Examining Racial Fetishism Through a Woman Named Sarah Baartman

Note: Due to the lack of historical documentation surrounding her early life, I am unable to use Sara Baartman’s birth name. I acknowledge the problematic nature of the name given to her by Dutch colonists and regret my inability to address her in a way that gives her the respect that she deserves.

In an effort to deconstruct what defines a photograph, the 2014 exhibition, “What is a Photograph?”, at the International Center for Photography displayed the work of 21 artists of varying fame. Curator Carol Squiers notes that she intended for the exhibition itself to serve as an open ended question and an exploration of the use of light, composition, and subject. Tracing the etymology of the word “photograph” to its Greek roots, meaning “light” and “painting” reveals a simple, yet vague, definition: drawing with light. This definition further complicates the question that the exhibit poses, inviting expansion upon traditional notions of photography. In her article, “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects,” Dixa Ramírez examines the effect of photography in furthering colonization and racial oppression in the Dominican Republic. Ramírez focuses on the methods that Dominicans use to “fulfill, refuse, or frustrate” their photographers’ desires. However, Ramírez notes her struggle in investigating the subjects, as the images presented in the photographs are dissonant with the way that the subjects themselves would have identified. Indeed, the photographs even obscure and manipulate the subjects’ inner thoughts at the moment their picture is taken. Arguing that “scientific racism, ethnography, and photography developed… in relationship to each other,” Ramírez establishes a relationship that calls for an expansion of the definition of photography to allow for investigation into its role in advancing colonialist racism.

Exactly two hundred years prior to the opening of the International Center for Photography’s exhibit, Henry Taylor sold a woman given the name Sara Baartman to S. Reaux, a French animal trainer. For at least four years, Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, had been performing in England and Ireland under the stage name, “Hottentot Venus.” Allegedly, Baartman had signed a contract with a free black man–Hendrik Cesars–and an English doctor–William Dunlop–consenting to her display, though her illiteracy deeply complicates the document’s legitimacy. Following her death in 1815, French naturalist Georges Cuvier used her remains to support theories of scientific racism, theorizing that she was the “missing link” between humans and animals. For over 150 years, the Musée de l’Homme in Paris displayed her genitalia, skull, and a cast of her body before returning her remains to South Africa following President Nelson Mandela’s request.

Baartman’s exhibition across Western Europe exemplifies a type of racial fetishism tied to a sexualization and exotification of black women, known as the Jezebel stereotype. Referencing the Biblical heretic of the same name, the Jezebel stereotype twists black women into creatures of aggressive hypersexuality who lust after and seduce white men. Furthered by American slavery, Jezebel developed out of the interactions between white Europeans and black Africans during colonialism. Colonists’ sexualization of black women grew from otherization; they used stereotypes of polygamy and nudity, combined with non-Abrahamic relgious practices, to separate black Africans from white Europeans. Mayjee Rothas notes that enslaved black women suffered a forced categorization into the “virgin-whore sexual dichotomy” furthered by their race and legal position as property. Rothas’ assertion extends beyond enslaved black women, aiding in an explanation of the birth of Jezebel. As the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman not only fits into Jezebelized role, but also echoes Ramírez’s examination of visual colonialism, extending her theory beyond the two dimensions. Indeed, Sara Baartman’s exhibition, both during life and after her death, effectively transforms her into a living, dynamic photograph. By relegating her to a photograph, Baartman’s owners both mute and colonize her, drawing with light to create a manipulated image of a black woman.

