Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hottentot Venus: American women are buying what came naturally to South African Sara Baartman

In 1992 there was a song titled “Baby Got Back” by rapper Anthony Ray,better known as Sir Mix-a-Lot. In the song he confesses: “I like big butts and I cannot lie . . .” It was a number one hit on the Billboard.  Laughably, no one is lying about liking big behinds anymore. Ironically, long before “big butts” were hyped and popularized by the media, White folks ridiculed, made fun of, and told racist jokes about Black women’s ample posteriors, large lips, and kinky hair.

In the movie “10” starring Bo Derek, a White actress, became a hair setting sensation in the 1979 movie, because she wore her hair in a combination of cornrows and braids, decorated with beads. In that her natural hair was not coarse, or kinky enough to hold the braids in place, the braids and corn rows was kept in place with Elmer’s glue. Movie critics suggested that cornrows, braids and beads were a new hair style phenomenon created exclusively for Derek. That was a lie. African Americans knew it. The “phenomenon” was a joke.

The Jheri Curl, created by a White chemist named Jheri Redding, became the must wear “curly” look for Black folks. When White people decided they liked the style it took off in a different direction. White women, more than White males, adapted the Jheri Curl look. You would think that no one other White people ever wore the curly look. Some African American men are so fond of the look they still wear it today.

Thieves in the beauty industry high jacked large lips when White women discovered that bigger lips are an enhancement rather than a hindrance. Thin lips found a new life when White women discovered them. “Big lips” as they were formally labeled, evolved into “full lips.” Lo and behold! Enhanced lips are now the new rave, along with high cheeks. They are now a must have among White women. Collagen and fatty injections are in hot demand. I recall the  time Black women were laughed at and ridiculed for having full lips.

After the media discovered that Jennifer Lopez has a substantial butt, Black women wondered what the fascination was about.  Anthony Ray said it was Lopez’s butt that inspired his “Baby Got Back” hit. Suddenly big butts were stylish and highly desired. Fatty injections inflated flat derrieres, giving them curvature. The “make my booty bigger” business is shooting through the roof. Big asses are now as common as false nails, weaves,  hair extensions and eye lashes. No creditable mention has been given to Black women for the abundant butts they were born with, passing the gene onto their daughters, granddaughters, even their sons. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that some White and Latino women have big butts they did not pay to get. But my limited knowledge tells me that big butts are prevalent and more noted among African  women and Black women in America.

Kim Kardashian’s butt is the new sensation. A magazine recently compared her protruding ass to that of the Hottentot Venus, an African woman who lived centuries ago. In the magazine Kardashian’s behind is photo-shopped, uplifted and shiny smooth. I suspect that her backside is the results of fatty injections, unlike the naturalness of the Hottentot Venus.
Bust of Sara (Saartije) Baartman, Hottentot Venus

The Hottentot Venus, a member of the Khoikhoi (Khoisan) culture, was a young South African woman named Sara Baartman (her first and last names are spelled in a variety of ways.) No one knows her actual African name. Cartoon images of Baartman are visually abusive, degrading and disrespectful. Her ample butt is deliberately exaggerated and protruding. She is pictured smoking a pipe, holding a staff, fully dressed, or half dressed. The size of her behind and overstated height gives the impression that she was a giant woman, towering over European men and women. Her elongated genitalia (labia), a common oddity among Khoisan women, was covered with a cloth or some sort of fringe.

Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Menace of Man 1980s, explains that “The labia minora or inner lips of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vulva when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin.” This curtain of skin that looks like a shield is also called the “Hottentot Curtain.”

 Hottentot women

 Khoisan women had a condition called steatopygia, described as a high degree of fat that accumulates around the women's buttocks. The amassed fat expands to the outside, and front of their thighs. Steatopygia is not limited to women. Khoisan men are also known to have this condition. It has been found in Pygmies in Central Africa, and among Andaman Islanders in Southeast Asia, even among American women.

Steatopygia is a sign of beauty in the Khosian culture. The fat accumulation begins in infancy. It is fully developed by child bearing age, or after a woman gives birth to her first child. The fatty tissue produced the formation of an elongated labia. Baartman’s labia and large buttocks were the main attractions that Europeans paid to see.

Photos of Khoisan women reveals that their butts—ranging from slim to ample—resembles those of African American women everywhere. However, South African women did not wear clothes as was then the custom, leaving their breasts and derrieres exposed.

In all of the many cartoons of Baartman, her butt is protrudes, sometimes getting measured by European males. Curios audiences of men and women gawk with glee at the dishonorable exploitation of this young woman. In the cartoons Sara's butt is compared to European men and women, whose rear-ends were comically enlarged and upraised to match hers. These negative images were intended to be funny, and an incentive to go to the freak show. After reading several articles about Sara Baartman I found that some authors suggested that she was naked when showcased like a circus act.

