The Hottentot Venus

The recent release of the visuals for Jay Z’s song “The Story of O.J.” carried so much symbolism in merely 4:14 minutes. From a video overflowing with different concepts, one thing that stuck out to me was the woman with voluptuous curves dancing on the stage as crowd members gathered around the stage waved their money in the air. The woman represents Sarah Baartman and her story deserves to be told.  

Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789 as a member of the Khoikhoi tribe. She earned the name Sarah or Saartjie because she had a condition called “steatopygia” which resulted in extremely large buttocks due to a build-up of fat in that area. Two men by the names of Hendrik Cezar and William Dunlop saw her unusual physique as a great opportunity for money making purposes. By signing the contract, she agreed to travel with them to England to be exhibited in shows like some zoo animal for entertainment sake. It’s unfathomable why she would sign away her dignity like that but one can only guess that the fact she was illiterate played a large part in her signing the contract. The promise of earning money and returning to South Africa after 5 years was sure to be a worthy incentive.

At the time, having large buttocks was a fashionable and desirable trait to have so Dunlop and Cezar struck gold with Sarah. As predicted, her unusually large buttocks made her an object of fascination by Europeans who were in awe of what she had developed naturally without any means to accentuate her figure. People from all across Europe would travel specifically to see her half naked body, clothed in flesh coloured clothing decorated with beads and feathers, displayed in a cage. The rich could afford to get a private show in their homes with the permission to touch her.

She was then sold to a man called Reaux who exhibited her around Paris as some sort of circus act. She would be caged with an animal beside her and was forced to stand in a similar way to the animals. She was then nicknamed “Hottentot Venus.” She died at the age of 26 in 1816 with the cause of death unknown. As if spending her life on display wasn’t enough, her remains were obtained and her body dissected. A man called Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body and placed her brain and genitals into jars to be displayed in a museum in Paris. For over a century, people could view her remains in the “Museum of Man.” It’s only in 2002 that her remains were taken back to South Africa for a well-deserved and prolonged burial.

Her story is heart breaking. To think that a human being could be dehumanised to the extent of being treated like an animal is devastating to say the least. Disturbingly, I see parallels from her story in some present day black women. The Strip Club is an industry dominated by the black woman who is recognised as having larger features such as big buttocks and big breasts. Her amazing figure makes her an object of male lust as they throw their money at her for dancing erotically half or completely naked. Similarly to Sarah, they are given a stage name (such as Hottentot Venus) and a lot of these women consent to this because they have no other means to make money just like Sarah. That’s not to say that some women don’t enjoy this as their professions and there’s nothing wrong with that as we all have our own grinds. However, there are many similarities shared with Sarah Baartman: women who have to perform tricks on a pole and dance for the entertainment of paying customers.

Another thing to learn from Sarah’s story is the idea of loving what the black woman has but hating the black woman. This is definitely an issue in the present day. Black women have always had exceptionally large features and have been a race of women blessed with beautiful figures. However, these features were a subject of ridicule up until a white woman had it. After being mocked for having big lips, a white woman pays to have them and it is now a trend. After being mocked for having large breasts or buttocks, a white woman pays to have them and it is now a trend.  After being called ratchet for having cornrows, a white woman gets “boxer braids” and it is now a trend. As a black woman, one can only imagine how disrespected we feel.  What we have is considered undesirable until it’s seen on a white woman? Absolutely shocking. This is a reoccurring problem for black people in general. We have style, we have culture, we have music, we got soul. The way we walk, the way we talk, the clothes we wear, the music we produce, the number of trends we create. Everything we do is loved and imitated yet the black person is not loved or seen as an equal. That is the sad truth.