The Art of Intervention: The Humor of Sojourner Truth and the Antebellum Political Cartoon

By Goldner, Ellen J. | MELUS, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Art of Intervention: The Humor of Sojourner Truth and the Antebellum Political Cartoon


Goldner, Ellen J., MELUS


Over the past fifteen years, scholars from Saidiya Hartman to Catherine Toal have addressed the hegemonic tendencies of sentimental identification in white abolitionist politics and literature in the US. They have argued that such identification elides, revises, and appropriates the subjectivities and experiences of African Americans to serve white and often female agendas (Hartman 20; Toal 40). Since Nell Irvin Painter's biography Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996), she and other scholars have examined at length appropriations of Sojourner Truth's work, in particular by her sentimental amanuenses and by later white feminists. Painter, Carleton Mabee, and Margaret Washington discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe's self-interested portrayal of Truth and the extent of Frances Gage's reworking of Truth's speech at the 1851 Akron Women's Rights Convention. (1) Roseann M. Mandziuk and Suzanne Pullon Fitch demonstrate that white women's movements and white feminist scholars have deployed Truth as an icon that reduces her to nothing more than a symbol of their own causes (133).

According to Xiomara Santamarina, however, "Truth's simultaneously vexed popularity and iconic incongruity do not simply emerge from her amanuenses' and auditors' appropriations of the reformer's words and actions" (37). Santamarina finds that Truth's iconicity arises at least as much out of the difference between Truth's working-class persona and middle-class models for ex-slaves in a growing abolitionist movement that favored literacy (39). I invoke Santamarina's intervention in order to inflect it toward the consideration of a different problem entwined with appropriation: how at once to tease out, to contextualize, and to explore Truth's practice of humor. Truth's iconicity does not emerge simply "from her amanuenses' and auditors' appropriations." Because Truth has no choice but to grapple with the discourse that casts her as an incongruous iconic figure, some of the most striking features of her artistic and political practice (re)deploy features of the icon, particularly its pictorial quality and its solicitation of identifications. In certain ways, Truth's rhetorical practice of humor must be seen as the inverse side of its appropriation, as it intervenes in the discourse within which it must work. Hence, it is important also to recognize that Truth's practice cannot emerge simply from its appropriation. (2) In this essay, I sort the subordinations of Truth by those who recount her humor in print from her valued and coveted rhetorical practice.

This essay probes the tension between the qualities of Truth's humor that overlap with the icon--its almost visual imagery, its indexical relation to an abstract value, and its memorability (Tomaselli and Scott 18-21)and the fluid relationships of the audience to Truth herself that her humor is meant to intercept. The much-discussed problem of the appropriation of Truth's work arises when hegemonic interests shift qualities of iconicity away from oratorical devices honed by Truth to self-serving and decontextualized variations of them and often to Truth herself. In the latter case, those who appropriate Truth's words treat her as a site of memory for their cause (Grever 370). I situate Truth's pictorial metaphors within a cultural context that differentiates them from icons and invites a critical approach that illuminates their density, complexity, and contingency, and hence the ways they exceed both iconicity and appropriation. That context is the burgeoning popularity of political cartoons and racial caricatures in New York City, where Truth lived for sixteen years before her speaking career. The medium of the political cartoon and its conventions of visual metaphor can be employed to illuminate Truth's practice of humor. As Bernard Reilly notes, common tropes circulated in stump speeches and cartoons during the antebellum period (148).

It is useful to consider briefly the fluctuating social and political field in which Truth's rhetoric and the rhetoric of cartoons perform. …

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