Remember Sarah Baartman

This is a guest post by Bianca of Latino Sexuality and of The LatiNegr@s Project. I’ll be cross-posting and blogging! Read a bit more about me when we introduced The LatiNegr@s Project team.

Cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is the tenth anniversary of Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie Baartman)  being returned to her home in South Africa. Sarah is an important woman to me because she reminds me of how bodies of Color, bodies that are feminine, and the sexuality of Black and African women remain devalued in the world we live in today. If you do not know Sarah’s legacy I’ll share a bit of it with you here.

Sarah Baartman was a Khoisian woman from South Africa. Born in the late 1780s (yes, you read that correctly), Sarah was a member of the Khoikhoi community. In 1810 an English doctor on a ship, William Dunlop, met her and convinced her to travel to Europe with him. She agreed and Dunlop took her with him to Europe where she was put on display for others to view and given the name “The Hottentot Venus.” Her body shape and size was seen as oddly disfigured by Europeans and Dunlop. The reality was that her body shape and size were very much characteristics of her being a member of her community and thus not that odd.

From an outsider’s perspective she was seen as having extremely large buttocks and genitals and it was these parts of her body that were on display for those in Europe to view, for a price. Each person who wanted to see the body of Sarah, who was marketed as a “freak” paid a price to an animal trainer who “managed” her. We do not know if Sarah was given any of this money. Her body and life on display became a part of the foundation that created the scientific and anthropological theories about African sexualities, Black bodies, and difference that are still present today.

After four years in Europe she went to France where scientist William Cuvier became interested in her for the same reasons Dunlop was. Her “showings” were extremely popular and several images and cartoons were created about her presence in Europe and France. You can see some of those images here. It is believed Sarah may have become a sex worker in order to survive once the doctors lost interest in her. Being in a foreign country with different climate, illnesses, and hygienic expectations, Sarah died of an infection of which people now believe could have been syphilis.

When Sarah died, her body was taken by a museum in Paris: the Musee de l’Homme.  At the museum a cast of her body was created, her brain and genitals removed and “preserved,” and her skeleton all put on display. Again. In the museum. For over 150 years after her death, the museum had her on public display. Some believe it was 1974 that she was removed from public display, others 1985, either way it was well over a century.

Even though her body was no longer on public display, the museum kept her body in their archives. When President Nelson Mandela requested her body be returned in 1994, it took 8 years for an agreement. In May 2002 her body was returned to South Africa and buried August 9, 2002 on South Africa’s Women’s Day.

Now you know a bit about Sarah Baartman’s life (please don’t refer to her as the derogatory name “Hottentot Venus”). When we discussed this in the course I’m teaching about women, art, and culture, my students were shocked. They were shocked that this went on for so long, many stating how they were born only a few short years after she was taken off of public display. Others questioned why there was resistance by the museum in returning her to South Africa. We had a great conversation about what museums represent, who they represent, and what and how are certain people, things, and topics considered art.

Many folks have used her legacy and life as a force for change, activism, and new forms of media and art. For example, in 1998 Khoisian activist and scholar Diana Ferrus wrote “A Poem for Sarah Baartman”  that many believe led to the agreement to send her body home and was read when her body was handed over at the South African embassy in Paris. Her poem is below:

I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.I have come to wretch you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing
for you for you have brought me peace.

I think it’s interesting that as I’ve written this article in a word processing program on my computer, that Sarah’s first name of “Saartjie” and last name were highlighted as being spelled incorrectly, when the names of the two doctors: William Dunlop and William Cuvier, were both recognized and not ever highlighted for misspellings. This is a great example of the normalization of such practices based on white supremacy and eugenics and the erasure of the lives of women of Color and of Sarah Baartman’s.

It is this same erasure that many of us are fighting to end. Some ways to challenge the erasure and invisibility is by sharing her legacy, asking questions, creating knowledge, healing, and seeing the connections of injustice and fighting to end them. Read more about Sarah Baartman’s life and if you are interested encourage your school or local library to purchase the two films about her life by Swazi filmmaker Zola Maseko  “The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman” and “The Return of Sarah Baartman.” 

I’m writing this post, sharing it with my community online, teaching about her life and legacy, and discussing it with people in my life. I’m reminding all of the people of Color in my life they are loved and their bodies their own. What will you do to remember Sarah Baartman?


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