Advancing that she considers “race as inseparable from gender,” Ramírez notes how slave owners’ capitalization on black women as tools for increasing their property “ensured that black women became symbols of promiscuity and hypersexuality.” Though not a part of the institution of American slavery, Baartman’s objectification by her owner, along with Cuvier’s (and subsequently the Musée de L’Homme’s) commodification of her sexual organs supports this claim. During her time in London, Baartman’s owners compelled her to perform in freak shows. This type of display otherized her, and like a photograph, captured her in a moment in time in a specific way. In their biography on Baartman, Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully share how on these Piccadilly freak show stages, Baartman was “looked at… not as a fellow human being but as an… object of nature… grotesque, a freak, an animal.” Indeed, caricatures drawn of Baartman render her with a large body and tend to focus on the size of her buttocks; a French print titled La Belle Hottentot shows Baartman nearly fully nude on a platform while men and women stare at her behind, mouths agape in expressions of shock. She covers one breast and stares directly out of the print, enticing the viewer in to participate in the act of voyeurism in a Jezebel-like fashion. 

Baartman’s death did not end her otherization or fetishization. After Cuvier dissected her body without her consent, he used his findings to justify his theories of scientific racism, classifying Baartman as Boschimanne, his closest possible classification to apes. Her display in the Musée de l’Homme placed her in a position facing away from viewers, as to draw attention to her buttocks. The additional preservation and display of her genitals further twisted Baartman into a sexualized object to gawk at. The museum draws with light to form its own Jezebelized image of who–or in their eyes, what–Baartman was.

Writing, “I have come to take you away – / away from the poking eyes / of the man-made monster,” Diana Ferrus, a poet of Khoikhoi descent, captures the drive for the reappropriation of Baartman’s image, as well as her remains. In May of 2002, the French government finally returned Baartman’s remains to South Africa, fulfilling one part of Ferrus’ wish. However, the caricatured, exotified version of Baartman continues to exist. Additionally, Sadiah Qureshi indicates how the lack of records, journals, or other texts written by Baartman problematizes the retelling of her history as a story told about her, not by her. Indeed, African artists’ reclaiming of Baartman as their own symbol, rather than a colonized one, attempts to combat this lack of agency. Interacting with her image as a method of analyzing what it means to be an African Diasporic artist navigating through anti-black spaces, photographer Lyle Ashton Harris places model Renée Valerie Cox against a background devoid of much light. Breasts and buttocks accentuated by metal attachments, echoing depictions of Baartman’s body, Cox stares directly out of the photograph. Boldly, she questions the observer’s role in viewing the photograph, enticing them in on her own terms.

Works Cited

Crais, Clifton C., and Pamela Scully. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: a Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Dixa Ramírez; Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects. Small Axe 1 July 2018; 22 (2 (56)): 144–160. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-6985831

Ferrus, Diana. “A Poem for Sarah Baartman.” Sara, I am Tara, May 4, 2017. https://saraiamtara.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/a-poem-for-sarah-baartman/.

International Center For Photography.” LensCulture. Accessed December 2, 2019. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/international-center-for-photography-what-is-a-photograph.

Qureshi, Sadiah. “Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus.’” History of Science 42, no. 2 (June 2004): 233–57. doi:10.1177/007327530404200204.

Rojas, Maythee. Women of Color and Feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009.

“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman.” Sara “Saartjie” Baartman | South African History Online, August 16, 2013. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman.

Strecker, Alexander. “What Is a Photograph? – Photographs from the Exhibition at the 

“What Is a Photograph?” International Center of Photography. International Center of Photography, January 25, 2017. https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/what-is-a-photograph.

Wilder, Kelley E. “‘photography’, etymology of.” In The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. : Oxford University Press, 2005. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662716.001.0001/acref-9780198662716-e-1206.

Taking Marks, Leaving Marks: Notes on Ballroom

In her essay, “Intertwined Identities: Challenges to Bodily Autonomy,” Gail Weiss examines society’s morbid fascination with the surgical separation of identical twins. She writes of an urgent need for physical separation, a drive that must be questioned in the face of clear risks of fatality. Is this need so great that one would risk death, or is it driven by a deeper desire to return to a supposedly natural, separated state? Expanding on her assertion, Weiss invokes sociologist Colette Guillaumin’s theory on the system of “marks” that define an individual or group’s identity. The marks span a broad spectrum, ranging from race, to gender presentation, to articles of clothing that signify status or religion. Guillaumin comments that dominant groups in society use marks as indicators of natural inferiority in order to separate people into artificial social hierarchies. The interaction between marks and separation especially threatens those deemed marked in relation to the unmarked body of the white, cisgender, heterosexual man.

