Remember When Americans Thought the Country Was Post-Racial?

BAM's Sojourner Truth Exhibition offers a welcome corrective.


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Courtey BAMPFA, Gift Of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

A few years ago, Americans believed that the country had transcended racial prejudice: a century and a half after the Civil War, we were “post-racial.” The appalling resurgence of racism during this election year reveals that self-esteem to have been delusive, so Sojourner Truth, Photography and the Fight Against Slavery, a Berkeley Art Museum exhibition examining the life of another of America’s unsung moral heroes, is a welcome corrective.

Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree), born in upstate New York around 1797, was sold into slavery at the age of 13 and escaped at age 30, renaming herself at 46, becoming an impassioned foe of slavery and a fearless and tireless advocate for women’s suffrage and, after the war, freedmen’s rights. One observer characterized the speech of this uneducated but informed speaker as “a torrent of natural eloquence which swept everything before it.”

Like her fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, she embraced the new medium of photography. Cartes de visite, or visiting cards, were calling cards that featured albumen photographs of the visitor glued to cardboard, and at 2.5 x 4 inches, slightly larger than business cards today. Invented by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, who also developed a multiple-lens camera, the cards became wildly popular in 1850s America, with industrialization and capitalist individualism becoming ever more powerful cultural forces.

Sojourner Truth posed 11 times during her career for her copyrighted cartes de visite, which she sold, autographed, or inscribed, at speeches. They could do more than support activists, however; they could exhort and convince, as cards made by Truth and others demonstrate. As BAM’s press release states, these “modest objects,” mass-produced depictions of battlefields, soldiers and even “scarred inanimate objects testify[ing] to the violence of war and connot[ing] both courage and suffering[,] … were tools of war.” Cartes included in the show depict “contrabands,” i.e., escaped slave “property,” an allegorical, flag-wrapped figure of Freedom embracing slaves, and Sojourner Truth herself, in 1863, with a photograph of her grandson, newly enlisted in the Union army, on her lap.

Sojourner Truth, Photography and the Fight Against Slavery runs through Oct. 23; Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org.

This report was published in the October edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Oct. 7, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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