Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

Over the weekend, I was a chair at BUSUN XXII, a high school Model UN conference here at Brown.1 The committee I ran simulated a session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. One of the issues we talked about extensively were the withdrawals from the ICC of various African Union states. At some point on Saturday, I was becoming a bit frustrated with how glibly the students were treating the topic. I therefore began introducing more and more real-world examples. The most powerful part of the session was when I read out excerpts from a report compiled by Human Rights Watch. A representative of HRW interviewed several dozen victims of the violence associated with the May 2018 referendum in Burundi. The testimony these witnesses gave to Human Rights Watch was horrifying. To give just one example, here is a passage from the report, which is entitled “We Will Beat You to Correct You”:

[My brother] refused to join the Imbonerakure [a state-sanctioned paramilitary organization]. They gave him warnings, but he ignored them. After he was taken, we did not know what had happened. The family told the police about the threats from the Imbonerakure, but they said he may just be hiding. But on July 12, we found his body in a field; it was decomposing. He had been strangled, and there were signs of beating. When we went to tell the police we had found his body, they said, “Go bury him with dignity. Many other families can’t bury their loved ones.”… I knew then that the Imbonerakure are untouchable in the country, that they can kill as they wish.2

Before reading this out to my students, I talked with my supervisor about whether or not it was appropriate: after all, my goal was to enable real learning and substantive discussions among the students, not to traumatize them. She recommended that I read out the testimony. The next day, I had a feedback session with the students and they noted that this was one of the most powerful, educational, and moving experiences of the whole weekend if not of an even longer scale.

Why is testimony so powerful? What even is testimony? I think there is something uniquely moving about the idea that one person is speaking directly to you about their experiences. This is where much of the allure lies in the case of Sara Baartman. We students, modern-day historians, and the British humanitarians are all caught in the act of demanding testimony. The necessity of testimony also drove much of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission immediately following apartheid, to give yet another of countless contemporary examples. Why is this demand so important, and what really does it entail? This question lies beyond the parameters of this essay, so let me just intimate at some sources for articulating a possible response. One of the most powerful figures we might look to is Antigone, who has been read by everyone from Kant and Hegel, Hölderlin and Nietzsche, Brecht and Benjamin, and now Judith Butler (as Olga Taxidou has noted).3 In a particularly compelling (and recent) formulation, Bonnie Honig intermingles testimony with Antigone’s

grief for ungrievable life or solitary conscience rising up against arrogant power… The aim here, then is to foreground the politicality of lamentation all the way down, as it were, in the hope that this may help release us from the spellbinding assumption that suffering or lamentation gets beyond politics to the stark “human.”… [Antigone] is a lamenting sister [as Hegel read her] and she does die for her cause [as modern dissidents claim] but she is, more fundamentally, a political actor embroiled in burial, kinship, and polis politics, one who plots, conspires, and maneuvers her way in and out of trouble on behalf of the sovereign form that she considers to be hers by right.4

The power of testimony — in the case of Sara Baartman as much as any other — comes then at least in part from its simultaneously political and universal nature. As Hegel was attracted to Antigone, so too were the British humanists drawn to Sara’s lament (incidentally, Phenomenology of Spirit was published just three years before the arrival of the Hottentot Venus in London). Both Hegel and Macaulay believed in the power of testimony, of a “cry” of suffering, to get under language’s surface and access a common humanity. Perhaps this is what we too sought in the text: a keening to tap into our empathy for a fellow human. But Sara refused to provide such an easy key, as the work of Crais and Scully amply demonstrates.5 Instead, the two examples of testimony we have of Sara’s demonstrate well the “politicality of lamentation all the way down.” It might be tempting to flip to the other side and replace the yearning for universal humanism with the “dissident quest for sovereignty or sororal solidarity” (the alternative model Honig describes). If Sara refuses to lament (we might remark), it is in resistance to the British humanitarians. Perhaps her testimony should be read against the grain, as a dissident casting off the yoke of British colonialism! I am inclined to reject this reading, too. Instead, I think we should return to Bonnie Honig’s own interpretation of Antigone: as a resource for agonistic humanism. What better figure for a “post-Enlightenment humanism of lament and finitude” than Sara Baartman? What better way to “find in grievability a new social ontology of equality,” an ontology that “threatens the polis’ narrow citizenship ideology”? My point can be taken two ways. First, we must avoid reading Sara Baartman’s testimony as either a universalizing lament or a dissident’s political action. Second, we should acknowledge that the Hottentot Venus has been put to work in myriad ways over the past two hundred years. After Macaulay, Cuvier, Mbeki, Alexander, perhaps it is time to think with Bonnie Honig and agonistic humanism. Who knows what we might stand to gain.


  1. The background guide I wrote is available here.
  2. Lewis Mudge and Human Rights Watch, “We Will Beat You to Correct You”: Abuses Ahead of Burundi’s Constitutional Referendum, 2018, 23, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/burundi0518_web.pdf.
  3. Olga Taxidou, “The Allure of Antigone or Antigone and the Philosophers,” in Tragedy, Modernity and Mourning (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 20, https://doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9780748619870.001.0001.
  4. Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 19–20.
  5. Clifton C. Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Let me know what you think!