Jennie Livingston’s documentary on 1980s New York ballroom culture, Paris is Burning, exposes how certain groups of people manipulate marks in order to reclaim autonomy. As Pepper Labeija struts into the documentary’s opening scene, the ball’s emcee hastily clears the floor, instructing the crowd to “learn it, and learn it well.” Labeija showily removes her gigot sleeves and slips off her lamé gown, garnering screams and cheers from the crowd as she slinks across the floor in a flapper-style shift. Labeija represents a wider culture of genderfuckery and queerness fostered by primarily black and Latinx transgender women and drag queens. Labeija and others like her effectively apply the golden rule of improvisational acting, saying, “Yes, and?” and enhancing or exaggerating marks ascribed to them. Rather than attempting to counteract her femininity or blackness, Labeija boldly asserts herself by employing the marks meant to subjugate and oppress her. While dominant groups in society craft marks to indicate innate inferiority, therefore engendering a need for separation, the children of ballroom use their separation from mainstream society in conjunction with the process of marking as a way of regaining autonomy.

Ballroom culture creates a space where “whatever you want to be, you be,” a radical notion for queer people of color who, in any state of being, threaten straight, white society. Labeija and other performers “be” in a heightened state of performance, marking themselves through dazzling combinations of makeup, costuming, and dance. By participating in a ball, they engage in a teasing but assertive conversation with mainstream society. Agreeing that they are feminine, they then rhinestone that mark, walking to win trophies, earn a name for themselves, and even secure reliable housing. This purposeful self-marking contradicts Guillaumin’s theory, transforming marks from dehumanizing forces into opportunities for autonomy and self-definition.

Walking in categories, the basic structure of balls, furthers this transformation of marks. Scott Poulson-Bryant establishes that walking “where and when and, most especially, how one should not” is a source of agency and liberation. He notes that considering the historical impact of walking in black history and liberation movements, the physical movement of bodies is inherently political. Indeed, in ballroom, the body becomes a powerful means of asserting autonomy. By “serving body,” performers experience and display their sexuality on their own terms. A scene from Paris is Burning shows a plus-sized black woman walking “Luscious Body” while Paris Dupree, a house mother and ballroom icon, applauds and points to her, exclaiming, “Big body! Body, body, body!” as the crowd cheers. Her unabashed nudity conveys an ecstatic sense of liberation, while Dupree’s celebration of her size is not tied to an ownership of her body. The ability to own one’s own body was an especially radical feat of autonomy in itself given the pervasiveness of survival sex work in the queer community.

The concept of “realness” within ballroom offers a paradoxical medium for self-expression. As she puts her face on, drag queen Dorian Corey offers a simple definition for one of the most essential, albeit controversial, aspects of ballroom. She states, curtly, that realness is “to be able to blend.” Those walking in realness categories are required to embody certain roles, such as schoolboy or executive, showing the judges that they can look and act like a “real woman” or a “real man.” As Corey remarks, “It’s really a case of going back into the closet.” Her comment rings true, as realness demonstrates an ability to fit in with the straight, white world but also exposes the superficiality in the otherization of queer and black bodies. If someone can easily strip away the markers that separate them from white heterosexuality and cisgenderism by changing their clothes, the way they walk, or their voices, then how can systems of oppression and separation based on such markers stand? Similar to the way resistance manifested in the daily lives of enslaved black women, as described by Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, performing realness is a form of quiet resistance built out of vulnerability and pain. While on the surface it may present a problematic representation of normality, at its core, realness offers a new medium for protest.

