Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French

Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French

by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, T. Deneansharpley-Whiting, Sharpley-Whiting

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Explores the treatment and image of the black female or "Black Venus" as seen in early 19th French literature.

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Explores the treatment and image of the black female or "Black Venus" as seen in early 19th French literature.

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“A cogently argued study of representations of black women in French literature. In locating the Black Venus and the ideologies surrounding and informing her representations at the center of literary and cultural narratives, this book makes significant interventions in nineteenth-century French studies and current race and gender studies.”—Thadious M. Davis, Vanderbilt University

“Intellectually rigorous, extremely well written, and solidly arguing against the dated French (and European) conceptualizations of black female sexuality. What a refreshing and much needed addition!”—Marjorie Attignol Salvodon, Connecticut College

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Black Venus

Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French

By T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-2307-5


Writing Sex, Writing Difference: Creating the Master Text on the Hottentot Venus

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
national character
Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled
pickling jar in the Musée
de l'Homme on a shelf
above Broca's brain:
"The Venus Hottentot."

The preceding excerpt from Elizabeth Alexander's poetic masterpiece The Venus Hottentot tersely recounts a definitive moment in the history of sexual science as it intersects with race, a moment when science and ideology merged and a black woman's body mediated the tenuous relationship between the two—a moment when celebrated French anatomist and naturalist Georges Cuvier met the equally celebrated cadaver of Sarah Bartmann, the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman exhibited throughout England and France for some five years because of her "remarkable formation of person."

Notwithstanding Sander Gilman's seminal work Difference and Pathology, little is known about either Bartmann's exhibition or about the public and popular responses to her exhibitions in France. And even less is known about Sarah Bartmann the person; mystery surrounds her date of birth, her date of death, her racial/ethnic origins—was she a Hottentot (Khoikhoi), a female Bushman (San), or a sang-mele? One can only speculate and approximate. But given the circumstances under which she was thrust into the limelight in the nineteenth century, these voids are not unusual. Most nineteenth-century French spectators did not view her as a person or even a human, but rather as a titillating curiosity, a collage of buttocks and genitalia.

For the scientific community she provided the missing link in "the great chain of being," the crucial step between humanity, that is, Europeans, and animals. Indeed, among all the explorative undertakings of the French nineteenth-century medical community, this African woman figures as a treasured find, the key to the origin of an inferior species. As Georges Cuvier indicates, her body served in an equal degree as the master text on black female sexuality for Europe's scientific community. It is the intention of this chapter not only to read excerpts from this phantasmal master text, but, more important, to relate Bartmann's immense influence on nineteenth-century Western racial-sexual science.

Born in Kaffraria in the interior of the Cape Colony of South Africa in approximately 1788, and renamed Saartjie Baartman when the region came under Dutch colonial rule, Baartman was one of six siblings. Her father was a drover of cattle who was killed by neighboring San, and her mother died when she was two years old. Her husband was a drummer, and she had had one child, who died shortly after birth. She became a domestic of sorts to a Boer farmer, Peter Cezar, at the Cape of Good Hope.

At the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, on October 29, 1810, Saartjie entered into a contractual agreement with Alexander Dunlop of St. James, Middlesex, England, a surgeon of an African ship, and Hendrik Cezar, the brother of Peter Cezar. The contract stipulated that in addition to performing domestic duties, she was to be exhibited in England and Ireland. She would be paid a portion of the profits from her exhibition and repatriated in five years. However, upon Baartman's arrival in London, Dunlop attempted to sell his share in the "Hottentot," as well as the skin of a giraffe, to William Bullock, director of the Liverpool Museum in London. In offering the Baartman, Dunlop described her as having "a very singular appearance" and predicted that "she would make a fortune for anyone who shewed [sic] her in London." Bullock passed on both propositions.

In September 1810, Baartman was exhibited at 225 Piccadilly. The advertising bill read: "Parties of Twelve and upwards, may be accommodated with Private Exhibition of the Hottentot, at No. 225 Piccadilly, between Seven and Eight O'clock in the Evening, by giving notice to the Door-keeper the Day previous."

Standing a mere four feet six inches tall, Baartman's miniature frame was weighed down by her abundant buttocks. It was this riveting attribute, "large as a cauldron pot," as one bawdy English ballad attests, that Europeans paid to see.

A sensation in England, leaving in her wake street ballads, caricatures, an appearance in the Chancery Court of England, and a name change to Sarah Bartmann in December 1811, literally carrying her fortune behind her, Bartmann and her protuberant charms found themselves again in the limelight upon her arrival in Paris in September 1814. She and Cezar parted company in Paris; her new guardian was a showman of wild animals named Reaux. According to the widely read Journal des dames et des modes: " The doors of the salon open, and the Hottentot Venus could be seen entering. She is a 'Callipygian Venus.' Candies are given to her in order to entice her to leap about and sing; she is told that she is the prettiest woman in all society."

The price to view this one-woman spectacle was three francs. At rue de Castiglione and for the same admission price, Réaux was also exhibiting a five-year-old male rhinoceros. Bartmann was exhibited from 11 A.M. to 10 P.M. at the ground level of 188, rue Saint-Honoré.

