Black History Month fact #22
Meet Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, the world’s first official video vixen.
In 1810, when Saartjie Baartman was in her early twenties, she was persuaded by an English ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, to travel to England to make her fortune. However, as a Khoikhoi woman she was considered an anthropological freak in England, and she found herself put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual curiosity. Dubbed “The Hottentot Venus,” her image swept through British popular culture.
In 1814 she was taken to France, and became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality.
When she died in 1816, the Musee de l’Homme in Paris took a deathcast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars. These were displayed in the museum until as late as 1985.
After five years of negotiating with the French authorities for the return of Saartjie Baartman’s remains, the South African government, together with the Griqua National Council which represents the country’s 200 000 Griqua people, part of the Koi-San group, brought Saartjie Baartman back to South Africa. On Friday 3 May 2002, in a moving ceremony attended by many representatives of the Khoikhoi people, Saartjie Baartman was welcomed back to Cape Town. Her final resting place is in the Eastern Cape, where she was born.
With regard to Saartjie Baartman’s name, we are aware that according to her baptism certificate (Saartjie was baptized in England), her name is written Sara Bartmann. In most writings, she is referred to as Sarah or Saartjie Baartman, where Saartjie is the Afrikaans diminutive of Sarah.
Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was forced to reveal her buttocks and labia to curious Europeans in a human circus, the bodies of Black women have been scrutinized and uniformly judged as lacking and/or sub-human. While our bodies may no longer be on display, the fixation with the buttocks of Black women reveals that the “The Hottentot Venus” stereotype is still very much a part of social discourse.
(see Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton Crais)
And people wonder why we are sometimes treated almost like circus animals out here in Asia. It’s because this is the type of treatment that the West normalized and exported for hundreds of years across the globe. Black people were objects to be gawked, wondered at and exploited, and they taught the rest of the world to view and treat us similarly to exacerbate anti-blackness and prop up white supremacy globally. This continues to this day in slightly more subtle forms in the West (e.g. black people’s hair being everyone else’s “right” to accost), but in east Asia the destruction this discourse has wrought is very apparent. You honestly feel like an animal out here at times. #BlackinAsia