Saartjie Baartman: The Story of the Many Sides of Autonomy

(Trigger Warning: this blog post contains discussions of racialized sexual violence against black women.)

A figure who has come up A LOT in my scholarship this semester is Saartjie Baartman.  Baartman, or the “original booty queen,” was “the most famous black woman in 19th-century Europe.” (In lieu of perma-linking the same article over and over again, I’m indicating now that the first permalink is the only source I’ll be quoting.)  She was a native of South Africa and worked as a servant until she and her employer hatched a plan.  They decided that they would go to Europe and “make [Saartjie] a star in the human freak show circuit.”  Due to her large buttocks, she and her employers figured she’d become a hit in the eyes of western europeans who had never seen women like Saartjie up close, they’d only heard rumors which focused on the “exoticism” of eroticized body parts (read: longer labia and larger buttocks).

Upon hearing of this rise to fame, many question Saartjie’s autonomy, but it is important to point out how largely talented and willing, Saartjie was.  She was multilingual and able to play many instruments.  Her shows were popular in part because of her immense talents, as well as unfortunately a white gaze rooted in objectification and racism.  Saartjie, “all of 20 when she left for England” was naïve, but not enslaved. She was “paid for [her] work” and “she agreed to the terms of her subjugation.”  Most telling of Saartjie’s autonomy was her decision to remain fully clothed throughout her performances, she opted to wear a flesh toned bodysuit which suggested nudity, but didn’t actually provide it.  This bodily autonomy becomes important later.  More telling however is the instance in which abolitionists attempted to “save her” from her life of performance. Their movement was taken to court and Baartman testified; she argued that she wanted to stay, determined to make “her fortune.”

In Paris, Baartman was hit with too much publicity too soon.  She “succumbed to alcoholism and became a recluse.”  She died at 26 in Paris.  What happened post mortem is far more morbid than anything that happened in her life before Paris.  “Less than 24 hours after her death,” Baartman was dissected “in the anatomical laboratory of the Natural History Museum.”  Georges Cuvier, who is addressed in a poem in Angles of Ascent, is the doctor responsible for the desecration of Baartman’s remains.  

Her body was torn apart and examined “in the name of science.”  It is no surprise that “special attention” was paid to her genitals.  It seems that when racial difference is attempted to be proven, in women especially, genitals are focused on.  Linda Williams argues in her book, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “the Frenzy of the Visible,” that female pleasure is mythologized as a mystery due to freudian concepts which see the vagina as a lack (of penis).  The vagina is seen as dark, cavernous, space where sex is a mystery waiting to be discovered (by men).  Given this assumption that women’s sexual difference is located in the vagina, it makes sense that racist scientists have attempted to explain racial difference in terms of genital difference.  

There is a long sexual history of fascination in female genitalia and especially the female genitalia of racial minorities.  It has been argued in the past that larger labia are indicative of a more vivacious and insatiable sexuality, which explains the assumed connection between African women and larger labia.  On the flip side, Asian women’s genitals have often been viewed in the opposite way, as smaller which then posits an asian sexuality as docile and submissive.  (These assumptions are clearly racist and largely incorrect as women of all races have differing genital configurations independent of race.  I only put forth these assumptions, as assumptions, to bolster an argument about why Saartjie’s body was treated the way it was.  I am in no way supporting or excusing these assumptions.)

Saartjie Baartman is an important historical figure who faced horrific discrimination post mortem.  For all the efforts she made during her life to conceal and take ownership over her body, what happened to her after her death should never be forgotten.  It is important that her name be repeated and her story be told. We must remember the ways in which she was autonomous and the ways in which her autonomy was taken from her.  


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