There is a refrain in the musical Hamilton that goes, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” There is no better way than this refrain to summarize the lives of so many marginalized, powerless people—like Sarah Baartman, once known as the “Hottentot Venus”.
I am actually very lucky to have heard about her, because most people in my life have never even heard of her name. I read about her story in one of my classes; ever since then, reading about her has changed a lot of the ways I have looked at contemporary culture.
Sarah Baartman was born around in 1789 in Cape Town, and her parents both passed away before she was two. She was then a domestic servant to a Dutch colonist, with whom she had a baby who also died. She then supposedly signed a contract with William Dunlop, who took her around England to perform in freak shows. She had a condition called “steatopygia”, which meant that she had big bottoms due to the fat that built up in that area. Dubbed the “Hottentot Venus”, Baartman was paraded around in “exotic” clothing and made to stand in various arenas for people to watch her. In private shows, she would go to guests’ homes, where she was looked at and even touched by strangers. When her owners were tried for their exhibition of Baartman, she testified in their favor.
Baartman’s story remains a mystery to many historians. Some argue that she was there at her own will, while others believe she was forcibly doing this type of work. Either way, one thing remains clear: she was objectified as a Black woman in a nearly all-white society. Furthermore, after her death, her dissected body parts were displayed in museums until 1974. Even after her death at the young age of 26, Baartman couldn’t fully have ownership of her body.
Why her? After all, there are so many others who were treated worse than her throughout the history of slavery. Still, Baartman’s story affords an opportunity to look at this narrative from a contemporary angle. My professor in whose class I was first introduced to Sarah Baartman told us that this was the first distinctive point where black women been exploited for their body at such a public level. For so long, my professor said, black women had been raped, beaten, maltreated, and killed under hush-hush circumstances on so many Southern plantations. However, the monetization of Baartman’s “exotic” features for white audiences marked a turning point: this was the moment that Black female bodies became seen as something for public consumption. This has influenced pop culture in so many ways, for better and for worse.
In our current dialogue, there has been a lot of discussion of empowering every woman to take back the claim of her body, owning her sexuality and flaunting it or hiding it as she pleases. But at the same time, there is this pessimistic voice whispering: How can we take back something that has been constructed by a male-dominated society? How can we reclaim something that has been stolen, exploited over and over and over again? And how can anyone repatch the gruesome past that has been paved by the exploitation of people like Baartman?
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these questions, and if I may be so bold, I don’t think the world does either. Few of us even know Sarah Baartman’s name. So how can we apologize for the loss of dignity that our society has taken from her? Perhaps we never can. But perhaps Sarah Baartman is looking down at us right now from whatever paradise she is in, just waiting for us to figure it out.