Congress Blog

Truth on the 20

Sojourner Truth showed us why she belongs on a re-designed $20 bill. An endless list of candidates has been proposed to replace someone on one of our bills. The Treasury department has suggested the successful candidate might be a woman, but that still leaves a very long list. The list will continue to be endless, and the denomination uncertain, if we don't think about what the problem itself is telling us. The problem is what face to represent the United States. On paper money.

I know this infinite picture choice problem pretty well, because I teach an introduction to the history of all art, in all media, around the world, since 1400. In 100 objects. The first part of the trick is to locate the big issue. The second part of the trick is to find the art object that demonstrates the problem, and shows a solution to the problem. The medium has to be part of the message.

No one understood this better than Sojourner Truth. She knew the big issue of her day was equal rights for everyone, which is why she campaigned for both abolition and feminism. Born into slavery in about 1797, she saw her brothers, sisters, and children sold into slavery. Freed by the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827, she was nearly six feet tall, with a magnificent voice and tremendous stage presence. She is most famous for a speech she gave in 1851. Using call and response, she demolished stereotypes of race, gender, and gentility with the rousing refrain: "And Ain't I A Woman?" She named herself Sojourner Truth. A sojourn is a temporary stay, which makes a sojourner truth a truth always on the move, which Sojourner Truth was until she died in 1883.

Luckily for our face on the money problem, Sojourner Truth understood pictures as well as she did words. She seized the black-and-white, printed-on-paper qualities of photography, and put them to work. (Even though photography was then a radically new medium.) My brilliant colleague Rick Powell, at Duke, has pointed out that Truth was not just sitting for a portrait. Instead, she staged a powerful image of what she wanted to represent. She inscribed a visual allegory for her cause within her portrait. She posed for the camera with knitting, whose yarn trails in a casually gorgeous meander all across her dress.

Truth knew the camera would translate her yarn into a contrast of light on dark so strong it becomes the picture's main event, even though ostensibly it's only an accessory. I do knit, so I can tell you that the knitting is "in the round," which means the knitting will be seamless. The yarn is the future of the work, what is yet to become an elastic fabric.

Not content with a beautiful image of what our nation could become -- knit together-- Truth put a slogan on her portrait. "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance." The slogan is a kind of pun. It's about photography: the paper shadow of the physical substance. It's also about the real purpose of the staged self-image. Truth sold copies of her self-image to support justice. She turned her self-image into - money! If we put Truth's shadow on our paper money, it will support the substance of equality.

There's more, for the economist in all of us. Paper money is the shadow that supports the economic substance. I would even venture that paper money is a sojourning kind of monetary truth.

Which brings me to the 20, as opposed to the 10, which the Treasury has said is next in line to be changed. Jump that line! The image of Truth brings out the qualities of paper money. In life, Alexander Hamilton was the champion of a paper money economy, and the founder of the Treasury, so he belongs on our money. Andrew Jackson hated paper money, so why in the world would we keep him on it?

Confronted with a difficult design problem, in wood, for example, the great architect Louis Kahn would ask for the truth of the medium "What does wood want to be?" or if in concrete: "What does concrete want to be?" What does the face of our nation want to be now? The face of a nation knit together by our equal rights. What does paper money always want to be? The shadow that sells the substance. So let's put Truth on the 20.

Higonnet is professor of Art History, Barnard College, Columbia University.

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