Just as in England, Bartmann's persona filtered into satirical cartoons such as the ones titled Les Curieux en extase ou les cordons de souliers ("The curious in ecstasy or shoelaces") and La Vénus hottentote. In Les Curieux en extase, in which the French cartoonist pokes fun at the British fascination with the Venus, Bartmann is displayed on a pedestal engraved with LA BELLE HOTTENTOTE. She has arrested the gaze of three men, two British soldiers and one male civilian, and a female civilian. There is also a dog in the drawing, representing the base, animal-like nature of the human spectators, the proverbial "we are all animals" sentiment, and participating in its own sort of voyeurism as it looks under the kilt of one of the Englishmen. Each character comments on Bartmann's body. One soldier, behind Bartmann, extends his hand as if to touch her buttocks and proclaims, "Oh, godem, quel rosbif!" (Oh, goddamn, what roast beef !).The other soldier, looking directly into her genitalia, remarks: "Ah, que la nature est drôle!" (Ah, how amusing nature is!). The male civilian, peering through lorgnettes, declares: "Qu'elle étrange beauté!" (What strange beauty!), while the female civilian, bending down to tie her shoelaces—hence the cartoon's subtitle—looks through Bartmann's legs and utters: "A quelque chose malheureux est bon" (From some points of view misfortune can be good). The woman is, however, looking not at the "Hottentot," but through the opening between her legs and up the kilt of the soldier behind Bartmann. Thus, from her angle, she sees through Bartmann's "misfortune," her openness, or rather, the opening between her legs, something more pleasing. Bartmann's body is inscribed upon from the various perspectives. She becomes, all at once, roast beef, a strange beauty, an amusing freak of nature, and erased, invisible, as the female spectator privileges the penis. And while the points of view appear to reflect different positionalities, the ways of seeing the Other as exotic, amusing, invisible, and as something to be eaten or consumed like roast beef reflect sameness.

Bartmann was not only the subject of cartoons, but also of a popular vaudeville show at the Théâtre de Vaudeville entitled La Vénus hottentote, ou haine aux Françaises. A one-act vaudeville written by Théaulon, Dartois, and Brasier, the piece was first performed on November 19, 1814. On and off stage, from cartoons to theater, Bartmann's body inspired a collective French obsession. And at the height of her career, the most profound evidence of her impact on the French imagination manifested itself among the medical community in the person of France's renowned naturalist Georges Cuvier.

For three days in March 1815 at the Jardin du Roi, at the request of Cuvier and with the permission of her guardian Réaux, a team of zoologists, anatomists, and physiologists examined Bartmann. The subsequent findings from this examination were published in 1824 in Frédéric Cuvier's and Geoffroy St.-Hilaire's Histoire naturelle des mammifères and later in 1864 in Discours sur les révolutions du globe by Georges Cuvier et al. The prefatory note of Histoire naturelle explains the necessity for the text and its goals:

The work that we have published has been requested and deemed necessary for many years by naturalists.... The Natural History of Mammals consequently proposes two problems: (1) the relationship that exists between these animals, and (2) the role that they play within the general economy of nature, that is, their relationship with other beings.

The discipline of natural history is a combination of scientific writing, history, and ethnography that allows objects under the gaze to be ordered into a totalizing system of representation, that allows the seen body to become the known body. A significant problem within the constitutive framework of the discipline arises because of its dependency on the human eye. The human eye is faulty, often creating illusory images because of its "blind spot." Martin Jay notes in Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought that "the human eye has a blind spot where the optic nerve connects with the retina.... The blind spot's existence suggests a metaphoric 'hole' in vision." Within this hole or empty space, alterity is invested.

Bartmann will be placed within this hole in the European system of representation as a highly developed animal, and then closely scrutinized in order to determine her relationship to other animals and human beings. She will be used as a yardstick by which to judge the stages of Western evolution, by which to discern identity, difference, and progress.

During the three-day examination, Cuvier asked Bartmann if she would allow herself to be painted nude. In that same prefatory note, the authors offer an explanation for the inclusion of etchings in the volume:

Our drawings present each animal in a simple state and always in a profile because it is in this position that one can best seize the totality of the form and physiognomy; and we have taken care to provide a frontal drawing where necessary in order to better see and judge the animals.

The profile drawings permit the viewer to "best seize the totality of the form and physiognomy," "to better see and judge the animals." Seizing, seeing, judging, provided by the tool of the cameralike eye, are essential to the naturalist's project. The sketches, yielding up Bartmann's body, provide more visual clarity so that the gaze can fixate on the body in order to contemplate its anomalies. The sketches allow the viewer to observe, document, and compare her various physiognomic and physiological differences, differences that vastly differentiate the Other from the European self. Through this comparative/definitive exercise, Bartmann will be relegated to the terrain of the primitive—the lowest exemplum of the human species—while the European will always assume the pinnacle of human development. This process of mediating the self, of reflecting the self, through the body of the black female Other begins and rebegins with every regard.

