One of the things that we as black women often struggle with are the ugly stereotypes that were facilitated centuries ago by male oppressors. When I was younger, I used to watch music videos 24/7. I watched videos of all genres and during the “gangsta rap” era in the 90s, I was a huge fan Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Biggie. However, I always felt conflicted when I would see the depiction of women in these videos. I would cringe when I would see a beautiful black woman shaking her rear and wearing clothing that accentuated her “assets” so to speak, to simply glorify her hypersexuality. I would bob my head to the music, yet feel guilty inside for seeing women carry themselves that way on television.
I’m not a feminist writer, nor do I claim to be someone that feels the need to be defiant towards the male species, but it still bothers me that to this day, images of us being portrayed in TV and Film still harbor the same negative stereotypes that were directed towards us a couple of centuries ago. The image of the “Black Female Booty” goes back to the 19th century when a slave by the name Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was purchased and sold to be scrutinized as a circus sideshow freak because of her medical condition called steatopygia. This specific condition is caused by a highly concentrated amount of fat in the buttocks and sometimes extends to the front of the thighs and knees. It is a genetic characteristic in the Khoisan and Bantu tribes in South Africa. Saartjie was born to a Khoisan family in South Africa. Under false pretenses, in 1810 she was convinced by an English doctor to travel to London, England where should become wealthy due to her extravagant looks.
Saartjie had this condition that not only caused her to have extremely pronounced buttocks, but she also had an enlarged labia. She was dubbed by many Europeans as “The Hottentot Venus” and was considered an anthropological oddity. The images of Saartjie resonated extensively over time and many Europeans' ideals of black women’s anatomy was based on the experiences of Saartjie’s forced labor in these exhibitions. Saartjie was one of many other Khoisan women who were put on display to be ridiculed and judged solely based off their appearance. Her intelligence was also undermined by her voluptuous looks and a social anthropologist who met Saartjie, declared her a mixture between “the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life”. Saartjie stood her ground when it came to exposing her labia; she refused to spread her legs to satisfy the piqued interests of oppressors and maintained the anatomy of her buttocks as the only part of her body to be revealed. Saartjie’s anthropological phenomena wore thin with the public and eventually she resorted to a life of heavy drinking and prostitution to support herself.
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman died on December 29th 1815 from what some determine as smallpox and others determined as syphilis that she may have contracted from her years of prostitution. She had hopes of living a better life by moving to London, but in the end she was a victim who was chewed up and spit out simply because of what she looked like to others and not who she truly was. The ugly truth about Saartjie’s story is that somehow it has culminated into hip hop culture. In jest, Sir-Mix-Alot had a hit single called “Baby Got Back”. The video depicts tightly dressed women accentuating their breasts and butts with a mound of a female butt in the background. The song is dedicated to that specific part of the female anatomy. One could argue what would this video have to do with Saartjie Baartman?
In the video opening there is a moment of ridicule between two white girls in disgust of a black woman’s butt. Nowhere in the video does it depict the enlarged size of a white female’s behind, but to the contrary it depicts the lack voluptuousness for white women in that area. The gawking of the black woman twirling around and poking out her behind while the women stare is indicative of what Saartjie Baartman more than likely went through when she was on display in London. Songs like Destiny’s Child ‘Bootylicious’, Wreckx-N-Effect’s ‘Rump Shaker’, and Parliament’s ‘Rumpofsteelskin’, are just a few examples of a plethora of songs (mostly in hip-hop) that exploit and gawk at the gluteus maximus muscle. These are also examples of songs that still carry the story of how this kind of imagery of black women began in the first place. The ideal that it is still okay to celebrate these images and ignore Saartjie’s story is an injustice to the kind of progress we look toward as women of color.
Saartjie’s story is important today because we have to remember as incredibly gifted, talented, black women that we have more to offer the world than a hypersexualized part of our anatomy. We cannot assume that only good looks and a stellar body will get us the wealth and desires of our heart, and we cannot allow men or people of other races to oppress us simply because what was once dictated in our history. I think that sometimes some of the weakest communities of solidarity are among African American women. We are so quick to throw vitriol to one another rather than forming an alliance to build and empower each other. It is only when there is a tyrannical force against us, that somehow we become united. I believe that we should always be strong and supportive of one another and not just focus on the fight, but also focus on ideals to stay poised as women of God who have so much value to offer to this world. If you have an opportunity, there is a documentary film called The Life and Times of Sara Baartman directed by Zola Maseko which depicts the social injustice of what Baartman went through and how those same injustices still affect women today.
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Black Venus: The Saartjie Baartman Story - Full Film
Jamie is the creator of Black Girl Nerds. The site is geared towards a subculture of women who embrace their nerdiness and feel empowered by their quirky personalities. Jamie has been blogging since 2007 and hold a Masters degree in Film and Marketing.