Sojourner Truth and Self Narratives

If iPhones and front facing cameras were invented in the 18th century, Sojourner Truth would have been the ultimate selfie queen.

UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive currently features content from photoshoots that she curated in the 1800s. “Combining affordability, repeatability, and portability, cartes de visite made it possible for Americans who could not afford a painted or daguerreotype portrait to have their likenesses memorialized.” As a womxn rights advocate and slave abolitionist, Sojourner Truth recognized the importance of documenting self-narratives. She embraced advancing technologies, like cartes de visite, as they created different mediums for mass communication.

Sojourner could not read or write so she found innovative ways to self-sustain her legacy and those of her counterparts. BAMPFA celebrates Sojourner by featuring every piece of paper that commemorates her life and public service: pictures, stamps, interview transcripts, scrap books and more.

I believe that Sojourner Truth would enjoy the metamorphosis of the 21st century that has made the telling of narratives much easier for us all. However, a question that I wrote in my field notes: “Would Sojourner Truth appreciate all that comes with the digital age?”

Documentation was her overall goal but Sojourner stressed the importance of documentation on paper, in particular. She collected the autographs of civil rights legends because she appreciated engraving the self into something that could be felt, touched, and maintained forever. Rightfully so, Sojourner copyrighted all of her work and was notorious for filing court orders over the rights to what she produced. Sojourner Truth’s main focus was to ensure that her words and her aesthetic were being used for what she intended: the liberation of womxn and all Black people.

I kept this in mind as I explored BAMPFA’s Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight against Slavery exhibit. With her shoulders back, hand on her hip, and pride in her eyes, I observed the props and marks in her work and reflected on the purpose of every single one. I felt an inescapable energy of self-advocacy and self-identity within the exhibit.

Sojourner Truth was a master creator of visual manuscripts, and had she lived to see the millennial age, her photos would be watermarked and her Instagram would be lit.

I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. Sojourner Truth.