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She was born on the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape

 in 1789 of a Khoisan family in what is now South Africa

 

 

Sara's Story a symbol of subjugation

and humiliation, her homecoming will be a spiritual thing

 

Sara is the short-name used these days for Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who at the tender age of 20 was taken from Cape Town to London and then on to Paris to be displayed naked in their streets and at their circuses like an animal her European audiences viewed her to be. Her story is a tearful and moving one. It is at once the story of an everyday woman, a human being, one of us, treated in the most grotesque ways, used as "scientific proof" of "European white superiority." 

But it is also a story about the more widespread "social, political, scientific and philosophical assumptions which transformed one young African woman into a representation of savage sexuality and racial inferiority." Finally, her story is one that provokes us to look in some detail at the power of imagery to form opinions, and the way such power has been employed to depict people of color, especially women of color.

Since this story was published in February 2002, Sara's remains have been returned to South Africa. Saartjie Baartman's skeleton and bottled organs -- long stored at a French natural history museum -- were turned over to South African officials on April 29 at a ceremony in Paris, the culmination of years of requests by countrymen who wanted to bring her home [February 27, 2002 Editor's Note].

The Miami Herald on February 24 carried a story about a South African woman named Saartjie Baartman that attracted our attention, and, we have learned, has had the attention of many for some period of time.

Before getting into the story, we’d like to highlight what we think is the key issue here, the image of the black person, in this case a woman, in Western art. This is tied into the more macro issue of the way blacks have been portrayed as racially inferior and more specifically, the way black female sexuality has been portrayed as inferior. Those times are changing, but Saartjie's story is worth knowing about, because her story says a great deal about history, recent history at that.

Who is Saartjie Baartman?

She was born on the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape in 1789 of a Khoisan family in what is now South Africa. The Khoisans are among southern Africa’s oldest known inhabitants, people who made a major role in shaping South Africa’s past and present. But back in those days, bands of Dutch raiding parties went on horseback to the eastern and northern Cape frontiers to hunt down and exterminate these "bushmen" groups who were considered cattle thieves and a threat to settler society.

Canadian socio-linguist Nigel Crawhall, speaking of the Khoisan people, says this:

"These people moved across this land before any other human being. It was they who named the plants and the trees and the features of this land. . . . There [has been an] explosion of identity . . . [among] people who had spent their whole lives having to hide who they were. These people had been destroyed and now suddenly there [is] light and air."

There was never any light and air for Saartjie. In her late teens, she migrated to Cape Flats near Cape Town where she became a farmer’s slave and lived in a small shack until 1810. That year, she was sold in Cape Town in 1810 at the age of 20 to a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her that she could make a great deal of money by displaying her body to Europeans. Dunlop put her on a boat and she ended up in London.

There she was put on display in a building in Picadilly and paraded around naked in circuses, museums, bars and universities. She was most often obliged to walk, stand or sit as her keeper ordered, and told to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her semi-nomadic people, and her large genitals, which varied in their appearance from those of Europeans.

Khoisan people anatomically have honey-colored skin and stock their body fats in the buttocks rather than in the thighs and belly. These are natural things for them, but Europeans found them to provide an excuse for stereotyping African blacks in grotesque ways. For example, the British described her genitals as like an apron, "skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat."

Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered".

There were protests in London for the way Baartman was being treated. The exhibitions took place at a time when the anti- slavery debate was raging in England and Baartman's plight attracted the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, shown in this portrait, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism in England, and wrote of the horrors of slavery. 

Wedderburn is himself an interesting black British radical. He was arrested twice in the early 1800s, once for Sedition for defending a slaves rights to rise up and kill his master, and then a second time for sending among the first revolutionary papers from England to the west Indies. For that, was found guilty of "Blasphemous libel" and served two years in Carlisle jail. He subsequently was released wrote and released his autobiography entitled, The Horrors of Slavery.

Under pressure from his group, the attorney general asked the government to put an end to the circus, saying Baartman was not a free participant. 

A London court, however, found that Baartman had entered into a contract with Dunlop, although historian Percival Kirby, who has discovered records of the woman's life in exile, believes she never saw the document.

After four years in London, Sara was handed to a showman of wild animals in Paris, where she was displayed between 1814 and 1815 in a traveling circus, often handled by an animal trainer.

French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg told the French Senate recently that she was also exhibited before "sages and painters," including George Cuvier, surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte, and seen by many as the founder of comparative anatomy in France.

