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Enduring Truths

Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance

Runaway slave Sojourner Truth gained fame in the nineteenth century as an abolitionist, feminist, and orator and earned a living partly by selling photographic carte de visite portraits of herself at lectures and by mail. Cartes de visite, similar in format to calling cards, were relatively inexpensive collectibles that quickly became a new mode of mass communication. Despite being illiterate, Truth copyrighted her photographs in her name and added the caption “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. Sojourner Truth.”

Featuring the largest collection of Truth’s photographs ever published, Enduring Truths is the first book to explore how she used her image, the press, the postal service, and copyright laws to support her activism and herself. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby establishes a range of important contexts for Truth’s portraits, including the strategic role of photography and copyright for an illiterate former slave; the shared politics of Truth’s cartes de visite and federal banknotes, which were both created to fund the Union cause; and the ways that photochemical limitations complicated the portrayal of different skin tones. Insightful and powerful, Enduring Truths shows how Truth made her photographic portrait worth money in order to end slavery—and also became the strategic author of her public self.

224 pages | 131 color plates, 27 halftones | 11 x 8 1/2 | © 2015

Art: Photography

Biography and Letters

Black Studies

History: American History

Media Studies

Reviews

“Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby has given us new, yet historically grounded, readings of canonical works of art and artists. . .A versatile and graceful writer, she has published stunning essays on nineteenth-century figures ranging from the former slave Sojourner Truth to the influential French painter Théodore Géricault, among many others. Versed in interpretative modes of visual culture, such as postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism, her writing is rich in historical detail with contemporary implications.”

Winner of the 2017 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing

“Shines a light on an interesting aspect of an important historical figure with parallels to today's celebrities and their use of social media. . . . Recommended.”

Choice

“[Truth’s] portraits (and Douglass’s) were civil rights photographs: some to propagandize for the Civil War, all to announce that black Americans deserved the same respect that whites did. Photographs have continued to contribute heavily to that cause. . . . Enduring Truths illuminates the resourcefulness and importance of one woman at an early stage of this struggle, limns a detailed map of her sojourn, and underlines the vital role photography has played from the moment when technologies, history, and social change first put it on center stage.”

PhotoBook Review

“Grigsby accomplishes a surprising depth of scholarly analysis within the space of a standard academic monograph. . .This highly readable volume is conveyed in lucid prose that lays out the practical context of Truth’s cartes de visite in the 1860s and 1880s. . .Grigsby’s reputation as an internationally regarded scholar of French and transatlantic studies precedes her. With Enduring Truths, she firmly establishes her authority as a historian of American photography, as well. . .Ultimately, Enduring Truths combines many of the aspects that comprise the best in art historical scholarship.”

Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art

“Highly readable.” 

San Francisco Chronicle

Runaway slave Sojourner Truth gained fame in the 19th century as an abolitionist, feminist, and orator and earned a living partly by selling photographic carte de visite portraits of herself at lectures and by mail... Author Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby shares the contexts for Truth's portraits, including the strategic role of photography and copyright for an illiterate former slave; the shared politics of Truth's cartes de visite and federal banknotes, which were both used to fund the Union cause; and the ways that photochemical limitations complicated the portrayal of different skin tones. "Enduring Truths" shows how Truth made her photographic portrait worth money in order to end slavery--and also became the strategic author of her pubic self.

Holland Sentinnel

“In this lavishly illustrated and lucidly written volume, Grigsby trains her inimitable gaze on the photographic self-construction of Sojourner Truth, whose life history resonates as much today as it did for her nineteenth-century audiences. Grounding her study in meticulous archival research, Grigsby weaves a fascinating account of how Truth’s circulation of her image in the form of cartes de visite not only supported her financially, but also represented an incisive intervention into national discourses around race, gender, copyright law, paper currency, and authorship during and after the Civil War. The result is a highly affecting book that at once reframes questions of black aesthetic agency and sets a new standard for what the art-historical monograph might be.”

Huey Copeland, Northwestern University

“Grigsby’s marvelous exploration—a deep, wide, and beautiful inquiry into Sojourner Truth’s use of technology—features more of her photographs than have ever been collected before. Among its many insights, I especially relished the analysis of Truth’s illiteracy. Enduring Truths is art history with a wide-ranging concept of history left in. A terrific book, and one we’ve needed for a long time.”

Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University

“Grigsby convincingly demonstrates how Truth’s shrewd engagement with the new medium of photography, in tandem with her deliberate efforts to secure legal and monetary control over her portraits, became a platform for the assertion of a former slave’s claims to personhood and self-possession. Enduring Truths is a fundamental contribution to our ongoing efforts to disentangle the historical bonds between visuality, subjectivity, and slavery, and the jarring processes of the institution’s demise.”

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, coeditor of Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Part I Early Cartes de Visite1 Truth in Indiana (1861)

2 Truth as Libyan Sibyl
3 Truth in Michigan (1863)
Part II Shadows and Substance
4 Truth’s Captioned Cartes de Visite (after 1864)
5 Shadows and Chemistry
Part III Texts and Circulating Paper
6 Truth’s Illiteracy
7 Truth’s Copyright
8 Money and the Civil War

Part IV Collecting and the Late Photographs

9 Album Politics
10 Truth’s Last Portraits (1881–82)
Notes
Index

 

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