Despite forced processes of gendering and racialization, the queens of the ballroom reclaim their autonomy by manipulating the marks that separate them from white, straight cis-maleness. As society moves past the Paris is Burning era of ballroom and into the age of Rupaul’s Drag Race and Pose, the separation that shielded ballroom and its children comes into question. Does a separation grown out of segregation and a need for physical safety have a place in modern society, or should ballroom aim to fully enter the mainstream? With an increase in representation on larger stages comes a shift in focus from its black and brown founders to white, gay bodies. Recognition on major television networks or at the Met Gala may increase awareness about ballroom, but one must wonder whether this awareness is accompanied by a dilution into palatability. Whether ballroom eventually becomes absorbed by a culture increasingly fascinated with drag and vogue or persists as an underground culture remains unknown. However, it is undeniable that those who “be” like Labeija will continue to “bring it to you every ball. Why y’all gagging, so?”

Works Cited

Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006.]

Guillaumin, Colette. “Race and Nature: The system of marks.” Gender Issues 8, no. 2 (1988): 25-43.

Paris is Burning, Directed by Jennie Livingston. New York: Academy Entertainment Off-White Productions, 1990.

Poulson-Bryant, Scott. ““Put Some Bass in Your Walk”: Notes on Queerness, Hip Hop, and the Spectacle of the Undoable.” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International 2, no. 2 (2013): 214-225. doi:10.1353/pal.2013.0025.]

Weiss, Gail. “Intertwined identities: challenges to bodily autonomy.” Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-37.

Reclaiming Humanity and Agency through Performance

In order to subjugate and dehumanize black folk, white supremacy and institutions of white oppression separate humanity from colored skin, manufacturing a mutual exclusivity where the two cannot exist in conjunction. Beginning with the creation of the concept of race itself, epidermalizing identity in such a way so that the literal surface level of a person serves as an absolute identifier allows for black folk to be otherized and defined as the opposite of white Europeans, who constitute the standard of humanity. This otherization puts black folk in a passive state without control over their own self-identification, instead having labels and status, or lack thereof, forced upon or taken away from them. In her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks describes a dichotomy in the “critical work of post-colonial critics,” in which “much writing that bespeaks the continued fascination with the way white minds, particularly the colonial imperialist traveler, perceive blackness, and very little expressed interest in representations of whiteness in the black imagination” (1). Hooks’ findings are a prime example of how the creation and perception of race––and in turn, the juxtaposition of whiteness with blackness––is not a two-way street that allows for mutual discourse, but rather devalues black thought and places it in the aforementioned state of passiveness. Resistance against this forced passiveness and labelling must therefore exist on two levels: direct resistance against the systems of racial oppression created by whites and a creation of black identity by black people through reclaiming agency. In his essay, “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” E. Patrick Johnson expands on the idea of black performance as the embodiment of both of these levels, existing in a state of duality; it is simultaneously “a part of culture building” and “manipulative out of necessity for survival in an oppressive world” as a form of resistance (an idea introduced by bell hooks in her essay, “Performative Practice as a Site of Opposition”) (2).  Black performance counteracts the manufactured mutual exclusivity between humanity and blackness, acting as a method of regaining humanity and agency and resisting white supremacy.

By directly and exclusively ascribing humanity to whiteness, white supremacy as an institution attempts to force black folk to renounce and denounce their blackness in order to be treated as human. To be seen as more than three-fifths, black people must denegrify, engaging in a process that can be thought of as racial chemotherapy; the treatment to cure oneself of the cancer that is white supremacy is toxic to not only those cancer cells, but also affects and destroys hair and skin cells (3). Hooks proposes that “white supremacist logic…seduces black folks with the promise of mainstream success if only we are willing to negate the value of blackness” (4). Essentially, rather than reclaiming agency within a black context, hooks explains how a goal of white supremacy is for black folk to hypervalue whiteness while stripping themselves of individual and collective power as people of color. Black performance, in any incarnation, offers a medium for blackness to be represented and celebrated unapologetically without regard or worry for white opinion or inclusion in white spaces. This kind of representation serves to remove black folk from the state of passiveness that white supremacy creates. In her essay (previously cited by Johnson), bell hooks advances that “performative practice was one of the places where the boundaries created by the emphasis on proving that the black race was not uncivilised could be disrupted” (5). Rather than a passive reception of white concepts of blackness or creation for the sake of white audiences, black performance validates black art in spite of white supremacy and without white approval. Hooks continues: “From times of slavery to the present day, the act of claiming voice…has been a challenge to those forms of domestic colonisation…Performance was important because it created a cultural context where one could transgress the boundaries of accepted speech” (6). When “accepted speech” for black folk essentially means no speech, claiming voice through performance starts to break down those established barriers and foster black identity. With this reclamation, processes of larger, socio-political reorganization, revolution, and revision have not only a stepping stone, but a massive cultural springboard.