Cuvier, shown here, described Baartman’s movements as having "something brusque and capricious about them that recalled those of monkeys." Cuvier used such descriptions to demonstrate the superiority of the European races. Several "scientific" papers were written about Baartman, using her as proof of the superiority of the white race.Jeremy

Nathan, a South African film producer who is making a feature film on the life of Baartman, says such women excited the attention of the Parisian intelligentsia at the time. Cuvier was at the center of an eminent school of social anthropologists who believed she was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life.

Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called The Hottentot Venus or Hatred to French Women, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time

Sara Baartman died in Paris in 1816, an impoverished prostitute, a lonely woman, and an alcoholic. She had come to be known as the "Venus Hottentot," which was a derogatory term used to describe "bushmen" of southern Africa.

Instead of providing her a decent burial, Cuvier made a plaster cast of Baartman’s body, dissected her and conserved her organs, including her genitals and brain, in bottles of formaldehyde. Along with her skeleton, shown here, Sara Baartman’s brain and genitals were stored somewhere in a back room of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris Her remains including those in the jars were displayed there until 1976.

Saartjie Baartman has created controversy in South Africa as well. Willie Bester, a world known contemporary South African artist, made a metal sculpture of Saartjie Baartman. 

Bester is shown in the next photo, and you can barely see an overhead image projection on the screen behind him of his sculpture of Sara. Bester's father was Khosian and his mother what has been called "Cape colored." He was himself classified as "other colored" during the apartheid years.In Bester’s work apartheid has remained the dominant theme.

 In particular he has consistently tackled the Group Areas Act (the law that defined where people could and could not live according to their color); the militarized and violent character of South African life stemming from apartheid; and the role played by the Dutch Reformed Church in supporting the apartheid ideology.

Yet, his sculpture of Baartman created controversy, perhaps because it was displayed in the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Cape Town. A panel was convened to discuss the sculpture. Some felt it needed greater explanation to accompany it, to explain the oppression and injustices committed during the colonial era. Others complained that the science library was the wrong venue, because it was in the name of science that Baartman was paraded about Europe like an animal. There were also complaints that if art of indigenous peoples are to be displayed, they should be by indigenous people. 

Here in the US, an African American woman, Deborah Willis, has written a recently published book that was motivated to a great degree by the tragedy of Saartjie Baartman. The book, entitled, The Black Female Body in Photography, focuses on the power of the photographic image to reflect and affect opinions.

Willis, curator at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, commented on Baartman’s situation this way: "The stereotypical caricatures of Baartman portrayed her as entertainment while also sexualizing her image. (Despite the negative and stereotypical nature of Baartman’s images) the bustle soon became very stylish in Europe and later in America, and this may have been the result of the popularity of her images."

After reading about Baartman, Willis contacted Carla Williams, a longtime friend and fellow photographer, to discuss the possibility of a book on the black female body in photography.

Willis has noted that most images of black women produced in the decades after the Baartman images were exotic shots of African women in tribal attire or were of slaves working in the fields or taking care of white children and babies.

The latter images, according to Willis, provide a counterpoint to the earlier sexualized images of black women. "They were images of ‘neutered’ black females instead," Willis explains. These new images of slaves and "mammies" robbed black women of their femininity and portrayed them more as genderless workers.

A recent advertisement for Benetton, an international clothing store chain, featured a black woman with a white baby at her breast and was considered controversial when it debuted, Willis says. "But I loved the imagery, because it provided a counterpoint to that neutered black female aesthetic."

It is also worth noting that a new documentary film has been produced by Zola Maseko, who grew up in Swaziland, entitled, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman – "The Hottentot Venus". Using historical drawings, cartoons, legal documents, and interviews with noted cultural historians and anthropologists, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman - "The Hottentot Venus" deconstructs the social, political, scientific and philosophical assumptions which transformed one young African woman into a representation of savage sexuality and racial inferiority. 

American Historical Review has said of the film:

"Zola Maseko's elegant and rather beautiful film recounts the life and times of Sara Baartman in clear and acceptable terms, using both contemporary and contemporaneous sources.... A telling and quite powerful film. It would be very appropriate for any class in the history of racism or colonial history. And just an hour long, it is perfect for a single classroom showing."

Le Monde has written:

"By combining the history and tragic destiny of Baartman, with the theories and racist imagination of the period... (Sara Baartman) presents an implacable plea against racism."

The film was rated the Best African Documentary, 1999 FESPACO African Film Festival, Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, and Best Documentary, 1999 Milan African Film Festival, Italy.

