“She emerged from a cage on a raised platform, was presented as an animal to the European community…She was gazed at, heckled, objectified, caricatured, and dehumanized.”
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, The Body Politic
Let’s start with a woman who I like to call the godmother of humps, Saartije (Afrikaans for Lil’ Sarah) Baartman. You may remember her from this post, where I briefly pointed to the possible inspiration behind (behind, hehe) the bustle, and more recent examinations of it by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. Ostensibly, her junk in the trunk popularized such fashions.
She was commonly called the “Hottentot Venus.”
To contextualize this sketch, its creator Nicolas Huet le Jeune, seems to have had a particular fondness for rendering animals.
Originally a servant for a Boer family in South Africa, Baartman traveled to Europe around 1810, where her rear end became a popular attraction in both London and Paris. Her “massive” buttocks and supposed primitive vaginal extremities made her the object of much interest and speculation. Freak shows were popular at the time, and often featured “exotics” who were nothing more than actors. From the essay Gender, Race and Nation, Anne Fausto-Sterling points out that:
Sometimes the shows of exotic people of color involved a complete fabrication. A Zulu warrior might really be a Black citizen of London, hired to play the part.
The dishonesty inherent in these spectacular showcases, caused Lil’ Sarah’s body to be subject to physical investigation by curious patrons. As Fausto-Sterling mentions:
One eyewitness recounted with horror the poking and pushing that Baartman endured, as people tried to see for themselves whether her buttocks were the real thing.
In the two to five years that she lived and performed in London and Paris, Lil’ Sarah’s representation of black womanhood added to racist and scientific investigations suggesting black inferiority and thus, being deserving of white exploitation. Sarah’s body was used as a visual evidence of a link between blacks and monkeys, her distended rear end was commonly compared to that of a female baboon in heat.
When she died from a combination of smallpox, alcoholism, and Pleurisy (way to take care of the talent doods) her body was cast, brain and buttocks preserved, vagina dissected, cast, and described in detail by French biologist Georges Cuvier, a man considered to be the father of modern biology. These items could be viewed in the Musèe de l’Homme in Paris up until the early 1980′s. Her remains have since been returned to South Africa, but her history still haunts all of us. It could teach us all a thing or two about rationalization and reasoning.
What’s more interesting is that the scientists who examined Sarah, while living and after death, inadvertently, through their own processes, contradict the very stereotypes, that black women were wild and savage, and possessed uncontrollable sexual desires, they were trying to prove. Though little is known about Lil’ Sarah’s disposition, the following was recorded while observing her in the Jardin du Roi:
Sarah appears good, sweet and timid, very easy to manage when one pleases her…She appears to have a sense of modesty or at least we had a very difficult time convincing her to allow herself to be seen nude, and she scarcely wished to remove for even a moment the handkerchief with which she hid her organs of generation…[S]he took a dislike to M. de Blainville, probably because he came too near to her, and pestered her in order to obtain material for his description; although she loved money, she refused what he offered her in an effort to make her more docile…she would easily strike someone…
I am thankful for such gaps in logic. Cracks like these provide the necessary wiggle room to question claims that have been widely accepted, unknowingly adopted, and are inadvertently passed along.
I like to think of Lil’ Sarah’s story as the origin of black female body dramas. How can these narratives be reshaped and reclaimed? Presumably, Lil’ Sarah agreed to become a sideshow attraction for money, but she would not submit herself to the same characterizations, even with the promise of financial gain, while off of the stage. Is there any greater evidence of her humanity than the presence of such contradictions? Just how is it that black female sexuality is simultaneously invisible and so very exposed? And is it just me, or doesn’t all of this look a little too familiar?
Till next time…
Love and Enjoy.
Click here to find the next post in the Between·the·Sheets series.