I was asked a surprising question the other day: “Have you ever heard of Sarah Baartman?” It was surprising because I had honestly never heard of this woman: Sarah Baartman. I was taken aback because I like to think that I’m up on things. I know who latest celebrity phenoms are; I know most of the singles that are hot on the radio now; I’m usually on top of things. My sister even calls me Mr. Wizard because I tend to have answer for everything. This Sarah Baartman though; she, I didn’t know.
It turns out; Sarah Baartman is a woman I should have known about. She is a woman we all should know about. She was the “property” of a Dutch slave-owner near Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1800’s. She was sent to Europe as part of an “exhibit” because of her “exotic beauty”. She toured around Europe dancing for the masses in all of her exotic glory, almost completely nude. She was dubbed “Hottentot Venus”. To cut right to the chase, she was debased even further upon her death. When she died on December 29 1815, an autopsy was performed that described some of her features as ape-like. Her small ears were likened to those of an orangutan, and the energy she displayed while alive was compared to that of a monkey.
If that wasn’t bad enough (and that’s pretty awful, all on its own), she was dissected and taken apart; all in the name of science. A cast of her corpse was made so her form could continue to be displayed. Then her skeleton and her brain were removed; along with her vagina. All was displayed in the Paris Musée de l’Homme, or the Museum of Man, until 1974. Even then, the cast was kept on display while the other “pieces” were removed. It would be many years before Sarah Baartman could go home; it wasn’t until 2002 that her remains were returned to her homeland for a proper and dignified burial. Think about that: it took nearly two-hundred year (one-hundred-eighty-seven to be exact) for Sarah Baartman to get home. But why is this relevant?
New versions of this treatment of women pop up all over the cultural landscape. The continued objectification, specifically of black women but also women in general, is a systemic problem in our culture. Sarah Baartman has been called “one of the first Video Vixens; before radio, before television”. The YouTube video that does such a great job educating us on the story of Sarah Baartman also calls out our entire society for failure to remember it. “Black America I found you guilty,” the speaker (quietstorm9421) says. Although it isn’t just Black America, it’s all of America; it’s the whole world. Too many people were raised ignorant of the terrible injustice perpetrated upon this woman’s memory and her life.
Women are continually relegated to levels of importance based on their curves and cup size. This is particularly insidious for black women simply because of the cultural histories of women like Sarah Baartman. The biggest problem is perpetrated within the community and by people who could be leaders in that community. Quietstorm9421 puts it this way:
Back then we were forced to degrade ourselves to the level of being some-man’s-whore. Today we willingly degrade ourselves…. But many of us sold our daughters…. We sold them for… the chance to say “That’s my baby on TV!” Have we no shame? No guilt? We can’t blame the white man for this one. On concert stages all over the world our black men proclaim to the world that his women are Bitches and Hos. It’s so common that some of us think this is our name – and answer to it…. Do you hear the ancestors crying out “Is this what we died for?” I say no.
Blogger Ciera V. Scott explains it, too:
The modern-day slave woman’s auction block is now called a “stripper pole” and you can find a plethora of Sarah Baartman’s in the sultry, painted faces and curvaceous bodies of any rapper’s video vixens. In his song, “Buy You a Drink,” rapper T-Pain croons “I’ma buy you a drink, then I’ma take you home with me.” Throughout history, this particular message regarding the worthiness of Black women in society has been made to be very clear. We are property. We are to be at the sexual disposal of any man who “invests” in us. “I took you to dinner, therefore you must have sex with me. I bought you a drink, therefore you must have sex with me. I helped you pay your light bill, therefore you must have sex with me.”
People are only every as strong as we choose to be. We can only achieve the respect that we know we deserve. Sarah Baartman deserved better than the life she lived. She deserved better than the death she found. Her legacy deserved better than what it is. Every woman deserves better.