Commenting on the film and the life of Saartjie Baartman, now known to many as Sara, Alex Dodd says this:

"Part of the power of the documentary is that, as a viewer, you cease to think of history as words on a page or abstract theories. Despite the myriad discourses her tale has triggered, one cannot for a second escape the reality that Sara Baartman was a real human being with feelings. (The film) was Baartman’s life…an amazing story of one woman’s life."

South Africa, since it broke loose from the grip of apartheid, has been asking the French to send Sara home. Former President Nelson Mandela made that a personal project. He asked the late President François Mitterand for help in 1994, and two years later, South African Foreign Minister Nzo formally raised the issue yet again But no progress was made.

However, now the French Senate, in late January 2002, approved a bill proposing that Sara be returned home to South Africa. The lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, is expected to pass the law before the end of June.

For many South Africans, most especially for the Khoisan and a man named Boezak, a representative on the Khoisan legacy project of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), Sara’s "sad story has become a symbol for us…of the subjugation and humiliation of Khoisan women through all the ages." He went on to say:"(When) we celebrate her homecoming it will be a spiritual ceremony. It will be a reburial. It will not be a Cape Town thing, it will not be a Griqua thing, it will be a national thing."

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They call me Hottentot Venus - Saartjie Baartman / What is "The Saartjie Project"?  / Who Is Sara Baartman?

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 Behind the Scenes of The Saartjie Project’ (august 2008

 

Inside the Saartjie Project from safidi tyehimba on Vimeo.

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Hottentot Venus: A Novel

By Barbara Chase-Riboud

Hottentot Venus is the story of Ssehura, a young Khoisan girl orphaned in 1700s South Africa. Ssehura is renamed Saartjie (which means “little Sarah” in Dutch) by a Dutch Afrikaner who becomes her master. As is Khoisan custom, Sarah is groomed to be more sexually desirable for marriage. Her buttocks are massaged with special ointments to make them swell and her genitalia are stretched to produce the legendary “Hottentot apron,” exaggerated folds of skin. Thus, Sarah is a physical curiosity and a sexual fetish to her white master. He is persuaded by an Englishman to send her to London where she becomes a sideshow sensation.

The English gentry is fascinated by her exotic African ethnicity and sexually charged presence making her stuff of legend and myth. Sarah enters the world of circus freak shows and becomes a popular exhibit. .  The “Hottentot Venus,” as she has become known, is the rage of Europe. Yet, beyond the parade of curiosity seekers and perverts, the very real loneliness of this young woman comes through. CopperfieldReview

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus  

By Rachel Holmes

A celebrated "human curiosity," exhibited in 1810 in London and Paris for her larger-than-average posterior, the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartmen, is delivered once and for all by Holmes (Scanty Particulars) from the forces of sentimental primitivism, imperialism and scientific racism that so determined her life. Academics will recognize Holmes as one of their own (she is a former professor of English at the universities of London and Sussex); this book is liberally salted with the language of feminist, psychoanalytic and postcolonial theory (here is how Holmes explains Saartjie's susceptibility to exploitation at the hands of men: "[her] relationship with paternalistic figures was shadowed by her unresolved attachment to an idealized father, snatched from her at the point she most needed and respected him, and before she had cause to rebel against him"). But the book is propelled along by the inherent interest of Saartjie's story and Holmes's clear affection for her subject. Particularly close attention is given to Saartjie's declining years and her gruesome posthumous treatment at the hands of French scientist Cuvier, whose macabre fascination with Saartjie inspires some of the book's most engaging prose.— Publishers Weekly

Saartjie Baartman, a young South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 and displayed seminude as she danced suggestively to show off to best effect her ample bottom, earning her the name Hottentot Venus. Her public display and ultimate study by scientists long ago gained her iconic status as a symbol of European fascination with African sexuality. Holmes, author of Scanty Particulars (2003), explores the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1800s, when Europeans were fascinated with the human behind and grappling with notions about race, sex, and colonialism. Holmes draws on press reports, ballads, and advertisements of the day that ridiculed Baartman as well as prominent politician Lord Grenville, who was similarly endowed. Baartman, abused by her manager and the public, attracted the attention of abolitionists, who saw in her a cause celebre to challenge provisions of the British constitution regarding slavery. Using fresh archival research, Holmes offers a definitive portrait of a woman whose remains--on museum display for generations--were only recently returned to South Africa for final burial. This is a probing look at historical racism and sexual exploitation presented through the life of an extraordinary woman.—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: Thabo Mbeki on  Saartjie Baartman  Sara Story  Hottentot Venus  Exhibiting Others in West  Nobody ever chose to be a slave