She must have felt so lonely. She probably had very little if any contact with people of similar race abroad – and even if, there were probably even less of the same origin or tongue. Being slaves, they probably were not allowed to engage in much conversation. She must have felt so stricken at the realization of the enslaver’s concept of nudity, and felt so exposed, insulted and stripped off her dignity. She bore the full brunt of humiliation.
Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman was born in 1789. Her name holds evidence of the inhibitions placed on the Khoi from using their native names by colonists. Saartjie was a belittling version of her first name. She was barely twenty years old when she was taken away from her home in South Africa in 1810. She was in the employment of a white settler when a doctor found her physical appearance curious for having large bum and genitalia. He sought to take her away with him back to Paris – probably with the promise of wealth – only for her to be reduced to an object of display, to prove to the white man’s superiority complex, that other races – particularly blacks – were inferior and oversexed. Her form was obviously as different from the typical white woman’s, as many other physical features are from one race to another.
During these public displays she went by the name Hottentot Venus; Hottentont referring to cattle – a nickname given to her people for raring the animals – and Venus, referring to the goddess of beauty – a contradiction, since it was an attribute they did not consider her to possess. She was therefore to be regarded as a Hottentot goddess of beauty.
She must have felt exploited at the point when her function as an exhibit had been made obsolete by a thinning and bored audience, and felt even more helpless in her inability to return home. It is all I can do not to lose my own mind in a bid to assimilate the nature of psychological torments that must have encroached on her sanity as a naive young girl, confronted by the perversions and inhumanities of a foreign land. How destabilizing, to expect one thing for your future, only to be crudely shoved another, without redress, kin or home to seek refuge in. How disfranchising, to be raised as a lady of honor, and then to be treated with debasement; to be referenced with beauty and then with aberrance; to be chaste and then abused; to be innocent, then robbed and defiled; for she had been accepted in her community. How about the effects of experiencing an unfamiliar climate? How can the elements and milieu of Europe affect a young girl being put to public shows stark naked? What reasonable human being would not want to put their hands around the throats of these unconscientious perpetrators in her defense?
Yet the ethical of the day did not because they failed to acknowledge her as a fellow human being. Imperialism was a disease that plagued their world view. This was a daughter, a sister, a person – yet they failed to see that because they had mentally pinned up images of themselves in their arrogance as the standard for the human form.
For what part of scripture states, “Your names shall be Adam and Eve, and ye shall be lean and pale-skinned!”?
It always amazes me how the Bible is so pure and accepting as to attract those not born in Christianity, yet those brought up in the faith recurringly shun its relevance in addressing the plight of the unfairly subordinated.
How hopelessly wasteful for Sarah to die in her twenties. Many of us are still in pursuit of academics at that age. She could have lived over half a century more. Her fate could have been salvaged. She could have ended up establishing a dignified legacy for herself and/or raised a family.
Sarah is said to have taken to alcoholism due to depression and died of syphilis 1816 while in the incomprehensible and dehumanizing ownership of an animal trainer. Upon her death, her brain and genetalia were dismembered and put in jars with preserving liquid for public display by Georges Cuvier, a scientist and founder of comparative anatomy. Commenting on Africans, he enunciated that races with depressed and repressed skulls will always be inferior. He also likened Sarah’s moves to a monkey’s, and her exterior genitalia to that of an orangutan. It was not until 2002 that her remains were allowed back in her homeland for burial, by the persuasions of Nelson Mandela.
I have often wondered, what made one race so different from the other? Not in physical appearance, but more in gullibility. Was it that the African was innately more trusting towards others, thus entrapping himself into servitude? What stopped him from making superior weapons, or advancements in travel? Was it that one race was more focused on art, culture and harmonious living while the other more inclined towards conquests, brutality and engineering? Does my asking of these questions convey that my perspectives have been adversely affected by prolonged scrutiny of afflictions from history such as those suffered by Sarah Baartman? Was colonialism just a case of conman and victim – a game of chance? I hope someone will shade some light for me on this one.
In retrospect, since we are talking injustices and segregation based on ethnic silhouettes, isn’t it curious how Vera Sidika – a Kenyan socialite – now purportedly earns her living just for lightening her skin ton and strutting her big derrière? Or even more how Kim Kardashian – an Armenian – attempts to break the internet, with hers overly glistened?
A socialite is defined as a socially prominent person. What makes today’s socialite prominent? Skin?
Also, does it make you cringe when the stereotypical urban secular artist is thronged by multitudes of video girls erotically wiggling their behinds on camera? Does it make you wonder how the black male artist does all it takes to gain success, then rises through ranks of showbiz, only to/by demeaning the female in his artistry and public performances? How about a female rapper – the likes of Nicki Minaj – parading her own anatomy in the same manner? Does it all boil down to the right of persons to freely express oneself?
It IS different from Sarah’s plight because she was not doing it out of her own accord. There is a huge possibility she was coerced, or that she did not know exactly what she was getting into. It is possible still that she was barely compensated for her troubles, if at all, which contradicts the profits earned by the deliberate flaunts of today’s celebrity. But how do we from one corner of our mouths genuinely applaud these celebrities’ exposés, yet through the other truly empathize with Sarah?
Is the eventuality of earning millions of dollars a valid differentiating factor that exempts today’s celebrity, in view of her explicit theatrics, from Sarah’s degradation?
Today’s artist of the mentioned caliber IS a slave. She is a slave to the systems of the entertainment industry. She has subjected herself to the domination of money, and thrown in her soul as stake. She has forgotten by her own volition what defines her beauty and allowed others to define it for her. She has reduced her worth to sales and thrown away all ideology of dignity. She has lost her identity in the quest of advancing herself, and in the process has dragged others with her. Today’s celebrity’s doings is akin to a prisoner voluntarily shackling herself and her own in bondage. If she would acknowledge the profound power of influence she possesses by redefining and restoring the accurate perception of humanity, the quest to heal the world would be near complete.
So while we attempt to celebrate and restore honor to Sarah, let us not liken her story as some have, to the intrigues of today’s trending notabilities, for they need a redemption of their own – a change of values and a re-prioritization of concerns.
The remains of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman returned home 192 years after she left – an analogy of how stubbornly the hand of slavery still clings to our ankles today. My heart breaks on reflecting her story. She is, however, seen as a symbol of the need to confront the past and restore dignity to Africans. In the words of Thambo Mbeki, her return stands out as a defining moment in the continuing process of emancipation.
Thus, having been affected one way or the other by askew concepts of society – whether perpetrator or victim; directly or indirectly; via media, politics or otherwise – we all should join South Africans in their walk towards liberation.