Historically, Saartjie (pronounced Sar-key) Baartman, pejoratively called the Hottentot Venus better illustrates the way black women enter academic intercourse. Baartman’s distinguishing feature for the European scientific community that exploited her for nearly two centuries was her really large butt. Baartman served as the sign of black womanhood, as the very embodiment of phallic lack—a lack of knowledge, a lack of intellect, of dignity, of respect, of desire, a lack of power, a lack of humanity.
Some years ago I sat in a room in Cambridge, listening to Suzan Lori Parks read from her work and share her motivation for writing a play based on the life of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. Baartman voluntarily left her home in Cape Town, South Africa in 1810 to seek her fame and fortune as a performer. Her departure was motivated by William Dunlop, a naval doctor, who thought her distended backside might draw a crowd. When Baartman reached Europe, she could speak several languages. Nevertheless, she was forced to perform nearly naked in a cage as part of a freak show in Piccadilly, England. Overlooking her intelligence, ambition, and courage, Europeans paid to see Baartman’s black butt. The efforts of abolitionists who sought to free her from this life of public humiliation were thwarted by Baartman’s testimony that she was a willing participant in this exhibition with a share of the profits.
Later, Baartman was sold to a French entrepreneur who brought her to Paris where she was studied for scientific evidence of the mythic “Hottentot apron,” a physical marker reported by European travelers to confirm the Khoisan woman’s sexual and racial difference. As Baartman’s biographer, Rachel Holmes asserts:
There was a typical colonial contradiction about black female sexuality at the heart of how travelers and scientists imagined the ‘Hottentot apron’. It was seen to signify the notion that Khoisan women were simultaneously uncontrollably libidinous and coyly modest. Whether a result of nature or nurture, the apron, it was believed, functioned to conceal and contain excessive sexuality and deviant desires. In time-honored tradition, the virgin and the whore were rolled into one. (142)
After her untimely death in 1816, anatomist Georges Curvier dissected her labia and presented it to the Academie Royale de Medecin as an explanation for the African woman’s “primitive sexual appetite.” Baartman’s dismembered posterior and genitalia were given to La Musée de l’Homme and kept on display along with her skeleton until the mid 1970s. In the reductive reasoning of the French scientific community Baartman was literally reduced to meat and bones. Baartman’s pickled parts were exhibited like those of a rare species and bore the weight of racial stereotypes about black women for nearly two hundred years. Late in the twentieth century, she became the focus of an international struggle waged by South Africa to bring her body home. In her lifetime, as Holmes notes, Baartman was “[f]ought over like disputed territory” (90), a dispute over territorial boundaries which remained unsettled well beyond her lifetime. Uncertain as to the response from various nations who might want to lay claim to other museum holdings, France was reluctant to turn over Baartman’s remains. In April 2002, nearly two centuries after she left Cape Town, Baartman was finally dignified with a burial in her homeland.
South Africa’s insistence on moving beyond mere memorial to the actual ceremonial retrieval of Baartman’s remains is fundamentally a dispute over possession. South Africa’s claim on her body seeks to repudiate Western domination and the colonization of its people. Interring Baartman’s material remains in her homeland reinforces South Africa’s discursive claims on her story. The international squabble mirrors the academic contest as Black women strive to repossess Baartman’s body after centuries of abuse in the hands of white, male discourse. Consider what Parks says about writing plays:
A play is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature. Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to—through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life—locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down. (“Possession” 4)
Such a philosophy places history under the management and authorial control of the playwright. For Parks, history is the embodiment of the past in the present. Once Parks liberates herself from chronological constraints and sees the past, as Deborah McDowell describes it, “as a function of a continuous present,” she is able to move freely through not only time and space. Both time and space, then, function as discourse available for Parks’s skillful crafting. Her masterful negotiation of the “special strange relationship between theatre and ‘real life’ place her within the present performance even as it works discursively to remove her from material limitations. Playwriting becomes more than a simple memorial. It functions as a ceremonial retrieval, a way of calling back and giving new life to that which seemed irretrievably lost—at least so long as the play is performed. The play and the playwright are lent as vessels, immersed in the ancient African act of ritual possession. As Houston Baker notes, “In specifically diasporic terms, ‘being possessed’ (as slave, but also as a BEING POSSESSED) is more than a necessary doubling or inscribed ‘otherness’ of the con-scripted (those who come, as necessity, with writing). For in the diaspora, the possessed are governed not simply by script but also by productive conditions that render their entire play a tripling” (53). The spirits of dead ancestors, whose bones are buried in unmarked graves, have names that are lost to memory and must be unearthed, dug up, in Parks’s conception, from the “Great Hole in History.” History is a sort of possession—the past taking over a body for the purpose of “re-membering” in a way that Toni Morrison suggests in Beloved.
By making Baartman the subject of their work, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elizabeth Alexander, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sandra Gilman, Londa Schlebinger, Jean Young, and others allow the Hottentot Venus to enter an intercourse around race and sex as subject rather than as a mere object of commerce. This engagement serves as a vital stage in the liberation of the black female identity from the denigrating hands of a white, male intellectual culture content to reduce the African American woman, either through metaphor or metonymy, to an ass.
Baker, Houston A. Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1987.
Holmes, Rachel. The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman Born 1789-
Buried 2002. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.
McDowell, Deborah. “Reading Family Matters,” Changing Our Own Words: Essays on
Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Cheryl A. Wall, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991. 75-97.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. “Possession,” The America Play and Other Stories. New York: Theatre
Communications Group, 1995. 3-5.