The life of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ still feels familiar for those used to being gawked at.
You might not know Sarah Baartman’s face, but you know her body.
Sarah Baartman — also known as Saartjie or the “Hottentot Venus” — was born in the late 18th century in the Eastern Cape (part of modern-day South Africa). She was brought to the UK with a ship surgeon who profited from exhibiting Sarah for the entertainment of the British public because of her steatopygia. This meant that she had excess fatty tissue around her hip and bottom area, spectacular enough to warrant her, well — a spectacle. She subsequently spent most of her adult life being exhibited as a caged freak-show attraction both in London and Paris, where she died and was displayed even in death up until the late ‘70s.
There are many details about the life of Sarah Baartman that are still either unknown or unconfirmed. This includes her birth name, her cause of death, and the extent of any agency she may or may not have had in the events of her adult life. A lot of us won’t even have even heard of her, yet her story bears a troubling resemblance to the experiences of generations of black women down the line. Sarah Baartman’s reality as an attraction to behold, gawk at, and prod at manifests itself today in every hyper-sexualized fetishist remark veiled as a compliment, and every depiction of my big black ass as either comedic fodder or the accessory of the moment.
A lot of us won’t even have even heard of her, yet her story bears a troubling resemblance to the experiences of generations of black women down the line.
Sarah’s story has always resonated with me as a young black woman with a pretty shapely behind. As a teenager especially, I was no Sarah Baartman, but I still turned heads. My developing body was the pink elephant in the room, creating tension that was exacerbated by my being both the youngest and the only girl in my family. Lewd comments from men on the street old enough to be my father went hand in hand with warnings and admonishments from relatives to not wear that skirt, or sit like that, or dance too provocatively. This seems to be a shared experience among black women growing up, and this hyper-sexualized lens from which the black female body is viewed is a major factor in how we are treated.
Sarah Baartman was one of many Khoi women who were visited by European scientists and coerced into undressing and displaying themselves to satisfy Europeans’ perverse curiosities. These scientists carried back with them the image of these women as primitive and sexually insatiable. This misconception has managed to trickle right down to the mouth-breathing creep at the bar who leers at us with suggestive confessions of “never having been with a black girl before,’’ then adopts this picture of our sexuality as primal, serving to further dehumanize and assign us the role of entertainer.
Charles Matthews, a comedian who lived in London at the time of Sarah’s station there, recorded his observations of visitors who came to view her. “One pinched her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral,” he wrote. Documented interactions like these further justify the fury we feel when white people tug at our hair and paint their faces black on Halloween.
The white gaze of the black body, regardless of gender, has always been and is still very much entrenched in the idea of entertainment. What were minstrel shows without the large drawn-on lips and charcoal black skin? How much funnier is it when the loud and gobby black female character we’re encouraged to poke fun at in any comedic TV show is fat and often dark-skinned? This sense of awe over the black form reduces us to being spectacles rather than human beings, something you’d see in a museum, a freak show in Sarah Baartman’s case. When black people set boundaries on our bodies, asking white people not to touch our hair or ask about our skin color, what we’re trying to get across to people is that our bodies were not made for white entertainment.
If black bodies were seen as inherently sexual, then emulating blackness has been a way white women have played with their sexuality while remaining safe in their whiteness. We keep seeing white women in the public eye monopolizing the black female body to gain them cool points (see Miley Cyrus circa 2013 and Rachel “Transracial” Dolezal who, after being outed for pretending to be black for most of her adult life, has written a book, and is now the topic of a Netflix documentary, which can only serve to give her even more publicity.) White women in the public eye who go so far as to surgically enhance their bodies to adopt typical black features like large lips and big butts tend to become the poster girls for the “body of the moment.” Everyone wants “Kim Kardashian ass” because her body is an amalgam of the erogenous features of the black woman, but without all that “black.”
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This is especially interesting considering the infamous #BreakTheInternet Paper photoshoot where, in an Inception-like multi-layered recreation, Kim Kardashian stood in as the subject of a series of images that originally cast black women in a highly fetishized light (one that photographer Jean-Paul Goude has reinforced with previous works and comments.) Long before Kim’s time, the images in question have often been likened to our very own Sarah Baartman. We can’t ignore Kim’s role as the modern Sarah, this time using her body to exploit modern society as opposed to society doing the reverse. But 10 points to whoever can guess the main difference between Kim and Sarah. Her privilege in being able to cherry pick the aspects of the black female form that enable her to commandeer her universal appeal so successfully (the butt, the lips, the racial ambiguity) puts her at an advantage that no black women are welcome to.
For those without Kim’s figure, there was the bustle, which was all the rage in 19th-century women’s fashion. These huge structures (often accompanied with padding) were worn as a way of accentuating the female figure and enhancing the posterior. This means that during Sarah Baartman’s time as a freak-show attraction, the very women gawking at the natural curves on her body would likely have been enhancing their own bodies to look like hers. The difference is that while these women were seen as fashionable for their manipulated forms, black women like Sarah were being treated like freaks. It seems like a black woman’s body is only desirable (not to be confused with fetishized) when a white woman is wearing it.
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One of the saddest things about Sarah Baartman’s existence, besides her enslavement and objectification, is the absence of her voice in her own narrative. Everything we know about her has been recounted by the scientists, captors, and audience members who benefited from her circumstances. Her duty was to be seen and not heard. That’s still the expectation for black women today — think about how quickly white audiences rejected the political turn Beyonce’s music took. The booty-shaking, female empowering Beyonce with her universal themes of overcoming heartbreak was actually black all of a sudden, and this made people uncomfortable.
It is this attempt to silence black women that concerns me most. As troubling as Sarah’s story is, there are plenty of black women out there who enjoy being exhibited, whether they are models, dancers, or any other type of performer. The freedom we’re asking for involves being able to express ourselves and control our bodies without attracting harassment and ridicule.
Sarah Baartman was only returned home to be buried in 2002 — more than 80 years after her death. If there’s one thing we can take from her story, it should be the reminder that every inch of the black female body — her skin, her butt, her voice — belongs to the black woman herself. It is not your costume nor your plaything. It is her being.