“At the New York Film Festival of 2010, one of the more unusual selections being introduced to the attendees was a French film titled ‘Venus Noire’, or in English, ‘Black Venus.’ It was unusual in the sense that the film had even been considered for a screening before American audiences, whose familiarity with history’s darker chapters is often of the most basic sense, especially in matters where race is concerned. The story of South Africa’s most famous Khoisan woman who went by the name Saartije, although not the only African exploited and exhibited as if she were caged animal during the 19th century. The film’s opening scene shows a respected French scientist of the early 19th century by the name of George Cuvier presenting to his colleagues a plaster cast of Saartije’s body along with two jars: one containing Saartije’s genitalia and the other her brain.” (John Hopkins Magazine)

George Cuvier was a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of National History. When Baartman died he got permission from the police to take her body. He dissected her body, and put her brains and genitals on exhibit for 150 years at the museum. Prior to her death it was arranged to have Baartman visit Cuvier at the museum. Reportedly, he offered to pay to examine her genitalia, with the intent to prove his theory about sexuality. Cuvier theorized that the more primitive the mammal, the more pronounced the sexual organs and sexual drive. Supposedly, Baartman refused be examined by Cuvier. He  somehow concluded that the Hottentots were more  akin the great apes than to humans.

When young Saartije (Sara) Baartman was swooshed from South Africa she had no way of knowing if she would ever see her place of birth again.  In her new environment The Hottentot Venus did not live a happy life. Stories written about her indicates that she did not have a happy life in her homeland. Baartman was born around 1789 in the Camtoos or Green Valley, about 400 miles from Cape Town. Her people were cattle  herders --Conaqua--a subgroup of the Khoikhoi culture.  She was  raised on a colonial farm wher she and her  family worked as servants.

"To mark her first menstruation, she was given a tortoise shell necklace. She kept the piece with her until her death, but the way of life it represented was violently disappearing. "She was born at a time when the Gonaqua were losing their independence as a people and effectively being hunted out or subjugated and turned into indentured laborers on white farms," Crais says. (John Hopkins Magazine)

“Sara grew up on a colonial farm where her family most probably worked as servants. Her
Life size sculpture and skeleton Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, on exhibit in Paris' Musee de L'Homme Museum until 1974. She was on display in life and in death.

mother died when she was two years old; her father died when she was an adolescence. Baartman married a Khoikhoi man,  they had one child together, but it died shortly after birth.  

“Due to colonial expansion, the Dutch came into conflict with the Khoikhoi. As a result people were gradually absorbed into the labour system. When she was sixteen years old Sara’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists. Soon after, she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara.” (South Africa History online)

Reportedly, the young woman signed a contract presented to her by a sip surgeon named William Dunlop. He was a friend to Pieter Cezar (also spelled Cesars) and his brother Hendrik. In the contract it was agreed that Saartije (or Sara) Baartman would go to England with them, and onto Ireland to work as a domestic servant. Combined with her domestic duties she would also be a source of entertainment.

Baartman was supposed to get paid for being the main and only attraction in the scheduled sideshows. The contract supposedly stated that she would be free to return to South Africa after five years of performing in England. There was one little kink in the link that made her signature on the dotted line appear somewhat doubtful. Baartman was illiterate. She could not read or write. She came from a cultural tradition that did not write or keep records. It seems the Cezar family was having financial difficulties, and she was their means of getting out of debt.

She headed for London with Dunlop and Cesars, a free Black man, and servant to Dunlop. They intended to make money showing off her unusual body to Europeans, all of whom were catering to their own sexual fascination with aboriginal peoples. England had a ballooning  stage trade in “human scientific curiosities.”

Baartman’s first performance was held at 225 Piccadilly in London, where the audience paid two shillings to see the new human curiosity. Piccadilly is where the African wonder was first introduced as the Hottentot Venus, September 24, 1810. The word “Hottentot” was created by the Dutch, and first recorded in the late 17th century. Hottentot is no longer acceptable among the cultures that were previously identified with the term. The word is viewed as offensive.

The Hottentot Venus, Sara (Saartije) Baartman of South Africa is often characterized as a freak of nature in cartoons and bios on her life.

“To London audiences, she was a fantasy made of flesh, uniting the imaginary force of two powerful myths: Hottentot and Venus. The latter invoked a cultural tradition of lust and love; the former signified all that was strange, disturbing and - possibly - sexually deviant. Almost overnight, London was overtaken by Saartije mania. Within a week, she went from being an anonymous immigrant to one of the city's most talked-about celebrities. Her image became ubiquitous: it was reproduced on bright posters and penny prints, and she became the favoured subject of caricaturists and cartoonists.” (The Guardian)

“Prancing in the nude, with her jutting posterior and extraordinary genitals, she provided the foundation for racist and pseudo-scientific theories regarding black inferiority and black female sexuality. The shows involved Saartje being ‘led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as ordered. Saartje's predicament drew the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, who agitated against slavery and racism. Subsequently, his group pressured the attorney general to stop this circus. Losing the case on a technicality, Saartije spent four years in London and then went to Paris where she was exhibited in a travelling circus, and seen frequently controlled by an animal trainer in the show." (black history pages)

