In Which I Honor The Women Who Came Before Me: Sarah Baartman

Sarah Baartman “the Hottentot Venus”:  In September 1910, Sarah first performed for a European [British] audience in Picadilly.  Dressed in skin-tight body-stocking, beadwork, feathers and face paint, she was presented as a representation of African womanhood before a primarily-male audience.  Her beauty- likely unremarkable to Khoikoi men- was distorted and commodified in the eyes of her European audience.  Her skin color granted her audience permission to gaze openly- particularly at her bottom.

To London audiences, she was a fantasy made flesh, uniting the imaginary force of two powerful myths: Hottentot and Venus. The latter invoked a cultural tradition of lust and love; the former signified all that was strange, disturbing and – possibly – sexually deviant. Almost overnight, London was overtaken by Saartjie mania. Within a week, she went from being an anonymous immigrant to one of the city’s most talked-about celebrities. Her image became ubiquitous: it was reproduced on bright posters and penny prints, and she became the favoured subject of caricaturists and cartoonists. [source]

I wrote briefly about her [excerpt below]

«Some 20 or 30 years before Sojourner Truth’s speech [Ain’t I a Woman?] Saartjie Baartman was labeled the “Hottentot Venus.” Her distinctive body (due to her steatopygia) marked her as a spectacle, and as a performer- or an object, her European audience (men) were permitted to touch her. She traveled to England, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, under the promise of great wealth in return for her participation in exhibitions.  I imagine that participation involved a certain soul- numbing moment. To add insult, after her death in 1815, her genitals and brain were preserved in a jar and placed on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme. It was years before her remains were buried in her homeland- not until after Nelson Mandela was instated as South Africa’s president following the dismantling of Apartheid.

No doubt, Saartjie Baartman was beautiful in God’s sight.» [Source: Black Girl, You Are Beautiful]

And this is what Patricia Hill-Collins said about Sarah Baartman in Black Feminist Thought:

“The exhibition of Sarah Baartman and Black women on the auction block were not benign intellectual  exercises- these practices defended real material and political interests.” (Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought, pg 139)

If you’ve read my blog regularly, what I’m saying is not surprising at all.  The sale and purchase of images of African women- as presented in the imaginations of 19th century Europeans and European-Americans- was preceded by the conscious dehumanization of these women and the commodification of their bodies.  The “darker” woman was sub-human, “other.”  It was perfectly permissible to take a young Khoikoi woman from her homeland and parade her before wealthy white [presumably male] audiences for consumption as a palette on which to project their deviant sexual imaginations.  Her public performances epitomized the private imaginations of those who consumed her with their eyes and touched her with their hands.

Here’s a poem I wrote in her honor in January 2008: Ode to Sarah Baartman

She was sold to be entertainment
by her South African owner
(with the promise of wealth and fame)
for the curious eyes of Britain and Europe
Her ‘strange’ physiology made her fodder
for medical students, and ‘respectable’ men
in this strange society of deviants
she found no respect, even after death
After being forced into prostitution
and an animal show in France,
after 5 years in Europe,
Death by disease, she wasn’t human enough
for a proper burial-

No, they had to cut her genitals and brain out
and pickle them in a jar, on display in a museum
Her skeleton was cut out and showed as
an anomaly that belonged to a woman who was
barely human

How do you explain this? Was she somehow inferior
on the basis of her difference? Was she a sexual deviant
deserving of public humiliation and display for a nominal fee?
What justification can be offered?

And how do you explain the voluntary hyper- sexualization
of our youth? The gyrating video vixens who are celebrated
for their promiscuous exploits and their bodies?
How do you explain Black women who call themselves
“bitches” “hos” “pimpettes” “baby mamas”?
Women marketed in the industry as skin and sinew
Objects for gratification and profit
Women whose cash flows between their legs

Here’s to the consumers of this industry
the music, entertainment, advertisements
may have that glossy appeal, but you ought to know better

Here’s my reaction:
disgust, disbelief, and disowning

What are you gonna do about it?

4 Comments

  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian,

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