Truth’s dress: each piece resists that mid-1800s tendency: her breasts are hidden and nearly invisible under the sharp lines of her v-necked vest and the drape of her shawl; the skirt is adorned with nothing but a cabinet card photograph positioned on her leg; the clothing is loose and I’d bet she’s not wearing a corset (and why should she?).
These outfits don’t seem especially “plain” to our eyes — and I’m unconvinced this is plain dress. This is eccentric dress, conveying a taste for practicality and convenience. The “plain dress” movement — the black dress with (modern minimalist) lines, the white shawl and white-lined bonnet — was a development in the 1830s as Quakers participated in a slave-cotton boycott. Fashion became entangled in the boycott (or Free Produce Movement), as Quakerism shifted towards a critique of fashion in general — and a critique of fashion is inevitably a critique of women’s clothing. Interestingly, Quaker women found themselves “idolizing” their own plain dress, and some sects decided to return to “regular dress.” Truth, on the other hand, in the image below has fully embraced the severe, minimalist look — quite a contrast from her evident love of vertical stripes and expanses of shiny silk.
Let’s return to the first image in this blog entry. The bric-a-brac (or whatnot) shelf, the tassel fringe on the fake fireplace mantel, the factory-made pressed wood and velvet upholstered chair — this is a photograph about twenty years after the striped-sleeve images. And Truth, older, wiser, no richer, is plainer presence. Her injured hand held under her other hand, she wears a plain dark, matte fabric dress with her gleamingly white cap and shawl. The background might be more ornate than the previous images but Truth has “plained down.” Klassen provides an explanation in her essay: African American AME women increasingly adopted “plain” dress, which lost them status as other African American families began wearing “fancy” dress that correlated with their improved economic standing. But the plain dress accorded sanctified women a level of authority and authenticity — you can think of the style of dress as a proactive alert system. The dress style told the audience, told onlookers, exactly what this woman was about, before she spoke her words. And when she spoke — truth rolled out, perfectly aligning with the dress. Plain spoken truth.