Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits
This is a modified version of a lesson that accompanies the exhibition Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, organized by the International Center for Photography (http://www.icp.org/site/c.dnJGKJNsFqG/b.2067109/ ) in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu ). The works in the exhibition are drawn exclusively from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Exhibition website: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/motto/index.html
Social Studies/U.S. History K-2 (from the National Council for Social Studies)
- Standard 3 The history of the United States: democratic principles and values and the people from many cultures who contributed to its cultural, economic, and political heritage
Visual Art K-4 (from the National Art Education Association)
- Standard 4 Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
- To explore the ways in which photographs can symbolize or represent personal identity through props, clothing, etc.
- To learn about an important figure in the history of civil rights in the United States.
Duration Four 30- to 40-minute class periods for Parts I, II, III, and IV
- Digital cameras
- Copy machine
- Props and clothing (brought in by students)
Setup and Preparation
Make a copy of the Reproducible Sojourner Truth for each student or devise a method to enlarge or project the portrait for group viewing.
- Sojourner Truth, Randall Studio, c. 1870 (click here )
Historically, photographs have been used as an “advertisement of the self.”
Beginning in the nineteenth century, people commissioned cartes-de-visites (pronunciation: cart di vi-ZEET). The term translates as “calling cards.” The photographs were 4”x 2” and were mounted on boards that were only slightly larger than a modern-day business card. They were traded or preserved as keepsakes.
About Sojourner Truth c. 1799–1883
Abolitionist and women’s-rights leader Sojourner Truth worked tirelessly for the poor and disenfranchised in mid-nineteenth-century America. Born into slavery, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 to reflect her religious conversion and her commitment to reform. Soon after, she was traveling through the nation lecturing about the inhumanity of slavery and the rights of African Americans and women. A tall and imposing figure, she fought especially for the poor, who often had no voice, as she knew from personal experience. Famously, she asked, “And ain’t I a woman?” To heighten awareness of her work and to raise funds to support it, Truth sold copies of her autobiography and photographs of herself. As she wrote on the mounts of many of these portraits, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.”
Part I Background information and discussion
1. Read one of the following books to introduce students to the personality of Sojourner Truth and to the accomplishments of African American women throughout history:
When Harriet Met Sojourner by Catherine Clinton
Amistad Publishing, 2007
Sojourner Truth: Preacher for Freedom and Equality by Suzanne Slade
Picture Window Books, 2007
2. As a class, look at the slightly larger cabinet card (a version of the calling card) of Sojourner Truth (Reproducible) and discuss the following: pose, facial expression, clothing, setting (objects and area surrounding the person in the portrait), activity of person in the portrait, and how (or if) these visual facts create a mood or intangible quality for the image.
3. On the board or a piece of chart paper, create a class list of words to describe what you think Truth (and her photographer) wanted us to think about her from this card. She sold these cards to pay for her work fighting for the rights of women and African Americans. How might her appearance and surroundings differ from that of her previous life as a slave?
4. Explain the meaning of the word sojourn* and lead a discussion about the meaning of the word truth. Create a common definition. Tell the students that when Sojourner Truth was freed from slavery, she gave herself a new name-ridding herself of the name she was given (Isabella Dumont) when her family was brought into slavery. This was a common practice among freed slaves. Ask the students for their thoughts on why she wanted to rename herself and why she chose this name.
* Sojourn: A temporary stay. Sometimes used for "journey."
Part II Preparing to make calling cards
(For younger students, the teacher may want to model this entire process, including "dressing up" and posing with props.)
1. Ask students to list two or three qualities of their own personalities that they would want someone to know about them: friendly, thoughtful, serious, silly, etc. (one quality for kindergarteners).
2. Now ask students to list two or three activities that they enjoy (one quality for kindergarteners).
3. Ask students to think about what name would best represent them. They may want to choose from one of the qualities or activities they have listed, or they may want to think of people they admire and would like to be named after. Explain that the new name will be the title of the calling card.
4. Place the students in pairs and
- Have them discuss what props, clothing, or other elements they might use in a portrait to symbolize the identity they have created in Part I. Discuss, too, how they might acquire these.
- Have them discuss and practice poses and facial expressions that might help convey something about their new identity.
*Students can look up the meaning of their own name and get ideas for the name to be used for their calling card on one of the many websites created to help expectant parents choose names for their new babies.
Part III Making your own calling card
1. Have the students bring the props and clothing they identified with their partner to school on a designated day.
2. With a digital camera, take pictures of students in the poses they have designed. Label the digital photo print with students' new names. Make photocopies, if possible.
Part IV Follow up
1. Have students distribute their “calling cards” to friends and family. They should ask the recipients for their impressions of the person depicted in the portrait.
2. Have students share their experiences with the class. What conclusions can be drawn about the power of photographs to affect and change our perceptions?
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org