Of his initial observations, Georges Cuvier writes in Discours sur les révolutions du globe:

When we met her for the first time, she believed herself to be about 26 years old.... Everyone who had been able to see her over the course of eighteen months in our capital could verify the enormous protuberance of her buttocks and the brutal appearance of her face.... Her movements had something of a brusqueness and unexpectedness, reminiscent of those of a monkey. In particular, she had a way of pushing out her lips in the same manner we have observed in the Orangutan. Her personality was happy, her memory good, after several weeks she recognized a person that she had only seen one time she spoke tolerably good Dutch, which she learned at the Cape.... also knew a little English ... was beginning to say a few words of French; she danced in the fashion of her country and played with a fairly good ear upon a little instrument she called a Jew's Harp. Necklaces, belts, pieces of colored glass, and other savage trumperies seemed very much to please her; but that which flattered her taste above all else was brandy. (214)

Cuvier's description abounds with associations of black femaleness with bestiality and primitivism. Further, by way of contemplating Bartmann as a learned, domesticated beast—comparing her to an orangutan—he reduces her facility with languages, her good memory, and musical inclinations to a sort of simianlike mimicry of the European race. By the nineteenth century, the ape, the monkey, and orangutan had become the interchangeable counterparts, the next of kin, to blacks in pseudoscientific and literary texts.

Under the ever so watchful eyes and the pen of the naturalist, the master text on the black female body is created; the light of white maleness illumines this dark continent:

Her conformation was initially striking because of the enormous width of her hips, which surpassed forty-two inches, and because of the protrusion of her buttocks, which were more than half a foot. Of the remaining body parts, she had no other deformities: her shoulders, her back, the top of her chest were graceful. The bulging out of her stomach was not at all excessive. Her arms, a bit thin, were very well made, and her hand was charming. Her foot was also very alluring. (214)

Cuvier's gaze, it appears, is tempered with eroticism. The hand, foot, and other body parts, endowed with grace, charm, and allure, become a synecdoche for the palpably titillating black female body. As he views Sarah Bartmann displayed before him nude, the scientist is as captivated by the Venus's charms as the male spectators at her rue St. Honoré exhibitions. Even Bartmanns belly bulge was not, for the equally short and paunchy Cuvier, disproportionate; rather, it was congruous with her beguiling arms, hands, and other extremities.

Wrenched from the seductive reverie induced by this African Delilah, the scientist violently readjusts his optic receiver and pen. Mistakenly identifying Bartmann as a San (Bushman), "people more backward than the Hottentots," instead of as a Khoikhoi (211), the now libidinally divested Cuvier observes:

That which our female Bushman possessed that was the most repulsive was her physiognomy. Her face takes in part after the Negro by the jutting out of the jaw, the obliquity of the incisor teeth, the thickness of lips, the shortness ... of chin ... and in part after the Mongol by the enormity of the cheek bones, the flatness of the base of the nose.... Her hair was black and woolly like that of Negroes, the slits of her eyes were horizontal ... like that of Mongols ... her eyes were dark and lively; her lips, a bit blackish, and monstrously swelled; her complexion very swarthy.... Her ears were much like those found in many monkeys, small and weakly formed at the tragus. (214-15)

Cuvier reads Bartmann's face according to perceived racially specific characteristics. In this classificatory discourse based upon the all-knowing scientific gaze, he determines that Bartmann is a racial admixture: in part Negro because of her protruding jaw, short chin, pointy, cannibal-like incisor teeth, and woolly hair, and in part Mongol because of the slant of her eyes and large cheekbones. Her appearance insults his culturally biased aesthetic sensibilities. As he gazes back toward classical antiquity for icons of idyllic beauty and form, Bartmann's starkly different—"swarthy"—complexion, monstrously swollen blackish lips, and anatomical and other physiognomic characteristics strike him as being so far removed from his ideals of beauty and goodness that he is moved again to find some relationship between her ears and those of a monkey. In negotiating Bartmanns tenuous place in the "great chain of being," he définitively concludes that the aforementioned characteristics are reminiscent of monkeys ("des singes") and forever destines blacks to a state of barbarity ("toujours restées barbares").

In addition to the protuberant buttocks, which were not at all, according to the scientist, "muscular, but a mass of a shaking and elastic consistency, vibrating with the woman's every move" (215) and her "rebutante physionomie" (214), Cuvier describes at length Bartmann's massive hanging breasts:

Her breasts, usually lifted and held in place by her clothing, when left alone were a large hanging mass which terminated obliquely in a blackish aureole of more than four inches in diameter pitted with radiating wrinkles, near the center of which was a nipple so flattened and obliterated that it was barely visible: the general color of her skin was a yellowish-brown, almost as dark as her face; and she had no body hair apart from a few short flecks of wool, similar to that on her head, scattered about her organs of regeneration. (214-15)


Excerpted from Black Venus by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is Associate Professor of French, Film Studies, Comparative Literature, and African American Studies at Purdue University. She is the author of Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms and coeditor of Spoils of War: Women of Color, Cultures, and Revolutions and Fanon: A Critical Reader.

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