You Can't Ignore The Degradation of Saartjie Baartman To Connect Her To Kim Kardashian. You Just Can't.

Open season on black women is over.
Publish date:
November 17, 2014
race, colonialism, exploitation

On Friday, Jezebel published a piece called Saartjie Baartman: The Original Booty Queen. In it, Cleuci de Oliveira wrote about Saartjie Baartman, aligning Baartman, Kim Kardashian (using her “Paper” magazine cover as a starting point), and Nicki Minaj as the titular “Booty Queens.” It was detailed. It was researched. It was protracted. And it was wrong.

Perhaps, in our world of Opinion Journalism and Thinkpieces, it’s foolish for me to label it “wrong.” But I’m not sure how else to describe the undercurrent of not-rightness that tore through the entire thing like a riptide at the beach on a summer afternoon.

Saartjie Baartman’s story is too big to tell here without compromising the respect she deserves. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited in Europe as the attraction, “Hottentot Venus.” Even that is like a gross oversimplification, but it is the fact of her denigration that provides the context for the considerable missteps in the Jezebel article.

Here’s a small selection from the intro on the discussion of “butts,” which the author describes as “insanely big right now, both in a literal and figurative sense”:

“Illegal immigrant,” “most famous black woman,” “her notable booty”—I guess technically these could be ways to describe a woman who was taken from Africa to Europe to be displayed in freak shows and human zoos. But if you’re hanging your hat on technicalities, you’ve already lost.

The Jezebel essay says of Baartman that “She regaled packed audiences with [her] routines,” and she was “the talk of Europe.” These all sound like good things. The woman was dehumanized in the purest sense of the word; her body was displayed as a spectacle and even dissected, pickled and exhibited after her death. To focus on the audience’s delight is offensive.

In mentioning the details of Baartman’s early days, Cleuci can’t help but mention a few pesky little realities of oppression, but she seems to gloss over them in favor of painting a picture of a starlet who “did not leave Africa against her will,” and instead “left for England” to “make it big” by “building a career with [her] assets.”

There are passing mentions of whitewashing and cultural appropriation up front, but what follows is some sort of perverse retelling of Baartman’s life as an early incarnation of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. I couldn’t help but bristle at this white-appearing Latina author’s assertion about Baartman that “Few people know her name in America,” because to me that is the crux of the problem here.

Black people know her name. Non-black people who are aware of and respect the realities of colonialism know her name. Women who fight daily for agency over our bodies know her name.

By the way, let’s talk about that name: In Jezebel, Cleuci writes that:

No one knows if, as a woman belonging to the Khoikhoi tribe, she was ever christened with a traditional Khoisan name. In life, she was Saartjie—"little Sara" in Afrikaans, the language spoken by Dutch settlers.

Historically, so many of us lost our names. Our names. We were renamed by colonizers, assigned the names of our owners, or our native names simply weren’t given the honor or respect of coming with us when we were snatched from where they originated. It doesn’t make much sense to write cheerfully of financial gain and performance routines in the context of someone whose given name, a vital part of human identity, is itself in question.

The woman was taken from her native Africa to be exhibited in human freak shows for white people to gawk at and poke with sticks. To cling to the revisionist excuse that she was "fairly compensated" is downright offensive.

Is it “fair” that human beings were herded and in some cases kidnapped to be put on display as “freaks”? Either you think it is, or you choose to ignore that fact to begin with–those are the only ways you could declare anything that happens in that context as “fair.”

Cleuci and the sources she quotes seem to be delighted at the fact that when abolitionists sought to publicly assist her, Baartman herself testified that she agreed to perform. This statement, in stark contrast to the documented awfulness of the conditions in which she performed, is all some people need to know in order to declare her the master of her own destiny.

She did still work for her bosses in a domestic capacity as well, and I cannot even fathom the level of sexual abuse she must have endured, but I suppose in a world where coercion, degradation, and abuse can be poo-pooed because the victim once said “It’s OK,” everything seems legit and “duress” isn’t even a thing.

The people who seek to sell this tall tale also tell us that many slaves were treated very well. Thanks for that, but in the context of slavery, what does “treated well” look like? Oh, and please tell me again how female slaves delighted in manipulating their masters for personal gain, people who view history selectively.

This idea that oppressed people surviving in horrific conditions are to be celebrated as cunning entrepreneurs is barely acceptable BUT could possibly be argued, if the horrific part is made plain in all of its ugliness. In the context of slavery, indentured servitude, and the commodification of human beings, full agency simply doesn’t exist.

For this Jezebel piece to quote a professor of art history as saying “she agreed to the terms of her own subjugation” and then go on to focus on some sort of American Idol-ish desire to be a famous pop star and not the subjugation is just plain irresponsible, and to suggest that Saartjie Baartman made “career” choices and negotiated contracts in even remotely in the same way as Nicki Minaj or Kim Kardashian is an affront to my soul.

I may have my quibbles with it, but I understand how this here internet machine works. I despise the SEO and commerce aspects, but they are very real and it seems to me as though this article embraces an opportunity to capitalize on Kim Kardashian’s digital domination and be able to tweet her article with the #BreakTheInternet hashtag.

Over at The Daily Mail, Tim Butcher had a similar idea that was published two hours before Jezebel’s, and although his article also bears a clumsily rude title, it is actually far more informed and inoffensive, exhibiting possibly the best case scenario of linking Kardashian news to a historic tragedy, in this world we live in where such a thing is a goal.

The worst part about writing this right now is that it feels futile. Ultimately, the Internet’s gonna Internet and this may mean nothing at all. But, as I’ve said before in this very space, I consider it a privilege that you’re reading these words right now. It is an honor and it is not one I take lightly. If that makes me sound like a cornball, I’ll be that.

To me, the ubiquitousness of online opinions and blogging and the seemingly inevitable result of lessening concern for accuracy or propriety need not be a foregone conclusion. There seems to be an inverse relationship between abundance and quality, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand idly by as black women continue to suffer the brunt of this irresponsibility.

I said it here, I said it here, I said it here, and I’m saying it here. Open season on black women is over. Does every marginalized group have their struggles? Absolutely. Does every human have personal struggles that are not necessarily erased by systemic privilege? Absolutely. But time and again it’s black women upon whose backs the internet steps for clickbait and punchlines, and the individual harm of what seems like “business as usual” is real and significant.

I woke up this morning still black, still a woman, and still bothered by the Jezebel piece. So I’m here using my voice to encourage us all to speak up. Applying some bullshit revisionist filter to our hideous history for clicks is not how we’re going to move forward. It may be uncomfortable and it may not fit some preposterous narrative construct of “Booty Queens” and cunning maneuvers in free enterprise, but to honor Saartjie Baartman’s exploitation is to recognize her humanity and that she was an actual person who lived and died. Her life story resonates in the rampant objectification and exploitation of our bodies that is still going on, not as some aspiring singer/dancer with stars in her eyes.

Hopefully we all know by now that authors don’t always choose titles and editing can alter the tone of a piece, but the content here was so deeply skewed away from the undeniable context of Baartman’s life that it feels intentional. As of this writing, the author is replying to criticism on Twitter with the aforementioned technicalities about Saartjie Baartman’s salary and also saying she’ll be addressing the criticism further, possibly in another format. Her tone so far is respectful but still indignant, and while I look forward to her response, we’ve been through enough of these outrage cycles that I’m not exactly hopeful.

It always seems like there’s someone passing the buck when these things happen; someone saying that they didn’t think of the potential harm to black women or they didn’t mean anything by it.

Please mean something when you write about us. Listen to us when we speak about our experiences. Words about us matter because we matter. Do better.