Given the inherent political nature of blackness in the United States, black performance creates a unique relationship between art as an ignition switch or accelerant and blackness in society. Johnson comments, “from the minute nonverbal expressions of the slave to the pensive sway of the weary domestic to the collective marches on Washington and throughout the South, black performance has been the galvanizing element of black folks’ resistance to oppression” (7). The expansive breadth of what constitutes performance is widened even further under a lense that is specifically politically and change oriented. An article from the Library of Congress expands on the importance of musical spirituals, a form of performance, as a tool of resistance, in this case fueling abolitionist thought and liberative actions. Spirituals could offer hope, speaking of a promised land or place of liberty as a tangible possibility, or provide an outlet for reflection and healing of trauma that simultaneously strengthened bonds within and between communities of enslaved people. Additionally, the article notes how spirituals were used by people who were a part of the Underground Railroad as a coded language to signal their presence and ability to help (8). In Harriett: The Moses of her People, Sarah H. Bradford writes, “Up and down the road she passes to see if the coast is clear, and then to make them certain that it is their leader who is coming, she breaks out into the plaintive strains of the song, forbidden to her people at the South, but which she and her followers delight to sing together” (9). Challenging, “I would defy any white person to learn it,” Bradford shares how Harriett Tubman used the spiritual “Go Down Moses” as this form of coded language of the Underground Railroad (10). The fact that the performative aspect of spirituals was only accessible to a black audience has its own resistive element. The limited accessibility required not only an educated black audience, but an educated black audience that held information whites did not know, a secrecy that was performative in itself. This state of education subverted white supremacist beliefs that higher levels of thought and intelligence are unattainable by black folk. The ability of black performance to evolve with black folk and their place in American society, such as the role of spirituals in the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement and their inspiration of “freedom songs,” was and continues to be essential for resistance (11). As long as white supremacy exists, black performance can, must, and will exist to combat systems of racial oppression and create spaces that remove passiveness from black identity in favor of a celebration of blackness in and for itself.

1. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston, South End Press, 1992), 166.
2. E. Patrick Johnson, “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” (Thousand Oaks, Sage, 2005), 452.
3. “How chemotherapy works,” Cancer Research UK, accessed October 4, 2019, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/chemotherapy/how-chemotherapy-works.
4. hooks, Black Looks, 17.
5. bell hooks, “Performative Practice as a Site of Opposition,” (Seattle, Bay View Press, 1995), 212.
6. hooks, “Performative Practice,” 212.
7. Johnson, “Black Performance Studies,” 452.
8. “African American Spirituals,” Library of Congress, last accessed October 4, 2019, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/.
9. Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet: The Moses of her People, (New York, Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886), 37.
10. Ibid, 37.
11. Library of Congress, “Spirituals.”


“African American Spirituals.” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/.

Bradford, Sarah H. Harriett: The Moses of Her People. New York, NY: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/harriet/harriet.html.

“General Cancer Information.” How chemotherapy works | Cancer in general | Cancer Research UK. Cancer Research UK, November 15, 2017. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/chemotherapy/how-chemotherapy-works.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992. https://aboutabicycle.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/bell-hooks-black-looks-race-and-representation.pdf.

hooks, bell. “Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition.” From Let’s Get it On: The Politics of Black Performance. Catherine Ugwu, ed. Seattle” Bay View Press, 1995. 210-219.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures.” The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, 2005, 446-63. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412976145.n25.