The history of Sara Baartman (1789-1815), alternatively known as Sarah and its Dutch diminutive Saartjie, is one of immense pain and suffering. Baartman’s story — rather, the telling of it — recently became a hot-button issue, with reports this week that Beyoncé would be writing, making, and starring in a film based on her life. More reports from Beyoncé’s camp have come out to say that this is untrue. Whether she was or she wasn’t, Mrs. Knowles-Carter faced backlash in the media.
I was neither for or against Beyoncé taking the role in such a production. But I am for Baartman’s story being told, and insistent that the story be told well, because her life mattered. The tragedy and injustice that overshadowed her existence and silences her legacy is a master class in the devaluation, objectification and exploitation of Black, female bodies — a class that remains in session today as Black women are trampled over by the white gaze and increasingly becoming victims of state violence.
The actual history of Baartman’s birth has been vigorously debated, and the “fact” that she was born into slavery has been disputed by many modern historians. A member of the Khoikhoi tribe, the indigenous people of western South Africa, Baartman was enslaved by dutchman Pieter Willem Cezar in her teens, then taken to serve as a domestic servant for his brother Hendrik Cezar in Cape Town. Though history doesn’t often mention it, the Cezars were classified as “free Blacks” in South Africa, yet still owned slaves.
Baartman would eventually be sold to William Dunlop, an English doctor; Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar then traveled to England to place Baartman on display as The Hottentot Venus. “Hottentot” was the term the Dutch used for the Khoikhoi when they colonized the region. And “Venus” encompassed the European fetishization and scrutiny of Baartman’s large bottom and “pendulous labia.”
In England, Cezar was classified as a Boer, while Baartman was classified as a “freak,” someone to be stared and gawked at – displayed at freak shows. Due to Cezar’s horrible mistreatment of Baartman, and England’s distaste for Boers, Dunlop, considered to be a respectable man, moved to the forefront and has remained the man most easily associated with her. When the English got tired of her, Baartman was sent to Paris to be a human exhibition for the pleasure of Parisians. She would die in the City of Lights in 1815, at the age of 26, of an inflammatory disease.
But the shame did not end at her death.
Her body parts including her brain and genitals, were put on display until 1974 when they were removed. In 1994, at the request of Nelson Mandela, Parisians sent the remains of Baartman back to South Africa. In 2002, she was finally laid to rest with dignity.
Needless to say, the story of Baartman is heart-wrenching and filled with so much injustice. Every time I read something about it, I am filled with both anger and sadness. In a completely tone-deaf and culturally inaccurate article written by one Cleuci de Oliveira, who compared Baartman’s body and the power over her body to Kim Kardashian, I wrote a response piece sharing the truth of Baartman’s life – shame, tragedy, and dehumanization.
But in Baartman’s story, the specific obsession of the white gaze with Blackness, and in particular with the Black body is manifested. Baartman wasn’t a person to the Europeans who exhibited her; she was a thing, an object, a freak. Her Blackness and her womanhood and her body all combined to make her into a specific kind of other. Her otherness matters today when you consider how women who have the features of Baartman — and are oftentimes not Black — are celebrated. Whereas Black women, because of those very features, are still dehumanized.
Baartman’s story is a reminder to the world of its persecution of Black women’s bodies throughout history. Such a story cannot be told halfheartedly and without a thorough understanding of how history creates the ambiance of the present. In particular, that Black women’s bodies are still rendered to specific modes of objectification and thingification; the white gaze on Black women’s bodies still matters – it still prevails.
Any text, and especially film, that attempts to tell Baartman’s story must not whitewash it. Moreover, it is imperative for the knowledge and self-worth of Black girls to be able to view such a film as a work of truth, but also of resistance.
Whether it is Beyoncé or someone else attempting to make a film about Baartman, the film must take on the responsibility of telling a tragic story of a Black woman’s body, while attempting to give her the humanity that the world did not.