Saartjie Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman. Throughout her life, she used as an exhibition in the early 1800s of Black woman’s disfiguration and difference. The point of the exhibition was to exaggerate the features of the Black woman in comparison to European females. At this time, White men controlled female sexuality and reproduction for all women, Black and White. However, this public display of unclothed, and scantily clad Black women as suggestively robust gave way to the idea that we are not women by definition.
The White female, by historical definition and demonstration, are vulnerable to being polluted, as white womanhood as an idea should reproduce purity. But, the Black female, by one’s historical definition, is the very portal through which slavery was born. Her identity includes the duality of producer and reproducer — producer for the global market, and reproducer of the slave system cycle. Under patriarchal control, the Black woman has caricatures or myths created for her that constitute the counter image of the Victorian lady. However, it needs to recognized that these caricatures and myths are constructed identities, not a real embodiment of the Black woman.
The viewing of unclothed Black women derived from having to
come up with a reason why Black enslaved women were so often raped and abused. It had to be their fault; the sexual act had to be their initiative. For she is not strong, but animalistic. This philosophy does not acknowledge the possibility for rape, because she was always “asking for it.” This is the same philosophy to later birth the idea that women who are scantily clad, or who have invitingly irresistible features of Black woman (that no poor man can resist), cannot be raped because they are always “asking for it.”
“Khoi women’s dramatically endowed figures and especially their large, fleshy buttocks (medically termed steatopygia) were seen as markers for their sexual prowess;” markers that continue to excuse the exploitation and rape of both free and enslaved Black female bodies (Washington, 83). These markers are also used to draw a dramatic parallel between Black and White women as far as what place they hold in society, how they are valued and how they contribute to the construction of Whiteness and Blackness. Much of the scientific conversation regarding Black women involved “hinting [at] how much the Victorians had inferred about morality and intelligence from the relative nakedness of Africans,” (Washington, 83). The scientific discoveries of Black women, including their minds and bodies, alluded to an innate sexual nature that European women are incapable of fostering and portraying.
In my Black Bodies and Policing Race course, we learned more about Saartjie’s story, who White people backhandedly regarded as “Hottentot Venus,” because the phrase itself seeks to divide Black women from beautiful womanhood. As “she was often portrayed with Cupid… perched on her ample buttocks. Thus, in stark contrast to the “real” white Venus of sublime but unattainable beauty,” it is assumed that Black womanhood cannot compare to the true beauty that is the White woman (Washington, 84). By naming Saartjie’s extended inner labia “‘the Hottentot apron,’ or the sinus pudoris, Latin for ‘veil of shame,’” we gain much understanding of how slavery is apparently reproduced (Washington, 83). We were taught that only Black women can give birth to slavery, and only White women can give birth to freedom, which, within a scientific context, must mean that Black women’s reproductive organs are a vessel of shame. The Black woman stands as the opposite, the alien, the “other,” when compared to White women and therefore there is a necessity to reduce the Black body to animal characters in order to prove its inferiority. This necessity reveals white fear to be the engine behind scientific racism, since science soothed and enabled the myths that we as Black people are dehumanized by.
We are challenging this narrative by retaking control of our sexuality, reproduction and display of our Blackness. My body, your body, is no longer an object to be owned, a spectacle to be gawked at, or a justifiable means of disruption. We are challenging the narrative by asserting our Black features, our nudity, our expression of our bodies – that it is our turn to determine our own sexuality, reproduction and expression of own self.
Is my butt too big?
but should that limit
my range of expression?
The answer is no.
I am no object;
I am no quest.
No matter how wide my hips,
Or how succulent my breasts.
I am my own,
and I am making myself
So, I choose to move through this world
Of how uncomfortable
may make you.