General Moses and Sojourner (Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth)
70.8 cm x 96.5 cm (27 7/8 in. x 38 in.)
(Chicago, Illinois, 1918 - 1979, Los Angeles, California)
North America, American
Medium and Support:
Wolff carbon pencil and white chalk over traces of graphite pencil with scratching out, blending, and charcoal wash splatter
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon to the units of Black Studies and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin
In 1935, Charles White asked his teacher at Chicago’s Englewood High School why their history textbook mentioned African Americans only once. As he later recalled, the teacher told him to “sit down and shut up.” This experience would serve as an impulse behind White’s creative pursuits. Throughout his career, White used his artistic skills to highlight some of the major figures of African American history. One such example is General Moses and Sojourner, a portrait of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth (depicted in profile) that he originally created for the Harriet Tubman Clinic for Children, a private medical clinic in Harlem that Drs. Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon established to serve disadvantaged children.
In this drawing, the artist emphasized the intellectual nature of Truth’s activism through her upward gaze. Truth was a leader of the abolitionist movement who is perhaps best remembered for her stirring “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered in 1851. White pictures Tubman grasping a staff-like object similar to the one Moses used to part the Red Sea to lead the Israelites to freedom. Frequently referred to as “Moses,” Tubman led hundreds of enslaved black people to freedom in the North, becoming the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
Although surviving portraits of Tubman and Truth capture the two as mature women, White depicts them in their youth, emphasizing their vitality. While Tubman and Truth only met once, White pairs them to celebrate black women and suggest the possibilities of a feminist future.