"People came to see her because they saw her not as a person, but as a pure example of this one part of the natural world," Crais says. “The earliest broadsheet announcing the show portrays her mostly nude but for an animal skin draped over one shoulder. Her accessories include a pipe, a staff, and a bold-patterned head wrap. That public image was likely one she helped fashion — her costume was a rough composite of Gonaqua customs, which Dunlop and Cesars would have known little about. "That knowledge would have to reside in Sara Baartman and her childhood living among the last of the Gonaqua," says Crais. (John Hopkins Magazine)

A month after her first appearance as sideshow entertainment, British abolitionists, in a quest to save Baartman from her captors, were convinced that she was brought to London against her will. They believed that she was being held as a slave. The abolitionists commenced a lawsuit on her behalf. However, the case was dismissed, because they could not prove that Baartman was forced to work as a sideshow freak against her will. Dunlop and Cezar produced a contract that “had allegedly been signed by Baartman, and her own testimony suggested that she was not being mistreated. Her ‘contract’ was amended and she became entitled to ‘better conditions’, a greater profit share and warm clothes.” (South African History online)
 Authors and writers of books and articles have parted with a variety of observations regarding Sara Baartman’s appearance, and the exploitation of her naïvete. I wondered if
Steatopygia: sign of beauty
she was on exhibit naked, scantily dressed, or had a swath of cloth to cover her unconventional genitals. All three observations have been suggested in her history.

M. Chauveau, Tilburg University, wrote in a 2012 bachelor thesis that Baartman wore an outfit that matched her skin tone. He noted that the dress was so tight “her shapes above the enormous size of her posterior parts are as visible as if the said female were naked . . . the dress is evidently intended to give the appearance of being underdressed.”  

black history pages notes that she was completely nude. Because the life and times of the Hottentot Venus occurred a couple of centuries ago it is difficult to tell if authors are writing from facts, or from embellished imaginations intertwined with threads of truth. 

There is a general consensus that Sara Baartman lived in Europe from 1810 to 1815. She died at age 26. Researchers Crais and Pamela Scully, a husband and wife team went on an extensive journey to discover who the Hottentot Venus was. They wanted to know more about her life, eventually writing a  book titled “Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography”, Princeton University publications. 

Crais and Pamela Scully parted with details that paints a different picture of the mysterious Sara Baartman. They wrote that she was born in the 1770s — at least a decade earlier than previously thought. During their journey of discovery her life joruney, they write that she had a “series of masters". In Cape Town she gave birth to three babies that died. These children were born to her before she was 20. The writers suggests that Baartman was “married” to a Dutch drummer, rather than a to a Khoikhoi man.

“Crais and Scully's research enabled them to re-create the Cape Town Baartman would have lived in. ‘When the ships came in, the population of Cape Town would literally double with men, with sailors who would have an R&R break before getting back in their boats and heading back to Europe, Crais says. A large military presence added to the city's masculine atmosphere, and prostitutes were in great demand. ‘Our position,’ Crais says, ‘is that Sara Baartman, while in Cape Town, was basically a cosmopolitan woman who had a great deal of information on European men, including their interest in black women's bodies.’”
Hottentot woman 

 Eventually Baartman wound up in Paris in 1814 after the death of William Dunlop. Her already worse life turned into a bigger nightmare.

The year 1815 brought rapid changes to the city. Crops failed and food prices climbed. Napoleon reclaimed power and then lost it at Waterloo in June. As the country sank into a depression, the public had less to spend on such amusements as the Hottentot Venus. Baartman's promoter was reduced to showing her at lesser venues, including a brothel, where she may also have been prostituted. The winter of 1815, the researchers discovered, was especially cold and harsh for Paris' poor. Baartman died, possibly of pneumonia, by year's end. ‘She seems to have been alone when she died,’ Scully says — one of the ‘crucial moments’ in Baartman's life when the evidence ‘floats away from us.’” (John Hopkins Magazine)

Rumors had it that Sara Baartman died of smallpox, syphilis, alcoholism or pneumonia. Each writer of her bio settles on the disease that best suits their stories. Baartman's remains were eventually returned to South Africa after years of negotiating and wrangling about who had the right to retain what was left of her. 

Once forgotten, Sara Baartment's life was brought alive again in 1981 by palentologist StephenPresident Nelson Mandela, in 1994, had requested that the French government return the remains of Baartman --now is jars -- so that she could be properly buried and put to rest. The request took eight months to complete. On March Sara Baartman's came home to South Africa, where she was buried on Women’s Day, August 9, 2002, a public holiday in South Africa. She is lying to rest at Henkey in the Eastern Province. A refuge for survivors of domestic violence—The Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children—opened in Cape Town in 1999.

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